Talking with Paul Deakin the Audio Director of Days Gone

The audio design in Days Gone is one of several reasons why it has been vastly praised by players in 2019. From the authentic sounds of the motorcycle, to the horrifying sounds of Freakers, and the sounds that make up the Pacific Northwest through dynamic weather and wildlife, every component plays off each other to create an immersive experience. Audio is just as important as any other element in the development process of a game. It helps tell the story, while enhancing the gameplay and pairing the music, dialogue and sound perfectly together. The attention to detail from Bend Studio both visually and by sound, created an impressive display of an open-world game.

That’s why I wanted to talk with the Audio Director from Bend Studio, Paul Deakin. Paul shed some light on his role in Days Gone and his responsibility as an Audio Director. He reveals the process of creating the different sounds of the Freakers, including the humming of the Screamer and the ferocious vocalization of the Rager bear. Along with sharing his insight about the ambient wildlife system, the small details heard from the motorcycle and more fascinating tidbits.


The Broken Road: Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions Paul. I’m glad to have you on The Broken Road.

Paul Deakin: Hi Kevin, thank you for inviting me to chat about Days Gone and audio! It’s an honor to be able to spend some time chatting with you. 

The pleasure is all mine. Let’s begin, shall we? First, can you tell us what the Audio Director is responsible for at Bend Studio? What is your day to day tasks during development?

If it’s okay with you, I’d like to firstly answer the question “What is audio responsible for?” because I see that as something much more important than one person’s role. I see the role of audio in a game as a crucial part of the overall experience; but also something with very much the same goals and purpose as every other discipline: to tell an intriguing and exciting story.  More than anything else, we’re storytellers, and it is always my belief that we should keep that at the forefront of our mind throughout the entire development process, and for every decision we make.  More specifically, audio should support and help drive the emotion and tensions of the narrative and gameplay, and complement the art style. It should enhance immersion, be dynamic (constantly adapting to player actions) and have a signature tone that befits the world we’re creating. Part of my job is to ensure the three pillars of audio (sound, music and dialogue) gel together nicely and ‘belong’ to the world that we’re creating. 

I think the responsibilities of an Audio Director vary from studio to studio, depending on the team size and structure. At Bend Studio, my role as Audio Director is to work with each of the three audio teams: Dialogue, Music and Sound Design, and provide direction to help bring the game to life through sound. Having said that, I like to be as hands-on as possible and work alongside our amazing audio folk. I love being involved in the creative and technical processes just as much as being responsible for shaping and defining the overall tone. For example, in Days Gone, I designed our ambient wildlife system (The Deaco-system™ ☺) and took it from raw recordings to scripting, and through final implementation and tuning. The implementation and scripting of game audio, is just as much fun (for me) as designing, say, Rager Bear vocalizations (those were a lot of fun, too! ☺). I really love every minute of my ‘job’ and look forward to what we strive to accomplish on a day-to-day, week-to-week and year-to-year basis!

How did it feel to be nominated for Best Audio for the Golden Joystick Awards this year? Congratulations to you and everyone at Bend Studio!

Thank you! It’s exciting and such an honor to be a Golden Joystick Awards finalist! We’re a relatively small development team and so there were plenty of long days during the last 6 months or so of production. Seeing audio receiving a mention (on social media, by folk like your good self – thank you for your thoughtful and kind words on Twitter!) and nominated for awards is very gratifying. It’s great to see all the hard work pay off.

*Days Gone did win PlayStation Game of the Year and Best Storytelling for the 2019 Golden Joystick Awards.*

Hearing the Freakshow track come out of your speakers immediately gets your adrenaline pumping because you know a horde is nearby. How closely did you work with composer Nathan Whitehead to queue the tracks from the score to specific gameplay points?

Nathan did a superb job composing the score for Days Gone and it really resonated with fans. He worked closely with our music team in San Diego and Santa Monica to hit all the right notes (pun intended) for the numerous emotional beats and gameplay loops. There’s also a lot of work that continues after the music is written and recorded, in order to make the interactivity of it play nicely with systems and the general unpredictability of an open world game. In Days Gone, this involved other teams (our audio programmer, music editors and designers worked to ensure scripts behaved correctly and the multiple layers of music triggered appropriately to enhance tension and relief at the right moments). As you pointed out, the Freakshow track was particularly effective in creating that sense of anxiety for the player, indicating nearby Freakers or hordes. There are several layers/intensity levels to all the music in Days Gone which are activated and deactivated by game data. In the horde example you mention: values such as number of Freakers in the vicinity, distance between the Freakers and the player, Freakers’ awareness-level of the player which all contribute to creating that contextual tension and anxiety. 

The screeches and screams you hear from the Freakers are haunting. What was the process in creating their distinctive sound?

There were two main goals with Freaker vocals. Firstly, since the fiction states that Freakers are humans infected by a virus, we did not want to over-process the vocalizations and make them sound like ‘creatures’ or ‘monsters’. They are, after all, still humans (albeit infected, feral, and animal-like in behavior). The second goal was to ensure the player would be able to identify the different types of Freakers from the unique sounds they make. For example, a screamer obviously screams, but when she’s not screaming, she needed another distinct sound that would not sound too much like a female swarmer, so as not to confuse the player. One day, while I was thinking about the fiction of the screamer and her role in the story, it came to me that, since she’s a loner who just kind of wanders around (pretty aimlessly), she might hum to herself (like a crazy old lady – is it okay to say that?) – almost as a way to show that the real human inside her still exists and the ‘Freaker’ is fighting to get out (or maybe the other way round? Yeah, that. ☺). The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. But then I realized that a hum alone wasn’t enough. We needed something more; and something in the hum that would sound ‘off’ to give her a special kind of creepy feel. So, after recording the hums, I dipped the edited sounds in a bit of ‘special sauce’ and scripted her vocals in such a way that every few lines of her peaceful (yet ‘off ‘sounding) humming would be interrupted by a sudden vocal ‘tick’ – again, trying to illustrate that there’s an internal fight going on between human and Freaker. Of course, whenever she spots the player, full Freaker instincts take over, and she screams her signature scream to call in a small group of swarmers. The screamer sound design really ended up resonating with players and some did not discover the humming until late-game since you have to be pretty close to her to hear it. If you listen to all the other Freaker types in the game, they all have unique sounds that, once the player has encountered them, are easy to identify. Personally, I love the newts and they were a lot of fun to record in the studio! ☺

At what point did you realize to incorporate the NERO recordings through the controller speaker? Was that always part of the plan to utilize that feature?

Ha! Great question! Simple answer: the moment I saw that there were going to be 51 of them! I really felt they needed that typical Dictaphone/digital recorder vibe. Sure, we could have done that with filters and let them play out of the regular speaker, but I thought this was a nice opportunity to use the controller speaker and separate the recordings from the rest of the game mix. Some players loved it, some didn’t. It’s hard to please everyone ☺

Days Gone is layered in detail. You mentioned to me before about the motorcycle engine pinging as it cools down. Are you a rider yourself to incorporate this type of detail? How much talk was there surrounding the team about making everything with the bike perfect?

I’m a rider of mountain bikes ☺ I haven’t yet taken my motorcycle course (I scheduled it this summer but had to cancel due to other commitments). With regards conversations about the detail that went into designing the sounds of the bikes in Days Gone, there were many, and they continued even right through to the final few weeks of production and into DLC (since we had a number of bike challenges). The engine sounds were recorded first (many years ago, in fact!) and then we set about a plan for the other elements (suspension sounds, damage, road surfaces, rocks being kicked up by dirt, skids, burnouts etc.), making sure we were using game data to drive how the bike sounds respond to player input, terrain, engine load, weather etc. There’s also a ‘wet’ version of most terrain types (e.g. dirt becomes mud, asphalt gathers puddles of water). Knowing that the players would spend a lot of time with/on their bike, our goal was to make sure there was enough variety in the sounds, including some subtle details such as the pinging sound of the engine cooling down after Deacon dismounts. I wouldn’t say it was ‘perfect’ (but thanks for saying that!) but we were happy with the final result. In addition to the different engines, some of the upgradeable parts (exhausts, for example) also had a subtle effect on the overall sound of each bike. I always wanted to add a horn for the player to attract the attention of nearby hordes to lead them into enemy camps, but I think we ran out of buttons on the controller (or at least, that’s what Design told me ☺).

The dynamic weather is something I always marvel at when playing. Not only with the appearance and how it affects gameplay, but certain sounds that play off it. For example, the sound of the motorcycle wheels kicking up mud after it rains. How do these types of sounds get captured and inserted into gameplay?

I asked one of our awesome sound designers (Christian) in San Diego to answer this question. He was responsible for a lot of the bike detail, including the sounds of the tires on some of the various terrain types. Here’s Christian’s answer:

“Using a large bin of mud, and my hands, I performed a variety of behaviors with the mud that I imagine a bike tire would encounter, from slow to fast rolling sounds, to burning out and having sloppy globs of mud getting kicked up. Later that day I noticed that my wedding ring was missing and realized that there was only one place it could be. Thankfully, after spending a relatively short time scooping, and splodging some more, there it was… in the middle of the mud! In the end we were left with a small library of sounds that I used to script different behaviors with our in-house authoring tool. Some sounds would crossfade based on speed, while the rate of other sounds playing would change based on the rate of tire spin or speed of the bike, for instance”.  

What sounds implemented in the game proved to be the most difficult for you to get right?

Haha! I’m not sure how to answer this question because there were a number of “most difficult” sounds to try to get right ☺. Finding the Rager bear voice was a long process and took a number of iterations before we landed on what I really thought sounded ferocious and infected enough to belong to and live in the Days Gone world. The challenge was two-fold: create an infected sounding bear that wouldn’t sound too much like a ‘regular’ bear, but also make sure it does not sound like a ‘monster’ from a fantasy setting. Initially, I began working on some concept vocalizations using bear growls, roars, pants (and so on) as a foundation, and layering in other animals and processing them, in order to differentiate it from a ‘regular’ bear. This never really worked for me because I could still hear too much ‘bear’ in there. Plus, it was challenging to find other animal vocalizations that blended nicely together, without the result sounding like precisely that – a bunch of other animals! No matter how I processed them, I could still hear what ‘went into the sausage’.  

So, back at the drawing board, I started to re-think the approach. I was looking through some folders of “creature sounds” we’d received, performed by various voice actors and, although most of them were men-with-deep-voices-trying-to-imitate-large-scary-animals, I thought it might be a good place to start, provided we could find the right voice. I requested some audition material and received a few back but one really stood out among the others. A great VO artist (Harry Schultz) has an amazing TV/trailer voice (think “in a world…” style); a really clear, deep, bassy tone which I thought might sound perfect! So, I took some of his samples he’d sent and began working with them as a foundation for our Rager. As I processed the sounds he provided with some other animal sounds we had, everything started to come together really nicely. I felt like we had something unique, while still sounding somewhat bear-like: a pissed off, infected, ferocious bear (now and forever affectionately referred to as ‘RFB’). It still took a lot of iteration and careful massaging, but it was such a relief to finally have the beginnings of a unique and fearsome Rager bear. We played a sample of the resulting sounds to folk here and everyone loved it. We hired Harry and went into the studio – Harry was an absolute pleasure to work with and (I’m pretty sure) much easier to direct in the studio than a grizzly!

Are there any other small audio details that you are proud of that may not have been noticed by most players?

Hmmm, that’s a hard question because I don’t really know what players have and haven’t noticed. Off the top of my head, here are some: there’s a very light “sizzle/hiss” layer on some of the larger fires – that is triggered when it rains – to give the effect of the rain extinguishing parts of the fire. The challenge with this was that the hiss scales with rain intensity and with heavier rain comes stronger winds… which means they’re both louder. Since our hiss, rain and wind all sit close to one another on the audio spectrum, it can be hard to hear the hiss. But it’s there! Then there’s the trees which sway and creak slightly in stronger winds, sound of leaves as they blow along the ground, rain on cars as you walk by, over 50 types of surfaces for footsteps, bullet impacts, body falls etc. (many with unique ‘wet’ versions), water dripping off rooftops after rain has stopped, insects that stop chirping if the player gets too close or shoots a weapon, dogs that bark when Freakers screech in the distance, encampment ‘activity’ and walla (my favorites are the yawning and snoring from the tent city areas at night), an eerie drone when the player is near an infestation, rain on Deacon’s leather jacket (best heard when you aim your weapon since the camera is closer). I’m pretty proud of the ambient wildlife system for a few reasons: there are no animal or insect sounds in the game that are not found in the PNW – I carefully researched this and made sure they truly live in the area! There are some very rare animals that are specific to only some areas of the game, and even then, are quite elusive (i.e. may not be heard for hours). Players may not ever hear some of the wildlife in Days Gone. Ambient wildlife is very dynamic and varied, and several parameters affect their behavior. The crickets you hear in Iron Butte are different to the crickets you hear in Belknap. Frogs tend to be heard only in heavy rains and/or near large bodies of water. Those are just a few of the ‘details’ I can think of… there are many more! Can you find them? ☺

Paul Deakin working in his sound room. (1)
(2)
Harry Schultz recording voice for the Rager Bear.
Recording a real bear for the Days Gone regular bear.

Thank you once again to Bend Studio and Paul Deakin for joining me on The Broken Road! You can catch all the latest news about Days Gone from Bend Studio on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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