Shooter with strings: the music of Far Cry 2
March 31, 2009
When I told a few friends I was planning to attend a session at GDC called "Far Cry 2: Creativity and the Musical Challenge," one replied "Oh my god, I hated that music. I turned if off after ten minutes." More conversation revealed that their objections weren't so much about the quality of the music itself, but in the way it was implemented in the game. Drawing your gun, for example, often triggers an intense action music cue, even when you're alone in a benign location. And despite 3 hours original music and 247 separate cues, the score can occasionally be repetitive, especially if you linger in an area too long.
But turning off Far Cry 2's music after ten minutes is a big mistake, in my view, because it denies the player full exposure to a remarkable score that rejects the standard cliche-ridden Hollywood action movie soundtrack in favor of something far more organic, expressive, and distinctive. In one of the most informative sessions I attended at GDC, Producer and Mix Engineer Rich Aitken explained how the creative team at Nimrod Productions built the score for Far Cry 2 and responded to Ubisoft's challenge to musically match the game's narrative ambitions.
Composer Marc Canham tried to find a sonic and compositional approach that could serve the game's dual natures: Far Cry 2 is a personal, emotional and atmospheric experience; but it's also an action shooter with intense and dynamic sequences. The challenge was to "mesh authenticity with sonic impact." Canham responded by suggesting a more intimate, less bombastic score than players are accustomed to in the FPS genre. Ubisoft agreed, and the team adopted a minimalist approach.
The pivotal aspect of this spare aesthetic was Canham's decision to use a string sextet as the musical core - not exactly the instrumentation one expects to hear in an FPS - supported by African percussion, a strictly limited tonal palette, and vocals by Baaba Maal, one of the most influential Senegalese vocalists of all time. Maal's contributions went beyond songs and chants to include short rhythmic, percussive vocalizations that added authenticity and texture to the soundtrack.
Aitken paid special tribute to Ubisoft for not imposing a temp track on the team. This unusual move freed the team to create original compositions, rather than pastiche versions of a temp track that Aitken says are far too common in game music. They were also given time to research local African rhythm patterns and instruments, finally settling on the Ashiko drum and Coucou and Kundabigoya rhythms as signature elements of Far Cry 2's score. No computer synth sounds were used, and samples were employed sparingly, mainly as sonic augmentation late in the process.
The strings were recorded at Abbey Road (Studio 3) in London, and players were chosen "who wouldn't be afraid to abuse their instruments with some ferociously attacking performances." The percussion sessions were held at Nimrod Productions' studio in Oxfordshire, where 3 percussionists were recorded at a time to allow for separation in the mix. Ultimately, the team recorded 8 different Djembes, 2 Udus, 2 Kalimbas, and a variety of other African instruments. Final mastering was done back at Abbey Road.
Interestingly, the first submission to Ubisoft "was a disaster." The team received negative feedback on the score: "Too bombastic. Too big. Too much volume." In the process of building the musical cues, they had fallen a bit too in love with the percussion elements of the music and strayed from the intimacy of game. This feedback from Ubisoft was welcomed by the team, and they found their way back to the concept they had originally convinced Ubisoft to accept.
In retrospect, Aitken said the score for Far Cry 2 "could probably have used more textures and less melody to avoid the impression of repetetiveness." He also would have pulled back a bit on the strings and added another double bass to widen the sonic spectrum. He noted that on-location effects recording in Senegal provided excellent material that might have been used elsewhere in the score. An example can be found during the closing credits of the game, which the sound engineers recorded on the spot after discovering a local Senegalese vocal group that offered to perform extemporaneously.
If you'd like to hear a sample of Far Cry 2's exceptional soundtrack, I encourage you to click on the link below. Thanks to Rich Aitken for his well-organized lecture - and for chatting with me afterward and offering even more details.