The sound and music of Call of Duty: WWII

Call of Duty: World War II composer, Wilbert Roget, and Sledgehammer Games’ audio director, David Swenson, were kind enough to chat to us about the music and sound design of the game. Check out their responses below: 

How do you approach creating music for the game, given that entertainment around WWII has been tackled many times and given us great, iconic scores?

David Swenson: 

When we began production on Call of Duty: WWII, the team first worked to become historians. We began reading and studying anything and everything we could get our hands on about the war. We also spent a great deal of time listening to the accounts of the brave men and women who actually participated in WWII. As I listened to all of these histories and stories, one thing that rang true for me was that all those who lived through the war experienced it in their own way; from their own point of view. It was a war that changed the lives of millions, but it changed their lives individually and in unique ways. Once I came to this realization, I felt strongly that we shouldn’t tell a generic story about World War II. I felt that we needed to tell our story. Of course there have been many wonderful and iconic World War II stories that have come before us. But, we were not telling those stories. We hoped to give a voice to a new set of characters. To see this terrible and important event through a new set of eyes. 

This philosophy was critical as we considered our music direction for the game. We knew right away that we needed a new sound. We did not want to just mimic what had come before us. We wanted to create the sound that was true to the story that we were telling. I will never forget the afternoon that I played for Glen Schofield (Co-Founder and Studio Head of Sledgehammer Games) what would ultimately become the main theme of the game. We had been working on this theme for weeks. Will had been sending me musical sketches that he was working on. We went back and forth, collaborating and revising until we landed on the sound that we believed was “right.” I played the track for Glen and when it finished he sat in silence for a few moments. Then he simply said, “That is OUR game.” 

Wilbert Roget: 

There have certainly been many productions, in games, films and TV that have either taken place in the WWII setting or referenced it in significant ways. For me, the first step was identifying what made Call of Duty: WWII unique among them, from a story perspective. Our game was different because it wasn’t trying to tell an epic story, but instead a personal one – it was a character piece with realistic, relatable human beings rather than the supersoldiers of recent Call of Duty entries.

Furthermore, my score revolved around finding the precise middle ground between honoring the World War II setting and reflecting the contemporary presentation of the game itself. We needed to strike a balance between the traditional and the modern, the historical and the accessible.

I used contemporary performance practices (such as extended playing techniques and aleatoric ideas) within the traditional orchestra, as well as subtle use of modern production elements such as synths and e-bowed electric guitar. Most importantly, I incorporated sound design elements within the score that came from authentic World War II vehicle and weapon recordings – I applied various effects to the sounds of steam trains, tank wheels, and explosions and used them as both pitched and percussive elements accompanying the orchestra.

Audio has changed massively, in a technical sense, since triple-A games last visited WW2. More time has passed too for sampling authentic audio for guns and equipment. How did you approach recording sound for the game in this light?

David Swenson: 

Call of Duty: WWII presented our audio team with a whole new set of creative challenges, very different from our previous project. Our last project was set in the near future and many of the weapons and vehicles did not exist. So, we had the opportunity and the challenge to invent new sounds for these aspects of the game. In Call of Duty: WWII, everything already existed. The new challenge was to try and represent all the sounds of the era as historically accurate as possible. Of course these types of sounds have been recorded many times before. We already had libraries of sounds that were used in the original Call of Duty games set in World War II. However, because of the huge advancements that have been made during the last decade in both game audio as well as recording and mixing techniques, it was necessary for us to go out and get new recordings. We were starting from scratch. During the first year of our three-year production cycle we spent a lot of time recording the actual weapons, tanks, planes and other vehicles and equipment of the era. Sometimes this was a challenge because it was often difficult to find the guns and vehicles that were still operational. Fortunately we worked with a fantastic historical advisor who assisted us in finding all of the subjects that we needed to record.

For example, our historical advisor, Marty Morgan, actually owns most of the weapons used in WWII. I flew my audio team to Marty’s house in Louisiana and we spent a week painstakingly recording every weapon needed for the game. Having the chance to actually fire the weapons, in addition to recording them, gave me an additional opportunity that I had not anticipated. I was able to really experience what it feels like to fire these powerful firearms. I now know what it feels like to fire the German MG-42 or the famous M1-Garand. Firing those weapons is truly an experience. As an audio director, I want to recreate that experience for our audience. I have many tools at my disposal and I try to be creative in how I use those to enhance the experience of the audience. For example, one way I do this is with the use of the subwoofer. Because the subwoofer can actually rumble and shake a person or the room they are listening in, I have the unique ability to physically touch/move those who play the game. I take advantage of that ability by really punching the subwoofer with every gunshot. In this way the players can physically feel it when they fire the weapons in the game, in a similar way that they would physically feel it if they were holding the guns and actually firing them.

How did the synchronicity of music and audio help to communicate the narrative in CoD WWII, and how did you work together to direct that narrative?

David Swenson: 

One thing that I think is important to consider when using music and audio together as tools in storytelling is understanding the strengths of each. A common mistake made in video game audio is having too much sound. A philosophy we embraced early on is that it is not necessary to always play music and sound effects together and in every moment. Sometimes the lack of either one of these sonic elements can have a more profound impact on the storytelling. As I considered the direction for the audio of Call of Duty: WWII, I spent a great deal of time planning when music and sound effects would each take the lead as the primary sonic component of the audio mix. Sometimes there would be an emotional scene in the game and we wanted the music to be strong and powerful. In those moments we would turn down the sound effects so they would not get in the way of the music. In other moments we would want the punchy and gritty sound effects to immerse the player in the world. In those moments we would turn down the music so that the mix of the sound effects was clean and dynamic; making room for the sound effects to “breath.” 

A great example of this is the D-Day invasion at the beginning of the game. During the boat ride and explosive running on the beach, you will notice that we do not play any music at all. In this sequence we want the players to feel like they are storming the beach… like they are really there. To accomplish this we chose to fully immerse the players in the sound effects of that moment. The lack of music allows the player to hear every explosion, to hear the sounds of the distant German MG-42 machine guns, to hear the sounds of rock and sand debris raining down around them. Even in a chaotic and frantic scene like the beach, the player can hear the very smallest of details and be impacted, and even startled, by the powerful explosions. Latter in the level, when the player is dragging his wounded friend to safety, we wanted to accentuate the desperation that the characters were feeling. We knew that music was the answer in this moment so we purposely brought the sound effects down in the mix so that the music would envelope the player during this important character-driven scene.

Wilbert Roget: 

We discussed mix and arrangement from the very start to make sure that the music and audio never fought each other in the final mix. I designed my orchestrations so that they wouldn’t occupy frequency bands, which were important for in-game SFX, and checked every action cue against gameplay footage to make sure that nothing would be lost in the mix. Our final mix was dynamic in that there are cinematic moments where music takes the forefront, as well as gritty realistic moments where sound design is the focus – often with no music playing at all, such as on the beaches of Normandy.

Additionally, I used melodic themes and signature sounds heavily to make sure that the score always felt iconic and unique to Call of Duty: WWII. I wrote themes for the Allies and the Axis powers, as well as location-based leitmotifs for the German winter and for destroyed urban centers. I developed a “haze of war” concept, which involved different variations of musique concrète and aleatoric string and brass techniques used as background elements with lots of echoing effects, as well as the “memory of war” signature sound, which used arrhythmic trumpet and horn calls played through echoes and delays. In every piece of music in the game, I used either a melodic theme or one of these signature sounds to make sure the score was grounded in the setting, and sounded unique to our game.

A narrative like this is filled with heroism, death, sadness and despair. How do you reflect that in the music and sound without it all coming across in a negative way to the player?

David Swenson: 

As I mentioned previously, we spent a great deal of time listening to the accounts of the brave men and women who participated in WWII. While WWII was clearly filled with fear, desperation and death, many accounts focused on stories of bravery and heroism. As such, we felt it was important to tell both sides of this conflict. The score weaves a beautiful tapestry of many emotions as it underscores the journey of the protagonist, “Red” Daniels. We did not shy away from the things Daniels would face. At the same time, there are many moments in the game when the protagonist is engaged in acts of heroism and bravery and we carefully crafted the music and sound design to help the player feel how the soldiers may have felt in those situations; a mixture of excitement, fear and adrenaline. 

Finally, the protagonist occasionally experiences memories and a longing for home. Will composed one of the most beautiful pieces in the game to underscore the sense of yearning that the protagonist feels. It is a yearning for the life he might have if he makes it home. At the same time, it is a yearning to be loyal to the soldiers he serves with. The emotional journey we hope to take the player on is complex and nuanced and the music plays one of the most powerful roles in guiding the player through the experience.

Wilbert Roget: 

Call of Duty: WWII’s campaign has an impressively wide range of emotions, primarily because it’s not simply trying to be “epic” – it attempts to tell a real, human story with dynamic and sympathetic characters. There’s a time to show struggle, to show despair, to show memories of an innocent past and to show the loss of that innocence.

Across a few other projects I’ve scored over the last several years, I developed this idea of “scoring in the 1st person” vs. scoring in 3rd person. For most games, it makes to score in the 3rd person, with music acting as a distant commentator on the story. But on Call of Duty: WWII we were telling a much more personal story, so I scored it from the 1st person, placing myself in the perspective of the main characters and imagining my own reactions to the story as it unfolded. For this reason, the range in emotion was so wide that we were never worried about it becoming too dark.

What did you leave out of the game and why?

David Swenson: 

Our goal is to have a mix that is very clean and focused, and to have a game that sounds incredibly dynamic. To accomplish this, we work to mix the game such that only the important sounds, at any given moment, are audible and impactful. A great example of this is how the sounds of weapons interact with music. In a first-person-shooter, the player’s gun might be one of the most important parts of the audio mix. For Call of Duty: WWII I challenged Will to compose a score that had little or no percussion. This might seem counterintuitive when considering the score of an action game. In the end, Will came through with an incredible score that did not rely on percussion. This allowed the music and weapon audio to compliment, rather than compete with one another.

Wilbert Roget: 

As part of those early discussions on arrangement and mix, we also decided what instrumentation would work best for the game. Despite the expectations of the setting, I intentionally didn’t write any snare drum, high brass, high winds or mallet percussion parts, because these would interfere with the gunplay and voiceover. As previously mentioned, I used musique concrète elements in place of orchestral percussion, putting various effects on the sounds of period vehicles and weaponry and using those sounds as percussive elements within the score.

I also avoided big epic trailer-esque percussion, as well as any overt use of synthesizers, partly to avoid losing the sense of a World War II setting and partly to avoid competing against sound design in the final mix. We also mixed the score unusually “dry”, with very little added effects like reverb, and frequently used close mics and solo strings. This gave it a noticeably up-close-and-personal feel throughout the soundtrack, and again, helped keep the in-game mix as clean as possible.

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