The Soundtrack of B.ARK: Through What Light Yonder Burrito Breaks
In game design, sometimes things change. That may seem like a given, but it doesn't make it any less true. During the development of B.ARK many things changed completely from their initial concept. And one of the things I am proud to say I had a part in helping shape in this sense, was the voice acting for the animal characters.
At one point during development, Tic Toc Games was evaluating the possibility of having a full-blown voice acting for every single character in the game. This was certainly a fantastic idea in the sense that it would aid in delivering a story to the players. Nevertheless, full-blown voice acting has its pitfalls.
For one, there’s the obvious one, cost, hiring more people costs more money. Not only that, but there’s also the added time required to properly record every single person involved in the project, and to adapt the art to their voice. And this comes without even mentioning potential localization costs.
Rather than waiting for the rest of the team to try to reach a resolution between themselves, I thought of an idea and immediately got to work. Taking from the deepest corners of my nostalgia, I decided to bring something from one of the games of my childhood. That game was Banjo & Kazooie.
In Banjo & Kazooie, rather than voice acting, the developers at Rare as well as the composer Grant Kirkhope, found an interesting solution that gives a lot of personality and authenticity to the game. The characters talk exclusively with grunts, sounds, and other non-word vocalizations.
So I had a cool idea, that was the easy part, the hard part was to actually give the rest of the team something that they felt was worthy of being in their game. While I’d have been able to do something like making a writeup or a slide presentation for them, I felt that doing so was a waste of time for them. Rather, the best thing was to speak to them in the most direct language imaginable, that was, by making a well-made demo of what it could sound like.
In order to do this, I had to actually go through each of the main characters and find the most believable way in which they’d sound. Using other non-humans that make a lot of vocalizations as examples, we have characters such as Bowser and Yoshi. When you see Bowser, you see a large turtle, that indicates something heavy and somewhat sluggish, but he also has spikes, and a scary face, and a villainous demeanor. So his voice can’t be just slow and heavy, it has to have that cartoonishly evil character that Bowser possesses. Yoshi is a similar story, Yoshi is some form of dinosaur, horse, turtle thing, but he’s also permanently jolly, as well as fairly agile, and his voice reflects all of that. In other words, Bowser doesn’t sound like “a turtle” he sounds like “A Bowser”, and yoshi doesn’t sound like “a dinosaur”, he sounds like “A Yoshi”.
To reach this level of auditive abstraction for the characters, I had to first decide on a single phrase or word that I could repeat with every single one of them to showcase their personalities. It had to be a single thing because this was not going to be the full version of their “voices” instead it was just something akin to a sketch, an incomplete idea meant to explain what I wanted to show to the team. And this sound could not be something that any character in B.ARK would actually say, because that would guide the sound towards something interpretative, not something neutral. At that point in time I was hungry, it’d been a while since my last meal, so I looked at the options for delivery that I had, and said the first thing I saw out loud.
BURRITOS! I exclaimed
The moment that escaped from my lips, I knew that "burritos" was the word I’d been searching for. I went through every animal character in B.ARK and made a facsimile of what they’d sound like. And for every single character and every single emotion they had, I said the word “burritos” with the emotion and voice type expected from that character. Some cheerful but low-pitched burritos, some were joyful and raspy, some were commanding, and so on and so forth, all expressed through repetitions and variations of “burritos”.
When the rest of the team heard this two things happened. First, they absolutely loved the idea, which is why in the game proper you hear these types of sounds coming from the characters. And second, they found the fact that the word in question was “burritos” absolutely hilarious. To this day we still joke around with “burritos” as an in-joke.
With the idea approved, it was time to nail the sound that each of the members of B.ARK made. Every character in the game has a lot of heart, love, and effort put into their design, backstory, and personality. Thus, their specific voice couldn’t be something that felt vaguely fitting. Rather, I had to find the perfect way in which these individual characters expressed their emotions.
While doing this, and testing out different approaches to see what worked and what didn’t, I quickly came to a realization. These voices wouldn’t be meant to express what happens in the story specifically. Instead, every single grunt that they made would have to be something that developed who they were further. That way, their voices would be universally fitting regardless of the actions on-screen.
I started out by creating Marv’s sounds. Being a rabbit, Marv was the smallest character in the game, and this is also reflected in the morphology of his face, which gives his voice limited range to resonate. His other characteristics are being scaredy and from the south of the US. So the tests that Marv’s voice went through all followed this set of characteristics.
First of all, his voice had to be high-pitched, and it had to have some trembling included in it, fitting for someone fearful or timid. In order to find his pitch, an important part was to find the rhythm of his voice. Speaking quickly was an idea that I quickly discarded. Instead, it was better to have him make his squeaks with predetermined pauses between them, proper of someone shy.
There was only one part remaining to address in order to make him a full-fledged character, his southerner heritage. At first I wasn’t sure about what direction to take, but talking it out with my friend Sebs, I found a nice little gimmick that I could use. Matthew Mcounaghey’s alright alright alright, not only was it American, but it was a voice that would sound odd coming from anyone that wasn’t from the southern US. Using this last detail as an inspiration, my work with this character’s sounds finally felt like it was going in the right direction.
Lucio the bear is a big, chubby, and tender character, he is also a fricken bear. One of my favorite things from B.ARK, is how the characters have stories to them that you can get just from seeing them. In Lucio’s case, he feels warm, sort of like a dad or maybe a grandpa. His growls had to reflect this caring part, while also showcasing his strength.
His voice had to before lack of a better word, very round. It could have some nasal tinges, and perhaps be a bit soft, but also very low-pitched because, you know, bear. And speaking of bear, real life bears make very raspy and jarring sounds. All of these factors together made iterating on him a very involved process.
To find this sweet spot, I constantly referred to Mark’s guidelines on the subject, he wanted something that was very animal-like, without ever feeling like a real animal. And also, he is Italian, so there was that to consider. The idea was then to make something like a bear, strong and unmovable. While also responding to the protective nature of Lucio, who always stands behind his team.
His sound had to respond to a bear’s elongated and wide snout, providing a lot of depth. And in order to actually land the Italian personality, I asked a couple of Italian friends to talk to me in Italian, allowing me to copy their gesticulations while recording Lucio’s grunts. The end result is a very solid voice that mixes all these characteristics into a big, huggable package.
One of the more interesting challenges I found was in making Felicity’s voice. Now, I have a cat, I spend time with my cat 24/7. Yet there’s a small tidbit of info that any cat owner knows that made Felicity into a less straightforward issue than it would initially appear. Every single cat makes its own brand of noises.
To address this, my anchor was real cat emotions. Starting from the easiest one there’s anger, when a cat is angry it lets out a very evident hisss that is hard to miss. But then you find sounds with more variety like desire(for food) or perhaps most challenging of all, the happy purrs. How would you even go about making it so that cat purrs could be heard over the sounds of guns, lasers, spaceships, rocks, etc? It wasn’t just a question that could be resolved by raising the volume of the purrs willy-nilly, it required a lot of thought.
It was here that another sound designer involved in the game, Nino Oxilia, had an amazing idea. Nino came from a background of pop rock production rather than sound design, so his perspective was very unique (He's also a great mixing engineer, so the technical execution input was very insightful). He suggested that we use a sine, a specific synthesizer frequency that when manipulated creates unique acoustic phenomena. In this case, we added subthreshold frequencies, frequencies that real cats actually do reach while purring, and which severely enriched felicity’s voice as a whole.
Felicity is a French cat, and while usually that would relate to elegance and refinement, you can tell that Felicity is a stray, which provides an interesting addition to the whole package. Because of this, many of Felicity’s sounds actually came from Newton, my cat, who is also a stray with an interesting history. And while doing this, her voice also respects the agility that she displays in gameplay.
And finally, we get to Barker. Growing up I always had a dog at home, and both my family and I absolutely love dogs. As a fun aside, my sister and I
were laughing because we could recognize which of the neighbors’ dogs barks belonged
to a schnauzer because our first dog was a schnauzer. So out of everyone in the cast, I understood the characteristics of dog sounds the best.
But because I know the characteristics of dog voices so well, that also meant that I was very stringent in what constituted the right voice for Barker. I’ve never had a French Bulldog like him myself, but I know that they make specific vocalizations that are exclusive to the breed. In order to get the result that I wanted, I couldn’t just give it something that would be more akin to the sound of a rottweiler, a pit bull, or a poodle.
It was then that I had the idea of talking to my friend Coco, a vet and dog lover whom I know from Instagram and have yet to meet in person. We usually talk about our pets and send pictures of them to each other, but at that point in time, I was honest and told her that I needed her help. I told her that I was stuck in making the grunts of a French Bulldog, and asked her if she could tell me more about how they bark. What I wasn’t expecting was for her to provide me some highly detailed and super useful scientific explanations of how a French Bulldog sounds, and why it sounds that way.
She started by explaining things from how the shape of their head creates some noises. The roof of a French Bulldog’s mouth has an extended soft part, causing noise to bounce off quite differently from other dogs. And they are also prone to specific breathing issues such as stenotic nares, and brachiocephalic conditions. Coco sent several voice notes, and every single one of them was packed with easy to understand information that I could use for Barker.
When I heard the last of her voice notes, I immediately left the cellphone aside and started barking for many hours. I tried to emulate the corporality that she described, caring not for the fact that I didn’t have curtains and the neighbors were able to see everything. Eventually, I found it, the voice for Barker. I edited it, I sent it, and the reply was instantaneous, it was perfect.
For me, this was one of my favorite moments throughout the development of B.ARK. Barker’s strength as a character is his friendship and loyalty. He is stranded very far away from his owner Milla, much like I was very far from my friend Coco, and yet she still pulled through in being a huge part of the project. The thematic connection was very meaningful for me.
With the sounds of the main characters done, we went through the rest of the characters in B.ARK. Bubble sounds for the goldfish, Nino’s idea, many sssss and grugugru and other onomatopoeic sounds. All of which observed the human characteristics of the animals and adapted them into their specific, unique voices, tailor-made for their backstories and designs.
And to think all of this started from a simple “burritos”