Designing the Screams of XCOM 2

July 17 2015
Designing the Screams of XCOM

What does a pig, elephant, tiger, tornado, flamethrower, bass drop, and five Firaxis developers have to do with each other? Together, with some audio magic, they make up the powerful and terrifying yell of XCOM 2’s Berserker. Chris D’Ambrosio is the Lead Audio Designer on the game and the mad scientist behind this nightmarish collection of sound.

Chris took a moment to describe how he designed the Berserker yell and his overall process for creating the rest of the alien lineup in XCOM 2.

When designing such a complex sound, where do you start?

We always start with the visual. In the case of the Berserker, I received a silent animation of the pod reveal where she runs forward a step or two, opens up her huge mouth, and gets slobber all over the camera. I watched the animation about four or five times just to understand the motion of the animation and to start figuring out the size of the sound she should be making.

I like to start layering in sounds based off visual cues I pick up on. You want there to be a familiarity in the sound. The Berserker is a fictional alien, but placing recognizable sounds, as distorted as they may be, goes a long way in helping the audience understand the size, weight, and in this case, the damage this thing is going to do. That’s the reason so many of the sounds that make up the Berserker are what they are. Huge screaming animals and forces of nature? I think that sums up the Berserker pretty good!

Chris created an alternate take of the Berserker scream to demonstrate how important it is to capture size, motion, and a sense of familiarity. This alternate take captures none of those things.

The alternate take is so funny because it sounds so wrong! No one knows what a Berserker should sound like because they don’t exist, but just from looking at her we know a creature of that size wouldn’t make such a small, short, and high-pitched noise.

How does the motion come into play when designing the sound?

I started with the animals and nailed down a visceral yell. When I was satisfied with it, I started to look at the motion of the animation. There’s a scream involved which is already one kind of motion, but then you have the power of the Berserker breath. All the spit and slobber that comes flying at the camera has motion and sound that needs to be communicated. The flamethrower and tornado add a lot of power, but also a sense of wind.

A pig, elephant, tiger, tornado, flamethrower, bass drop, and a bunch of guys yelling. Did you take anything out because it made you say, “Now THAT’S too much.”

Since the Berserker is a female I was trying to make use of a female yell. Unfortunately, lowering the pitch of the scream didn’t fit the size of the Berserker. I tried some electronic and other energy-based sounds like synthesizers, but it ended up taking away from the organic monster. In general, I end up experimenting with a lot of one-offs when I’m in the polish stage. At that point there’s a lot of crazy stuff that immediately gets thrown out.

Do you have trouble saying something is done?

Totally. With every single thing I do. I’m always looking for ways to improve my work.

Are there any other crazy sounds used for the aliens of XCOM 2?

At this point Chris excitedly leaves the room. A conversation happens down the hall. “Hey Dan! Is the Viper death yell the one where we used the baby?!” Chris returns.

So, the Viper death yell totally has a pitched-down baby scream which is completely unnerving. It works though! A baby crying is very interesting because the sound is a frequency our hearing notices above most other things. To then pitch it down becomes so off-putting. It works perfectly! Movies have also set the precedence that snakes make a high-pitched screeching noise. The challenge with the Viper was to take a high-pitched screech and make it big.

In comparison to the Berserker, the sounds of the Viper are much simpler. The Viper is made up of a modified baby scream and snake hiss. It’s very subtle and most people might not notice it, but it’s another way to distinguish between these two very different aliens. The Berseker is this hulking brutal creature and the Viper is faster, slimmer, and has these great fluid animations. The Berserker is made up of tons of crazy powerful sounds. The Viper is just a baby and a snake hiss.

Any final crazy sound facts you want to throw out there?

The Sectoid is a wet lacrosse ball being rubbed on carpet.

Thank you.