Yoan Fanise, content and audio director
Yoan Fanise began his time at Ubisoft as a sound designer on 2003’s Beyond Good & Evil, graduating to audio director on Rabbids Go Home and Assassin’s Creed III, which he worked on at Ubisoft Singapore. His latest project also has a historical grounding, and here he tells us what inspired Valiant Hearts’ emotive audio design. A lot of research has gone into Valiant Hearts. How does this manifest in the audio design? We spent time reading many letters written during World War One, some from our families, and the emotion we got from that was a subtle. When you write a letter in a moment like that, you don’t explain everything – you don’t say, “OK, it’s horrible. I’m going to die tomorrow.” No, you try to be optimistic and say, “It’s going to be all right. Please don’t worry.” It was very emotional to have this feeling of them not wanting to talk about the fact that they will probably die. It was really important for me to find tracks with the right mood, that reflect the subtlety of these emotions. There’s a playfulness to the game that reflects that stoic spirit, but was it hard to balance the lighthearted elements with the darker moments? When we started to put together the music and the graphics, it was blending very well. It was a perfect match from the beginning: the contrast was clear between the piano, and this dark background with dead bodies, and it was really powerful. That’s why we don’t have much dialogue in the game. The lack of in-game dialogue gives the game an intriguing atmosphere, certainly. At the beginning we were a bit crazy, because we said, “Let’s do a narrative game with a deep story but let’s try to make it without any dialogue!” It was challenging, and in the end we still have some between the [gameplay] sequences, but it was good for us to try to stick with that and just have gibberish in the game. It created something interesting, because the gibberish we created is universal; it’s a kind of French, a kind of German, a kind of English… It was funny to discover that it creates another emotion, just seeing someone talking about something. You pay more attention to the tone, the flow and the music. In fact, the music tells the story. There are moments when there’s no music at all, though. How did you decide where to pull back? I think it was a rhythmic thing. When you look at the flow of the game, and you start to realise that on this part of the game we have too much music, there’s a fatigue effect. So let’s keep music only for when you
“There were joyful moments between battles. We wanted to represent those moments too, not just the sad ones”
need it to tell the player something. And sometimes it’s better to have no music and then the sudden scream of the wounded on the battlefield. It creates a feeling. The soundscapes in the game are extremely detailed and, like the narrative, rarely put the player centre stage. Was that a deliberate attempt to make the player feel a small part of the wider war effort? You’re right: the contrast between the huge machines that were created at the time and a little human in the middle of all of it. That really was the intention. What were your influences for the compositions? For me, the most important thing was to stay simple. I prefer a simple track with just one instrument: one piano, or one violin, and that’s enough. For the driving sections, I was listening to lots of music – I discovered many music tracks that I didn’t know from the time, but some of them were famous. For example, when you play the first taxi drive, it’s [Brahms’] Hungarian Dance No 5. It’s a melody many people know, but they don’t necessarily know where it comes from. So it was important to me to bring those historical tracks that people were listening to at that time. What was the idea behind putting rhythm-action sequences into the game? To have brighter moments. But it was also supposed to reflect a historical fact – that, in fact, over the four years it wasn’t battles all the time. There were battles, but most of the time they were waiting for something to happen, moving or travelling. There were a lot of joyful moments in between: soldiers playing cards and other games. We wanted to represent those moments too, not just the sad ones. We had a tagline: “In the middle of horror, there is always a glimmer of light.” So we keep in mind all the time not to be just dark and sad. There were concerns that the game could be crass or offensive. Were you ever worried about that? When we were making [the animations for the Germans], we checked with Ubisoft Düsseldorf to make sure [they weren’t] perceived as offensive. We did the same thing for all nations. Why does Emile narrates his letters home with an English accent, even though he’s French? [Laughs.] We recorded both the English actor in his own accent and with a French accent. And hen we tried a French actor in English, too. We tried every combination, and when we were listening to the results, the best take was still the English actor with an English accent, because the acting was better!