Flawless Victory: Crafting a cinematic soundtrack for Mortal Kombat 11

2019’s biggest fighting game, Mortal Kombat 11, combines carefully crafted music and dialogue to help define a truly cinematic audio experience for the player. Here, Director of Audio at developer NetherRealm Studios, Rich Carle, and the game’s Lead Composer, Wilbert Roget, talk to AMI about their efforts to make MK11 the most epic, realistic installment to date…

AMI: To what extent did you set out to make the audio for Mortal Kombat 11 completely unique?

Rich Carle: With every Mortal Kombat game, we wipe the slate clean and grow our audio experience all over again. That means we spend a substantial amount of time recording new sounds and experimenting with various processing techniques. Every punch, kick and body blow is supported with custom-crafted sound that is unique to Mortal Kombat 11. That’s not to say that we don’t use any sounds from previous iterations. We take great care to evolve the sound of Mortal Kombat just as the designers and artists are evolving the gameplay and the look of the game. We still want Scorpion to sound like Scorpion – but better. The end result we aim for is that the fans get something completely new and fresh, but at the same time, it should feel a little like coming home too.

NetherRealm Studios has an amazing cinematics team that works closely with creative director, Ed Boon, to make sure each and every visible frame is worthy of our players. Dialogue and music play an important role in making these cinematic experiences come to life. For example, we use a combination of music and dialogue to heighten the depth of the player’s experience before the fight even begins. As the level comes into view, intro music provides anticipation and the selected characters taunt each other using our custom ‘enemy aware’ intro dialogue system. As players experiment with the roster, they will hear thousands of lines of personal banter that supports the complex web of relationships in the Mortal Kombat universe. No other fighting game features such a narrative driven presentation.

Wilbert Roget: Mortal Kombat 11 was a unique project for me in that I drew inspiration from both its game and film music heritage to match score to picture. It was my first foray into the Mortal Kombat franchise as a composer, but because I’ve been a fan of the series ever since the very first game, I had a fantastic opportunity to use that perspective for my own score. For our Story mode, music is used both in a traditional cinematic fashion, underscoring the action and emotional contour of the scenes, and also as a bridge between the cutscenes and the one-on-one fighting gameplay. Thanks to NetherRealm’s multi-stem in-game music system powered by Wwise, we have seamless transitions between the cutscenes and stage cues, accompanying the seamless visual transitions from cutscene cameras to gameplay. With the help of the dynamic underscore, players experience the story as a continuous, naturally flowing narrative.

Rich Carle & Wilbert Roget

AMI: Could you provide a bit of context about the game itself and how this affected the way you approached the music and sound design?

RC: While aesthetically Mortal Kombat has always had one foot in reality and the other firmly in the ridiculous, the gameplay mechanics prioritise speed, skill and fun. What this means to us is that the sounds we design often have to be very short and powerful, and run the gamut on the reality spectrum. Sound designers typically start by spending days creating what we call sound palettes for each character. Sound palettes contain a wide range of sounds that have been custom recorded and manipulated to support a particular character’s gameplay design. For example, a character like Noob Saibot, who can quickly clone himself using an inky black magic, needs a lot of quick, wet, whooshy sounds as one of the colours in his sound palette. Taking this step of developing a palette of hundreds of new sounds requires more time up front but can save a lot of time when revisions or last-minute sounds are needed. The custom palette approach allows us to quickly design fresh sounds that tightly match the gameplay.

WR: Mortal Kombat 11 is distinctive within the franchise in that it has an even more epic, complex and expansive story than previous entries, while simultaneously painting the cast as relatable, dynamic characters. The game portrays real people with believable emotions and places them into extraordinary situations. We decided early on that characters should be the focus of the score, and so I created unique leitmotifs and signature sounds for every character and faction in the game. They needed to be distinct and instantly recognisable, but still sound immediately appropriate for this roster full of personas that gamers have known for over 25 years.

The music itself needed to reflect the diversity of the characters, and so in addition to the orchestra, I recruited soloist musicians and vocalists from around the world to perform my eclectic score. This included a guzheng player from China, a kemenche performer in Greece, a traditional “kulning” folk singer in Sweden, a Brazilian violin virtuoso, a soul vocalist from the US and many other fantastic performers across four different continents. I also made extensive use of several hardware analogue synthesisers, each with unique timbres to underscore different factions. Having so many diverse sound sources facilitated bringing nuance to each character, their dynamic arcs and their relationships.

AMI: What did you do that was completely new or different in terms of recording music and sound design? Could you tell us about some of your go-to gear that you used throughout the process?

RC: We recorded a lot of more obscure vegetables this go around! This time we focused more on stuff like bell peppers, cantaloupes, grapefruits, mini pumpkins and spaghetti squash. Some go-to gear we used is Valhalla Shimmer, Izotope Alloy 2, U-He Uhbik-G and Waves R-Bass. Sound design is almost always done on Windows machines running Reaper, but we use Nuendo as well.

WR: I do all my music composition on a single Windows PC running Reaper. The bulk of my virtual instruments are Kontakt samples, with some EastWest Play instruments such as Hollywood Strings. I also use all of Valhalla’s fantastic reverb VSTs, particularly Valhalla Shimmer and Valhalla VintageVerb, and I’m a huge fan of the Soundtoys plugin set. I primarily used Zebra and Sylenth-1 as my software synthesisers, with some occasional weirdness created in Reaktor or FM8.

I used hardware analogue synths extensively as well, again with each instrument being used to represent a particular faction. The Special Forces are a high-tech Earthrealm faction represented by Sonya Blade, Jax Briggs, Jacqui Briggs, Cassie Cage and Johnny Cage so I used the Moog Sub Phatty for arps and basses that felt slick and modern. Conversely, Kano’s Black Dragon faction has a much more irresponsible relationship with messy, experimental black-market technology so I used the semi-modular Arturia Minibrute 2s to create unstable, buzzy bass loops and leads. The Revenants are a faction of undead Netherrealm warriors whose sole motivation is revenge against Earthrealm, so I used the Korg MS20-mini and its notoriously growly filter to portray their unquenchable anger. Lastly, I used the Korg Minilogue and Monotron series synths to create various textures, sweeps and hoover leads. For processing and effects, I used the Moog MF Drive pedal, a Gallien-Krueger Backline 350 bass amp and various delay and overdrive pedals, along with countless software FX plugins.

“From the content creation side, I find that the current era of game scores embraces technology more than ever before”

With regards to recording technique, I believe that Mortal Kombat 11 has the largest roster of soloist musicians and vocalists that I’ve ever worked with on a single game, and certainly the most diverse! As a result, it didn’t make sense to bring everyone into a single studio session like a typical score recording. Instead, each soloist recorded themselves at their own studios or in local studios nearby. Then, in addition to the standard mixing techniques, I often processed the soloists, as well as full orchestra passages, in various ways to create novel textures and effects.

AMI: How did you go about truly capturing the essence of the game? Could MK11 potentially lend itself well to immersive sound formats like Dolby Atmos?

RC: Capturing the essence of Mortal Kombat 11 can’t really be distilled down to one technique or one set of sounds. As a player, when all the music, ambience, vocalisations, Foley, announcer and fight sounds are carefully crafted and well-mixed, then the fighting experience feels like you’re controlling a blockbuster movie. When our sound is working well, people stop talking about the game sounding good and start talking about how good it feels to play. We sculpt our mix and sound design to help the player feel more powerful and dangerous, while still holding on to more of a cinematic style aesthetic. We give our players clear audio feedback as to whether or not each attack was successful by using a large set of shared punches, kicks and whooshes. On top of that, each character has their own unique sound set to enhance their special moves. We are constantly striving to reflect the speed and brutality of the gameplay back to the player.

Our game is developed in 5.1. Right now, we’re not getting a lot of fans clamouring for an Atmos mix. We spend quite a bit of time crafting a vibrant 5.1 mix full of quad gameplay music, multichannel announcers and immersive 3D environments. Many areas in Mortal Kombat 11 have crowds that surround the fighting environment and taunt and cheer based on the player’s actions. We also make sure the game sounds solid in stereo and on headphones as our players seem to listen in those environments quite a bit.

WR: Character-based leitmotifs were the primary focus of my score, but in addition to melodic elements performed on world, synthesised or orchestral instruments, I also made extensive use of identifiable signature sounds. For example, I took recordings of rattlesnakes and processed them with filter sweeps, delays and an auto-pan to accompany the crime lord Kano, giving him a grotesque and unnerving organic element that complements the unstable hi-tech synth vibe of his Black Dragon faction. Similarly, I processed tiger growls and detuned doublebass scratchbowing to accompany the Tarkatans, a feral and cannibalistic Outworld race.

Beyond the character-based elements, a major recurring theme of the game involves time manipulation and time travel. I often used extreme time stretching, gradually transitioning the entire orchestral mix into an affected “frozen” sound, to underscore a few moments where time has slowed down to a stop. I created pad instruments by similarly freezing short sounds like string pizzicato. I also embraced Arabic and South Asian instrumentation and melodic embellishments, such as slow string glissandi between chord transitions, to underscore the sands-of-time visual motif. And lastly, during certain time-reversal moments, I used an aleatoric technique influenced by the avant-garde compositions of Witold Lutosławski. I’d write a few beats worth of through-composed notes/rhythms on a violin trio, followed by the direction to repeat the figures with indeterminate speed over the course of several seconds. This created a swirling texture that mimicked the sound of a cassette tape reversing but with distinct pitches and harmonies.

AMI: Could you offer some thoughts about game music/audio in general and the technological advancements that have brought it to the fore?

RC: We used Audio Kinetic’s Wwise and a heavily modified version of Unreal 3 as our primary audio technologies for Mortal Kombat 11. Wwise’s hierarchical nature and feature set allowed us the flexibility to divide our project into work units that made the most sense for our workflow. Wwise does a great job of empowering the audio team with useful, well organised and well documented tools. With all their plug-ins, layouts and debug tools, Audio Kinetic is setting the bar for audio middleware. More and more of the audio processes can be done in real-time by the gaming system. I’m definitely looking forward to what the next generation of game hardware can do for audio. Using a CPU to drive real-time reverbs and delays that are based on a level’s actual geometry and acoustic properties seems incredibly immersive to me. 

WR: From the content creation side, I find that the current era of game scores embraces technology more than ever before. Today’s soundtracks frequently employ unique and innovative synthesis and musical sound design techniques that go beyond the classic assumptions of a cinematic score. And with regards to implementation, seamless dynamic music is becoming the norm across all genres. I’m most excited about middleware tools like Wwise and Elias facilitating not only adaptive scores but even hybrid scores that combine standard pre-rendered audio with real-time, context-aware MIDI.