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Sounds pretty good: Théberge on Mass Effect 3′s audio

The production of Mass Effect 3 was not without casualties. BioWare's Robyn Théberge tells us of the demise of The Illusive Van; the abduction of grandma's dog; and other adventures.

Two years into her career at BioWare, Robyn Théberge is the associate product manager for Mass Effect 3's audio, visual effects and user interface teams - which is a pretty hefty job. Not only is Mass Effect 3 one of the most anticipated releases of the quarter (if not the year), it's huge; even just one aspect of the game - in this case, the audio - is a mammoth undertaking.

"I don't know if anybody could put a number to that. We have a whole library of sound effects," she told me when I asked how many hours of sound had been recorded for the third entry.

"They definitely try to do produce new approaches for each game so we re-record and spend a lot of time going out into the field to come up with new ideas and new sounds to use in the game. I couldn't give you an exact number. Oh man, I couldn't even imagine."

In the realm of thousands of hours? Definitely, she assured me - and all this for an aspect of game design which is frequently glossed over.

"I think that audio in video games is definitely something that's under-appreciated. You notice if the audio's bad because it's almost intrusive to your experience, but if it's a good audio, it's often under-appreciated because you don't notice it because you're too immersed in the story and the emotion of it all," Théberge observed.

"The score, the sound effects, it really is what sells a lot of things, especially early on. The development team will request to get sounds in early so they can tell how it's going to work with that creature reveal, things like that, weapons and powers - you don't know how it's going to be in the actual experience until the audio makes it in the game."

You might think Mass Effect 3's science fiction setting means the team can't rely on straight field recording as they might with some other projects, but there are plenty of real-world noises to be gathered.

"They do a lot of work with vaseline."

"We have some amazing sound designers and they went out and destroyed an armoured van. We have the Illusive Man in Mass Effect 3 so they went out and spray painted on the side of this van 'The Illusive Van', and then they proceeded to demolish it with sledgehammers and stuff to record a lot of the breaking glass sounds that are in the game. They even went out with the Canadian military and recorded some actual tanks and things like that." Théberge told me, adding that when things get a little more fantastic, the sampling gets more creative.

"They do a lot of work with vaseline," she said. "A lot of the creature sounds are actually the voices of our sound designers that they've edited and manipulated and pushed their voices to the limit to create some really cool creature sounds."

Hoping to sneak in a spoiler or two, I innocently asked what noise was used for the thresher maws - if any were in the game, but Théberge saw through my cunning plan and declined to comment.

"In Mass Effect 2 though, they used their voices and various tuning instruments to create that high pitched squawk sound," she said.

"They've recorded cats, they've recorded dogs. We had a little dog that was in at the recording studio. I think it was somebody's grandmother's dog that they brought in; a tiny little dog.

"Those guys, they literally live and breathe audio. One of the producers on Dragon Age is engaged to Joel Green, whose one of the sound designers, and they go on vacation and he always has his sound equipment on him, just climbing down into ditches to record the sound of water flowing through a culvert.

"They really hear things; in our morning meetings they talk about it. 'Did you hear the pitch of the new subway bells as you cross at an intersection?'"

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Freddie Prinze Jr. is enthusiastic.

Although it falls outside Théberge's department, BioWare's dialogue and voice over work is highly celebrated, and the product manager revealed the team also takes inspiration from unexpected sources.

"Freddie Prinze, Jr - he's the voice of James Vega - is a huge Mass Effect fan," she said.

"We were all blown away, we had no idea when he was cast for that role. He walked into the booth and was like 'alright, am I a paragon or a renegade? How does it work? How do I fit in with Shepard?'

"He's really, really excited to play [Mass Effect 3 as] Shepard alongside James Vega who he did the voice for and we actually did adopt some of the dialogue based off of his delivery because he was so into it and really did a good job of selling that character's personality."

Mass Effect 3 releases on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on March 6 in the US, March 8 in Australia, and March 9 in Europe.

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