Famously kooky competitive game's sense of humor was by no means accidental
Mirage: Arcane Warfare, due out sometime this year, is the latest "first-person slasher" from Torn Banner, the studio that we should credit for making such a thing possible. It makes a striking first impression. It looks like a rougher-hewn, sword and sorcery version of Overwatch, with pretty, soft-colored sets, characters designed around forceful silhouettes clearly meant to be readable at a distance, and spectacular special effects that bedazzle your display. And then there's the blood. Spend any amount of time in melee, and it starts to spatter all over, caking on clothing and armor, serving as an unmistakable reminder that you're in fact playing a Torn Banner game. As cool as it looks, Mirage has a tough act to follow.
2012's Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, Mirage's older sibling, followed a trajectory that's not uncommon for an indie PC hit. It began its life as Age of Chivalry, a Half-Life 2 mod, and blew up to such a degree that a Kickstarter campaign followed. Most likely the reason it hit so big is because it was the first game to do first-person melee combat in a way that didn't feel terrible. Many games owe it a debt for this, not the least of which is Ubisoft's anticipated (though third-person) For Honor. But the reason it's endured as a cult classic may have more to do with its kooky spirit.
The enduring image of Chivalry is a grand, gruesome melee where grizzled fighting men whale on each other with swords, axes, and spears. But if you look long enough, you notice that their movements are just slightly off, that the gore and dismemberment doesn't actually register as horrific – it's more funny than chilling, almost like the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When you're actually playing seriously, though, the fighting is tense, demanding, and fraught with consequence. It feels great to stick an enemy with a pike and it feels like complete shit to die. Thankfully, it also has a built-in release valve: its sound design. These fighters have voices – dozens of yells, utterances, and blood-curdling screams that the player can unleash with a couple of keystrokes. And as players tend to do, they deploy them in ways that don't seem entirely consistent with the game's fiction. It turns out this was always the point.
From the start, Ryan Buckley, audio director at Torn Banner and a self-proclaimed "wise-ass" growing up, set out to temper the slapstick brutality with a heavy dose of comic relief. He recalls giving studio president Steve Piggott a choice. "I could make it really funny, or really immersive to the point where it could freak you out to be in a battle where you could get cut to pieces by swords." Funny won out, and Chivalry wound up an unlikely comedic masterpiece.
We tend to think of successful games as the product of a committee, whittled into shape by teams of hundreds, forever seeking consensus with market research and focus groups. But so much of what's wound up feeling fundamental to Chivalry is unilaterally on Buckley. This was largely out of necessity. Torn Banner was a small team when they were starting out, and as audio director, it was Buckley's job to score the game, create all the sound effects, and write all the lines. As a result, his own tastes had an outsize influence over how Chivalry ended up. And he takes particular issue with what he calls "auto VO" – lines in a game that a character says without the player's prompting. "I hate being made to say something," he says. "It starts to take the actual person who's playing out of the game and putting in some pre-scripted robot."
This explains why Chivalry's in-game communication system – which Mirage has inherited – is so deep and complex. On its face, its purpose is to let players communicate without relying on headsets and mics. With a couple of keystrokes, you can call for help from your teammates, signal enemy positions, or issue simple statements like "Yes" or "Thank you." But in practice, the system serves a more performative purpose. Players most often use it as a means to taunt the opposition, exult in their massacre, or simply mock the absurdity of their circumstances. The typical Chivalry match is in effect a gruesome bloodbath punctuated by bizarre, hilarious non-sequiturs. The first enemy to kill you might repeatedly yell "You're welcome!" at your flailing corpse. The next one you encounter will bellow "No, my lord!" as he assails you with his claymore. It's odd to bring up comedic timing when you're talking about a competitive game like Chivalry, where the chaos of battle ensures you have zero control over what ultimately happens to you, but yet every match feels like it's guaranteed at least one moment of ad hoc comic genius.
It helps that the vocal performances in Chivalry are like something out of the most drunken, unhinged LARP you dare imagine. Once again, this is thanks to Torn Banner's bootstrapped origins. "They were all people that I knew, because we had no budget or anything," Buckley says of the cast. "Every single voice actor in that game was a close friend of mine or a co-worker, so I knew them all personally." Buckley himself voiced the fan-favorite Mason man-at-arms, inspired by the late Alan Rickman's nasally intonation. "Just in talking through your nose, you already sound like a jerk," he says. Justin Pappas, Chivalry's former lead level designer, played the Agathian and Mason knights. Buckley describes back-to-back dinner parties with drinks flowing that doubled as recording sessions, a process that allowed him to freely iterate on the end product with a group of eager amateurs. They were happy to go all out.
"I wanted [the lines] all shouted, as if you were in a loud, raucous medieval battlefield," he says. "If lines were just spoken, it wouldn't sound right, no matter how funny they were. I think they're funnier because their voices are shredding, they're losing their voice sometimes, and they sound stressed," he describes.
"I think one person had [ever] acted before. It was tricky to get them into that. Some beer was involved to get them to be OK with even hearing the sound of their own voice," he says. "At the time, we had no idea how big the game was going to be." Hopefully it was nice beer.
The latest sales numbers released for Chivalry tout two million units sold, before the studio stopped posting figures almost two years ago. Mirage is presumably being built with fewer constraints than its predecessor. Among other things, Buckley now gets to work with professional voice actors, which by nature means a less anarchic process. "They may have another game to voice the next day," he says of the professionals he now works with. "They're not going to blow their voice out for your game." He also admits that the Chivalry approach probably wouldn't be appropriate for Mirage anyway, given that the combatants are closer to actual characters with defined personalities – a far cry from former's homogenous mass of marauding footsoldiers. He needed actual pros who would bring perspective and experience and ensure the cast was as "differentiated" as its various archetypes will require.
It sounds like it was a bit of a learning process for Buckley, whose fondness for the Chivalry method is unmistakable when you talk to him. "It was more challenging to have to write all the lines and get the direction right before you blew the people's voices out," he says. He's not shy to invoke "Chiv 2" as a thing that will probably someday exist, though. "I would probably go back to the way I did for Chivalry," he says. When the time comes.