The Borderlands series has always been known for having billions of guns, with each gun randomly generated. But all of these weapons also make noises when they shoot, like the loud crack of sniper or the blast of a rocket launcher. And as explained by the senior sound designer at Gearbox, Joshua Davidson, it took a lot of work to create over 5000 gun sounds for Borderlands 3.
In the older games, like Borderlands 2, Gearbox was limited by how much memory the consoles had. These limits forced the developer to limit how many gun noises could be shipped with the game. In Borderlands 2, Joshua Davidson estimates there were only about 350 individual weapon sounds. So when you picked up a Jakobs pistol, it didn’t matter if it was long, short, big, or small it would sound basically the same as any other Jakobs pistol.
In Borderlands 3, thanks to more powerful consoles, the team was able to implement many more sounds, with Davidson estimating over 5,500 individual sounds were created and shipped with the game.
The system for creating unique and different gun sounds for each randomly generated weapon in Borderlands 3 is very similar to how guns themselves are put together. As explained by Davidson in a video on his personal YouTube channel, each gun in Borderlands is made up of various parts. These parts can be combined into millions and millions of different weapons. To create the sound system, Davidson and the sound team “piggybacked” on the weapon part system. They linked different sounds to different parts. So if a sniper rifle had a long, plasma barrel on it, then it would sound different than a sniper with a short, laser barrel.
The end result of all this work and over 5000 sound files is that each weapon you pick up in Borderlands 3 will often sound different than a similar weapon you might already have. This helps make each weapon feel unique and interesting.
The full video is filled with a lot of behind the scenes information about creating sounds for a big video game like Borderlands 3. It might be a bit too technical for most folks, myself included. But it is still amazing to get a peek behind the curtain of how massive and complicated video games are made.
Making games is really hard and takes a long time. If you are like me and have never actually made a game before, it can be nearly impossible to understand just how hard development can be or how long it can really take. So to help save time, money and headaches, developers will often reuse assets in creative ways. But as Nelson also explained to me, reusing assets isn’t always a time saver and is a testament to how inventive developers can be.
While some gamers might see this as lazy, the reality is this is an important technique and helps devs finish your favorite games in a shorter amount of time. And some of the ways devs reuse assets are just as creative and interesting as the story or action found in their games.
Developer Jessica Ross explained that on one unnamed game, she had to animate a person having their heart ripped out of their body. However she didn’t have time to animate a heart so instead relied on some pastries. “I didn’t have time to model a heart, so I just took a baguette, scaled it down, and made it red.”
As pointed out by developer Ruby on Twitter, Warframe reuses many assets in various different ways. (To clarify: Ruby isn’t a developer on Warframe.) For example, as seen in the tweets above, some weapons are scaled up to and used to create new geometry on ships.
Another Twitter user, Carl Muckenhoupt, shared how Telltale reused a character model from a poker game to create an enemy in a different game. All it took was a name change and a mustache.
One of my favorite examples of reusing assets and content was shared by Kelly Snyder, who previously worked at Bungie. She explained that Aksis in Destiny 1 was just a heavily modified spider tank. “This is why 3 of coins doesn’t work on him- on the back end he’s technically not an ultra, he’s a vehicle.”
Some folks might see this reuse of assets as lazy. But Nelson told me this was not the case at all. In fact, while reusing assets can save time and money, it can also be even harder than making something new. “The problem solving needed to get a new solution from old pieces can take just as much effort, if not more, than just creating something new,” Nelson said. “Reused assets are a testament to developer ingenuity, not a willingness to cut corners.”
Reusing assets can happen for various reasons. Sometimes a project is low on funds and taking the time to figure out clever ways to repurpose enemies or items can help save money. But other times it can be a technical limitation. For example, a game getting too big for a cart and needing to reuse assets in clever ways to save space.
Nelson did admit that some games that are just straight asset flips do exist. These are games that are generally made very quickly using pre-built assets that are purchased on engine stores, like Unity. These games can be found on Steam and Google Play. But these are different from a developer reusing assets in a creative way.
“[Asset flips are the] equivalent of someone buying a Spider-Man costume on the internet and uploading their 720p backyard shenanigans as SPIDER-MAN: THE MOVIE. It’s not the real thing, and it wasn’t intended to be in the first place.”
In many ways, asset recycling is not unlike how many props get reused in TV shows and movies. The logic being, if you already made a set of space chairs, why make new ones if the old ones will fit in the scene? Especially if the chairs are barely seen in the movie anyway? Reusing assets in games can serve a similar purpose. If you already built a monster or sword for one game or level, why make a totally new one?
As games become bigger and bigger, with better-looking graphics and more complex systems, it will become harder and harder to make games in a healthy and affordable way without reusing assets. But this isn’t a bad thing. Reusing assets, if done correctly, will go unnoticed by most players and not ruin the game.
And it can lead to game development becoming easier, quicker and even less unhealthy. It can also help developers overcome budgetary or technical limits. And for eagle-eyed fans, it can provide a fun game-within-game, as they search for the source of that jetpack or building.
Recently, the popular YouTube channel Boundary Break worked closely with developer Yacht Club Games to do a special episode taking a look at the developer’s beloved Shovel Knight series. What the YouTuber found is that the Shovel Knight games are actually 2D games built in a 3D engine.
This is the most interesting and visually impressive discovery in the video. Seeing a game that looks so retro and very 2D get spun around in 3D is trippy. Yacht Club Games developer David D’Angelo explained that this was because the engine was built before the studio knew exactly what they were going to make. While they wanted to make a 2D game, by making the engine 3D it gave them more options and made it easier to debug the game and bring it to multiple platforms.
While the 3D revelation is the maybe the most exciting part of this recent video, the episode also contains some other interesting tidbits.
For example, Shovel Knight features some leftover assets and artwork that the developer even admits shouldn’t be there. D’Angelo mentions that future versions of the game might remove these leftovers, like some strange tiles floating behind a background. These tiles, with TB marked on them, are transparent and are tied into the system that allows players to break blocks in certain areas. It was left in the game by mistake.
The full episode is worth watching if you are a huge Shovel Knight fan or just want to see how much work went into making these games.
When we think about space operas, we think about Star Wars or Star Trek, or even Stargate. These are the sweeping, grand sagas, with stalwart heroes and clear distinctions between right and wrong. Farscape is not that kind of story.
Commissioned by the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), produced by the Jim Henson Company, and shot in Australia, Farscape ran for four seasons from 1999 to 2003. Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Farscape was a bizarre, gun-toting series about criminals on the run; itsmain cast featured two puppets, several aliens, and only one human. This, along with its daring plot lines and downright absurdity, made it an instant cult hit, but Farscape never quite reached the brand recognition of its rivals. Yet this show quietly redefined sci-fi—and we can still see its influence on the genre today.
Shot through a wormhole
“Just make it as weird as you possibly can.” According to creator Rockne S. O’Bannon, this was the order given to him and Brian Henson, as they stood in the Syfy president’s office 20 years ago last month. The network was undergoing a major regime change, and the interim president wasn’t sure what Farscape was—“He thought it was going to be a kids’ show,” O’Bannon told io9—but his words were a showrunner’s dream. With free rein to create whatever they wanted, Farscape truly lived up to its new mandate, and as Syfy’s first original flagship show they blended wild concepts with passionate sexuality, thought experiments about war, and, of course, Henson creatures.
Having grown up in the Jim Henson Creature Shop, Brian Henson (son of Jim) had very specific aims for Farscape. “I wanted to do something extraordinary in science fiction that differentiated us from the big shows at the time, something only our company could do,” he said. In an era when sci-fi was grounded and emotionally reserved (think the stoic authority of The Next Generation or Stargate: SG-1), Henson and creator O’Bannon wanted to “dial the emotion up to 11” and defy convention. With the Creature Shop at their disposal, the production team meticulously crafted an alien environment that looked genuinely alien, making for what Henson called a “wilder vision of space opera with a more primal energy.”
And wild Farscape was. The premise was simple, yet effective: Thanks to a wormhole experiment gone wrong, Earth scientist John Crichton turns up on the other side of the universe, accidentally kills the brother of a military commander, falls in with escaped convicts on a living spaceship, and meets Aeryn Sun, enemy soldier and the soon-to-be love of his life —all in the premiere episode’s first 20 minutes.
Ok, maybe it’s not that simple. But Syfy’s new flagship show premiered to 1.4 million viewers, impressive for the network at the time, and maintained this viewership with little drop-off throughout its four seasons. Unfortunately, the Syfy Channel picked up Stargate: SG-1 in 2002, which soon eclipsed Farscape in terms of ratings. Farscape’s ratings did decline in its fourth season, if marginally, and at reportedly $2 million per episode to produce, the show became less viable for the network.
The ax finally fell at the end of season four, but within hours of the cancellation news, fans had already mounted a fervent campaign for renewal. As their efforts garnered more attention in the press, the Jim Henson Company received enough financial backing to produce The Peacekeeper Wars, a three-hour miniseries that wrapped up the show’s main plotline.
The passion of Farscape’s fanbase has far from died out, even two decades after the premiere—and many Farscape fans are now behind the camera for TV and film. Actor Ben Browder (John Crichton) told io9 how often showrunners and filmmakers will cite Farscape as a source of inspiration to him. “I’ve had conversations with Bryan Fuller and…Farscape. Russell T. Davies…Farscape. When I met James Gunn, I introduced myself and he said ‘I know who you are.’ And I said ‘Yeah, I thought you did because I saw your movie, bro.’” Gunn credits Farscape as a major influence on Guardians of the Galaxy—proving that although it was short-lived, Farscape’s legacy endures.
Some distant part of the universe
Watching the show today, it’s easy to see why Farscape is beloved, because it is still so truly original. By flinging its human protagonist to the other side of the galaxy and immersing him in alien cultures, Farscape did something no other show has achieved—it de-normalized normal, and normalized the totally bizarre. To us, John Crichton may be the perfect everyman, but to everyone around him, he is the weird, nonsensical interloper. Seemingly unfazed, Crichton insistently makes pop culture references, despite the fact that no one understands him, and dives headfirst into every weird situation.
Crichton’s constant stream of pop culture quips weren’t just a way of providing humor; as with so many aspects of Farscape, they hid a deeper conflict. “It was his pressure valve,” creator O’Bannon explained. “He was keeping some sort of connection to Earth.” From throwing out Star Trek quotes to re-enacting an entire scene from Blazing Saddles, Crichton is desperate to remind himself of home the only way he can. These references entered the script very naturally, evolving from writers’ room in-jokes. “When we introduced Scorpius and he’s putting Crichton in the Aurora chair, Crichton calls it the ‘comfy chair’, which is a Monty Python reference—and that’s what we called it in the writers’ room.” The first draft of the script for the season one episode “Mind” didn’t feature this reference, but O’Bannon was sure to put it back in. “Even if 50% of the viewers don’t get it, it’s a good reference, so why not include it?”
Crichton’s new crewmates are at turns baffled and frustrated with his bizarre human behavior, but they can’t help but find it endearing. And the reverse is also true, as Crichton helps a blue-hued priestess (Zhaan), a warrior (D’Argo), a haughty emperor (Rygel, a puppet), an enemy soldier (Aeryn), a thief (Chiana), a pilot (Pilot, an animatronic puppet), and a living ship (Moya), bond together to finally find what they didn’t even realize they were searching for: a family. It’s the classic stranger-in-a-strange-land story, except for once it is not the alien that is the stranger, but the human who is alien. And as Crichton is a touchstone for the audience, so the viewers, too, are thrown into a whole new landscape.
This starts from the moment Crichton stumbles onto Moya’s bridge, confronted by a cacophony of guttural grunts and high-pitched trills. The aliens—D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel—are each communicating in their native tongues, yet they understand each other. This is thanks to the Translator Microbes that are injected at birth to all peoples in this corner of the galaxy, which was creator O’Bannon’s innovative solution to one of sci-fi’s most annoying problems. Once injected, Crichton can understand almost all verbal communication, with the exception of various technical terms, curses, and slang words.
This made for a rich dialect of alien slang that is peppered throughout Farscape’s dialogue, becoming one of the most recognizable aspects of the show. As slang phrases come from decades of culture-specific context, they are therefore untranslatable—but that didn’t stop O’Bannon developing a wide lexicon of alien swears. “I wanted the audience to get the meaning of the alien word smoothly,” O’Bannon elaborated, “so we strived to make the alien words similar to their Earth equivalent. ‘Dren’ sounds like the Yiddish ‘drek’, and of course ‘frell’ starts with an ‘f’. ‘Frell’ was particularly useful because it added the intensity of punctuating a statement with the f-word, without dropping the dreaded bomb.”
Strange, alien lifeforms…
O’Bannon and Henson’s dedication to doing something different led Farscape to fascinating places. Always unpredictable and never taking itself too seriously, the show veers from tragedy to comedy, sometimes even within one episode. This is a vivid corner of the galaxy that Crichton finds himself in, teeming with dozens if not hundreds of different lifeforms which, thanks to the Jim Henson Creature Shop, all had distinct appearances and cultures. This was no easy task, but as Brian Henson said, “if someone says something’s impossible, that to me is a challenge.”
Even in the pilot episode, we can see the results of the impossible made possible, like the gigantic, bug-like animatronic alien which features in a brief scene.
“That was Dave Elsey’s first character that he did from scratch,” Henson told io9. Elsey, who worked at the London Creature Shop before moving to Australia for Farscape, went on to win an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects (for 2010’s The Wolfman, shared with the legendary Rick Baker). “I think he wanted to prove that he could be just as good as the London Creature Shop. [He] built it in such a way that it really only does that one scene and then it pretty much fell apart. I always say to the animatronic builders ‘if something is needed for only one thing, be very, very ambitious and if it only lasts for half an hour of shooting and then falls apart that’s okay, that’s a win’.”
It is this attention to detail that makes Farscape such a gorgeous thrill ride, and one which has stood the test of time; despite its age, Farscape’s visual effects still look amazing. Of course, not all animatronics were built to last just one episode. “Every single time I walked on the Pilot set my jaw dropped,” actor Anthony Simcoe (D’Argo) revealed. This immense animatronic was perhaps the greatest Farscape creation, operated by almost a dozen puppeteers hidden beneath Pilot’s control panel. Despite the fact that he is an animatronic, Pilot is incredibly emotive, sharing many poignant scenes with the other characters, especially Aeryn Sun. Episodes like season two’s spectacular “The Way We Weren’t” feature Pilot heavily, not shying away from his emotional growth, past trauma, or relationships. It’s a testament to the talent of the Creature Shop that as a viewer you can completely forget you’re watching an animatronic, and just emotionally invest in the character.
But it’s not just the Henson creatures that seem thoroughly alien. Virginia Hey, who played Zhaan, explained how she approached her character’s otherworldly nature: “I tried to limit Zhaan’s movements. I didn’t want to have any affectation of alien motion, just a serene stillness, which is not human-like at all.” Blue, bald, and beautiful, Zhaan was the soul of the show, an anarchist revolutionary turned priestess who was equal parts spiritual and terrifying. And although her stunning makeup was enough to convince us she wasn’t human, Hey took care to avoid any human reactions in her performance. “A human has the instinct of ‘fight or flight’ when any worrying stimulus comes their way, and adrenaline gates open, creating floods of stress. I tried to still that whole process, thereby making Zhaan non-human.”
Yet although Farscape’s dedication to being thoroughly alien made it stand out from other shows of the time (and, arguably, today), there was a key element that made it really special—as weird as things got, Farscape was an achingly human story.
A human reaction
Farscape was ultimately a character-driven series, a four-season exploration of who these people were, what broke them, and what brought them together. And as weird as Farscape’s characters are, they were all written and performed with incredible realism. For Hey (Zhaan), the linchpin of what made this character study so effective was the fact that they were criminals, thrust together with no chain of authority or captain to follow. “This created a fantastic tension and dynamic, an unlikely partnership between a band of the worst liars and murderers and scalawags in the universe who somehow grew to love and trust each other.”
Love, in fact, was the cornerstone of what made Farscape so outstanding. Unlike many other shows of the time that insistently kept their leads at arm’s length, the relationship between Crichton and ex-Peacekeeper Aeryn Sun was the beating heart of the show—which is what creator Rockne S O’Bannon always intended. “I wanted it to be the ultimate romance, the logline for the 1950s paperback novel that never will be: To find each other they had to traverse the entire galaxy,” he explained. With sparkling chemistry from their very first scene together, Crichton and Aeryn slowly developed a deep understanding and trust for one another that survived separation, war, and worse.
But although O’Bannon, Browder (Crichton), and Claudia Black (Aeryn) were all in agreement about the importance of the romance, that wasn’t to say that there weren’t some bumps in the road. “It was called Kirking Crichton,” Browder said. “I always fought that, every time a storyline would come down which was trying to make Crichton into [Star Trek’s Captain] Kirk. There were a couple of episodes where Crichton hooked up with someone, and I was like ‘no, no, no we’re not gonna do this—or better yet if you do it, there have to be repercussions’.”
For Browder, Aeryn was central to Crichton’s development. This made for a compelling relationship dynamic, one that is evident even without dialogue, in episodes like season three’s “Dog With Two Bones,” when Aeryn tosses a coin to decide whether she will stay aboard Moya. “Aeryn’s whole life is depending on this outcome,” said Black, “so she’s watching the coin. And Crichton never takes his eyes off her. He’s watching her the entire time. What a beautiful and exquisite way for Ben to tell that story.”
Interestingly, Browder revealed that it was Black who thought of tossing a coin. “That scene had been written and rewritten, and we started to shoot the rewritten scene but we stopped because it still wasn’t right.” Farscape’s creative process featured an “ebb and flow of ideas between departments,” as Browder called it, and this one scene stalled shooting for hours. “In the end, it was Claudia who came up with the idea of the coin toss. And the Creature Shop goes off and creates an alien coin for the shot.”
This improvised solution perfectly concludes one of Farscape’s most heartbreaking scenes, as Crichton and Aeryn are wrenched apart once again, only to reunite later in the show—which was true to O’Bannon’s aims in telling their story. “There’s a lot of friction between them, and obviously in life and death situations they have different opinions about how to best get out of it. But at the end of the day they’re truly be bonded together. They were soulmates that were not going to come apart.”
Farscape is oftenpraised for subverting gender norms with Crichton and Aeryn, in how the man is communicative and emotionally intelligent, while the woman is the stoic soldier. But Black argued that it was the romance, above all else, that went beyond stereotypical roles. “That’s the silent version of ‘you can be more.’ Ben wanted to express masculinity in a way that had value to him, and that was very deeply reflected in the way the relationship progressed on screen.”
And ultimately, that’s the secret to why Farscape’s romance is so beloved by fans: It’s a genuine loving relationship. For Black, it was crucial to represent this kind of relationship. “Ben and I wanted to tell stories that would be a more healthy representation of what’s possible. Otherwise, if we stuck with the[William] Shatner model we would have perpetuated a story that I don’t think has much value, for women especially, but for men as well.” By exploring this romantic relationship over the course of many years, Farscape proved once and for all that putting the two leads together isn’t the end of the story—it’s the beginning.
The wonders I’ve seen
With its long term romance, serialized storytelling, frank depiction of sexuality, and generally adventurous approach to sci-fi, it’s clear that Farscape stands out —but this oft-forgotten show also made a quiet but significant impact on the industry, even just in terms of its tone.
This is something that Brian Henson has noticed in the years since Farscape went off the air, as sci-fi has gone from being reserved and grounded to being more wild and wonderful—current shows like Legends of Tomorrow and Killjoys often “turn the emotion up to 11,” and the Davies era of Doctor Who featured the kind of bizarre aliens that would populate Farscape’s universe. Above all, this is why Henson considers Farscape to be the project he’s most proud of.
“How we approached science fiction took off like wildfire,” he told io9. “When I saw Chris Pine in Star Trek , I was like ‘wait a second he’s John Crichton, he’s gone to that wilder unpredictable place’. But Star Trek never used to go there.”
More than any other piece of media, Guardians of the Galaxy provesthe show’s legacy—as the film features a gang of criminals lead by a pop-culture obsessed human who found himself on the other side of the galaxy, it’s easy to spot parallels with Farscape. “Man, I felt like someone went through my underwear drawer, you know,” Browder says of his experience watching the first film. As a huge fan of Farscape, Gunn was eager to include Browder in the sequel, and enthused about how much he was influenced by the show. “He went ‘yeah I totally stole your stuff!’ and promised to put me in the next one.”
Farscape’s impact isn’t limited to sci-fi storytelling, however, and arguably its greatest legacy is in the visual effects business, especially in Australia. Anthony Simcoe, who spent hours in makeup each day to be transformed into D’Argo, told io9 how much Farscape benefited the industry. “It was such a consistent source of that type of work. If you were working in prosthetics for example, you wouldn’t have had that platform otherwise, or the years of experience of creating creatures like D’Argo,” he said. “The crew from that production are now the leaders in the industry across all those departments.”
Farscape’s visual effects teams were among the best in the business, and many have found meteoric success after the show, like Damian Martin, makeup artist extraordinaire who won an Academy Award in 2016 for his work on Mad Max: Fury Road—and who honed his skills as Simcoe’s makeup artist on Farscape. But Farscape’s visual effects weren’t limited to puppetry and prosthetics. Much of the CGI was done by Animal Logic, a Sydney-based digital studio. When watching Farscape today, the CG is so good that it’s easy to forget Farscape is two decades old—so it should come as no surprise that Animal Logic has gone on to be something of a titan in the CG industry, producing effects for films like The Lego Movie, Happy Feet, Alien: Covenant, and multiple Marvel movies.
For Simcoe, this is a source of great joy: “It’s very rewarding and heartwarming thing to see those amazing talents that were developed on Farscape and grew there, and are now contributing to storytelling around the world.”
Somewhere over the wormhole…
Although it may not have been a crossover hit like Battlestar Galactica, or reached the pop culture consciousness level of Star Trek, Farscape was nonetheless a spectacular show, a testament to just how daring you can be with sci-fi.
This is a sentiment that has really taken off, and in the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy, space operas are painted with brighter colors, starting to really embrace the weirdness of sci-fi, as Farscape’s impact continues to ripple outward. And with the series returning to streaming, a new generation will get the chance to discover this bizarre, thrilling show, forged by dozens of talented, passionate people from different creative backgrounds.
“We were witnessing and participating in something groundbreaking,” Claudia Black reminisced. “We were constantly in an environment where we were allowed to bend everything. And that’s very special.”
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.
It was recently the two year anniversary for the release of Horizon Zero Dawn. The open world PS4 exclusive is one of the best looking games of the generation and has some incredible looking machine creature, both big and small. But thanks to a fun post detailing some information about the development of Horizon, fans get a look at the early prototypes of these robotic monsters. They look a bit funny.
Over on the PlayStation Blog Herman Hulst, the managing director at Guerilla Games, shared some behind the scenes info and images to celebrate the two year birthday of Horizon Zero Dawn.
I love how colorful and blocky these testing prototypes look. I almost wish there was a way to bring them back into the game using a cheat code. Another interesting thing to note is in that screenshot Aloy, the main character of Horizon isn’t fighting the block monster. Because her model and character weren’t figured out yet, Guerilla games used a soldier from Killzone 3 as a placeholder.
Aloy’s face took the studio some time to figure out and in fact, it was only due to the flu that they eventually found their actress. As Hulst explained in the blog post
“Director Jochen Willemsen came down with a bad case of the flu. While recovering at home he saw a movie starring Dutch actress Hannah Hoekstra on TV,” wrote Hulst. “Immediately [he] knew he’d found the face of Aloy. Within minutes he was on the phone with the studio and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Another interesting behind the scenes bit of info is that the actual musicians who created the songs in the game also did some mocap for Horizon. These animations can be seen in various areas of the game.
I love getting to see more of how games are made, so I’m always happy to get posts like this. If you want to see more from the development of Horizon
Japan Studio posted a short, but fantastic blog post earlier this week showcasing the art and design process behind the PSVR game Astro Bot Rescue Mission.
Astro Bot Rescue Mission was a gorgeous game to play in VR and that art was created with a lot of thought and care. When making props and environments, art director Sebastian Brueckner wanted to make the world feel playful and digital. To achieve this effect, the team added small details like printed circuit boards and LED faceplates to props and items seen in the game.
Similarly, animations for all characters in the game went through a lot iteration to find a style that would work in VR.
The whole post is a fantastic peek into the development process and includes early looks at levels in Astro Bot Rescue Mission
Astro Bot Rescue Mission: Inside the Art and Animation of Japan Studio’s PS VR Hit (PlayStation Blog)