Way back in July, we learned resident Sound Designer Brian Chard would be parting ways with NetherRealm Studios.
For more than a decade, Chard has helped shape the worlds of Mortal Kombat through sound and spoken word. Since MK: Deception, he's been responsible for directing some of fandoms most combed moments. From Konquest Mode dialogues, to profound Mortal Kombat X Story Mode and Fight Intros -- Chard has helped give once silent arcade kombatants a voice.
Some months ago, Mortal Kombat Online contacted Mr. Chard to discuss Mortal Kombat X, his career at Midway and NetherRealm, and his recent departure from the developer. We're now pleased to present the complete conversation, which illuminates the development process, and Chard's candid thoughts on a variety of topics.
[MK Online]: We always start the same way. In your own words: Who are you and what is your connection to Mortal Kombat?
[Brian Chard]: I'm Brian Chard, and I worked almost 14 years at Midway/Netherrealm. My title changed several times over the years, but basically I was a sound designer. The first MK I worked on was [Shaolin Monks]; my last was MKX. I wrote; cast/directed actors, recorded/implemented VO; and created the odd sound effect or musical bit.
How did you originally come to join the Mortal Kombat development team?
I was actually hired to write and design the commentary for NFL Blitz Pro. Midway's audio dept. was a Central Group; ie, we weren't members of any one team, but worked on all projects. Having said that, each team kinda had its go-to senior audio guy, with Dan Forden being the MK Guy. I helped him out on MKD. Given my writing background, he suggested to John Vogel and co. that I help write/edit the mission/NPC dialog. I also recorded a lot of the VO. Those two aspects of the sound design sort of became my job going forward.
How aware of Mortal Kombat were you before joining?
I'd only played MK a couple of times before working at Midway. I liked it, but I wasn't much of a fighting game player. I didn't even know MK was made by Midway. or that Midway was here in Chicago. [smiles]
How would you compare working under Midway and Warner Brothers?
Becoming part of WB was definitely a boost when it happened. Anxiety over losing our jobs was gone; MK9 was underway and looking/feeling good; we soon moved into fancy new offices... But there's a dark side to working for a big corporation. Midway didn't feel like one; WB definitely did, eventually.
What were some of your earliest MK experiences?
I made some (crappy) sound effects for Shaolin Monks very soon after I started at Midway. My first extended time on MK was on Deception. We didn't hire many real actors back then, so a lot of what I did involved taking whatever mission dialog Vogel and co. had written that day and grabbing someone out of the hallway to record it. I also remember copy-editing the Endings for MKD -- which was a challenge, because I didn't know the lore at all. You might ask why I would need to know Jade's relationship to Tanya in order to decide whether or not to use a comma, but it definitely came into play. [smiles]
There wasn't much communication as to the overall approach to the game or Konquest mode. It felt like it was being made up as we went along, and that we were seriously behind schedule. Those are my memories of it.
Armageddon and MK vs DC really changed the presentation style of the games. What kind of changes were happening in your work?
I wasn't part of any initial conversations about either MKA or MKDC's stories. I'm also not sure how MKDC's story mode evolved. I wasn't originally going to be working on MKDC. I didn't participate in its story writing or design. The biggest twist I remember was when Ed decided he wanted real time transitions into/out of the fights in story mode for MKDC. That involved taking scenes that were already recorded, and in some cases finished, and chopping off the last line for the transition. That worked okay most of the time, but not every time. Some scrambling for alt takes or rerecords resulted.
Do you have any thoughts about MK vs DC and that time?
I've loved DC all my life, as have most of the team, so I was just happy to work in that universe. I was also glad we weren't using people from the hallways as voice actors anymore. [smiles] There's a misconception that MKDC was a failure. It sold well, despite some fans' feelings toward it. I wasn't aware of any financial decisions driving its creation.
The Warner Brothers era brought a lot of established voice actors into NetherRealm's games. What was that like?
It was a huge leap forward in quality, obviously. From MKD to MKA we started moving away from using employees as voice actors. For MKDC we took larger step by hiring a Hollywood casting agency and auditioning Hollywood talent. Injustice was the first game for which WB suggested specific actors to use. Which was fine with us. Many of our choices were on their lists. Working with the best voice actors in the business was a dream. I fully support them in their current strike. A victory for the only organized labor in our industry is a victory for all of us.
A lot of talent reprise roles from other media in Injustice, but Mortal Kombat was somewhat a blank slate. How did NetherRealm go about casting voice talent for Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat X?
The casting was primarily done by Dominic Cianciolo (Cinematics Director) and me. MK9 had begun prior to our being acquired by WB, but we'd already decided to cast in Hollywood, probably with some prodding at the higher level by WB. We hired a casting agent, who recorded and sent us auditions. For MKX we largely drew upon the pool of actors we'd worked with/learned of during MK9 and Injustice. There were no auditions, but with specific actors already in mind, plus game footage on YouTube, and audio on various VA websites, it didn't seem as necessary.
Do you have any favourite voices in MK and MKX? Anyone you think worked exceptionally well, or some that didn't quite work?
Perfomance-wise, there are certainly ones that were stronger than others. [T]he fact that we kept so many actors the same across multiple titles should tell you our overall opinion of them. To me, Patrick Seitz is Scorpion, Richard Epcar is Raiden, et al, just as much as Tara Strong is Harley Quinn. Not that those who were replaced were necessarily bad: MKX called for a more mature sounding Sonya and Johnny than in MK9, for instance. And we couldn't get a hold of our MKDC/MK9 Sub-Zero actor! But when Steve Blum is your backup, you're gonna be okay. [smiles]
The worst dud I remember was a guy who had to have been stoned at the session. I had to give him line reads a word at a time, and he still couldn't get 'em right... [smiles] Voice-wise, if you dislike the processing for a certain character, it's likely my fault. [smiles]
Interactive character intros were a very popular part of MKX. How did they come about?
I'm not sure who originally conceived the Intros. They started as the next step in the evolution of Injustice's Clashes, which were received really well. I oversaw the writing, which was done in-house. I wrote probably 60ish percent of the Intros and rewrote others' work as needed.
They were awesome! Was there a conceited effort to cram more throwback and character references into MKX intros?
No, that was all my doing. After writing hundreds of them I looked for inspiration anywhere I could find it. I thought the fans would like the references. Some stuff I just threw in to mess with them. [smiles]
Do you have any particular favourite character intros or dialogues?
I'm pretty proud of most of them. They weren't all winners but the quality was pretty high, as evidenced by how many views the compilations have on YouTube. In general Johnny's and Cassie's were the most fun to write. I know it's not been that long ago, but I'm already starting to forget individual intros...
What brought about the timeline reboot in 2011? Do you think it was a good thing for Mortal Kombat?
I was not at all excited about doing a reboot. I remember coming back from the holidays a day later than the others on the newly christened story team, full of energy and ideas, only to be told: "We're doing a retelling of MK1-3." It had already been decided. But Ed was right in choosing to do it. It was exactly what we needed to do at that time.
Any regrets about things that were lost or changed during MK2011?
No. It was a pretty rude awakening to find out how angry some fans were about the changes, though. I honestly hadn't expected it. People probably want me to say I regret us killing all those characters at the end... I do regret the way that scene turned out. For technical reasons it was the very last scene to be completed, and we didn't have the time to do it the way it needed to be done. What else...
Cyber Sub was an idea Ed sparked to early on, so that was a done deal. It was also Ed's direction that the story be told from Raiden's perspective. And that we keep certain specific plot points the same as in the original games, but change others. What was changed was up to us, but he wanted some changes. You can blame me for the rewriting of Mileena's origin. I'm pretty sure that was my idea.
How did you feel about working on Injustice?
I loved it. It was better than working on MKDC because we could focus on the DC characters, and we could pretty much do with them as we pleased.
You could feel that everyone in the building was into Injustice. Story-wise, to have DC and WB get behind such a departure as Evil Dictator Superman was exciting. And then to have the lore enhanced by such a high quality comic... Tom Taylor's brilliant.
Is there a storytelling method you prefer, or you think works best?
I think an open world might be how to dive deepest into the lore. I would've liked to have been allowed to write the story we wanted to write, and then figure out story mode's gameplay around it. Story Mode hasn't evolved past what it is now because it's first and foremost a training mode. Some fans don't get that, but it's the answer to most questions about why things are the way they are. The format's limitations re: storytelling have become clear over the last couple of games.
The individual stories and rivalries characters used to have are fading in that environment. Is that a concern in development, or is focus in other areas?
This is tough to answer, because everyone's expectations of what should be highlighted are different. I remember Dominic sharing something Joss Whedon had said about how tough it was to write an Avengers story with, what was it, six or so heroes? And we have at least double that. We have 12-16 chapters, each with different protagonists who have to be the stars of their chapters, yet the chapters have to make sense together. And we have to fight in every background and against all the characters a roughly equal amount of times... And there are other rules. These rules conspire to keep exploration of any one plotline minimal.
In Mortal Kombat X there were living designs for characters never resurrected. A heavily promoted character like Goro who had no story involvement. Were there plans to address details like these?
Goro was in early drafts of the story, and on early roster lists. We were told he had to be dropped because of technical concerns. Then once the story was done we were told he'd be Day One DLC, and were asked if there were any way we could work him into the story...
The Old Liu Kang and Old Kung Lao models were a complete surprise to many of us. Had we known about them early on we might've been able to work them into the story. Or maybe persuaded the Powers that Be not to reveal those skins pre-launch. The MKX comic was another example of this kind of miscommunication. There seemed to be little communication from us to Shawn K. re: the game's story, even though it had been written before the comic. If there was communication, it wasn't from the story team... It's amazing there weren't more inconsistencies between the game and the comic.
Do you think we'll get to see Mortal Kombat explored through different game genres again soon?
Yes, I do. But I have no knowledge of anything specific.
Social media has become a monster for wild speculation, misinformation, and fan backlash. What kind of impact does it have at NetherRealm Studios? Can it really elevate a character or subject to notice? Or, as you've mentioned recently, do you think it can have the opposite effect?
It has too much of an impact in my opinion. Ed pays too much attention to the vocal minority who clog his Twitter feed. As you know, I Tweeted that fans shouldn't expect many NPCs in Injustice 2 because of all the complaining about fightable NPCs in MKX, and Ed's reaction to these complaints. On the other hand, I saw a lot of Tweets asking for Fujin as DLC and that didn't happen, so go figure... Most of the team ignores online comments, or at least they say they do. I read some occasionally because it's often the only feedback we get on what we've created. I try to remember that the opinions expressed only represent a tiny portion of our audience.
Do you think the creation of perceived problems is owed to the way the games are promoted through teases and non-traditional channels?
I know roster/background reveals pre-launch are essential to give marketing something to work with. I sometimes wish, though (and I'll bet they wish too) that Ed would play a smaller role in reveals and teases. Sometimes he says/Tweets just the right thing at just the right time; other times he gives too much away or says things that are just inaccurate. That definitely creates problems. For the fans' part, they can say anything they want without fear of their identity being revealed, so their worst nature sometimes comes out. We as a species need to evolve past that.
Switching gears: Mortal Kombat X is, at least for now, your last game in the series. What are some of the fond memories you'll take away from that game?
First and foremost, I really thought the game looked and played great. I loved that expectations for MKX were high and that it felt like we met or exceeded those expectations. For me personally, I felt like I was growing as a voice director and as a writer on MKX.
I was very pleased with the reception of the Kung Jin scene with Raiden in the story. I wrote that. I also loved the tea ceremony scene with Scorpion and Sub. Dominic [Cianciolo] wrote that.
The MKX VO sessions were fun, especially the ones later in the project, which weren't as time compressed. I was feeling comfortable with the talent and with my role. I loved that people were getting pissed during streams if the boys talked during the Intros -- that there was that level of interest in them.
What was the favourite game you worked on from the last decade and a half at NetherRealm?
Possibly Stranglehold, all things considered (which was Midway, I know). It was our first game using Unreal, which was exciting to learn. It gave sound designers a level of control over implementation that we hadn't enjoyed before, and wouldn't thereafter.
Also Injustice and MKX, because it felt like Netherrealm had cemented a reputation for quality. Which felt different than the Midway days.
Can you share your reasons for leaving? Were there any frustrations that contributed?
I could write a whole book on it. [smiles] There were many reasons, lots of long running problems that came to a head at once. But the final straw was a meeting in which it was made clear to me that the number one ability NRS and WB management valued in their employees, moreso than any track record or history they might have, was the ability to be yes-men. I realized then that I could no longer work there. Which was sad.
What's next for Brian Chard? Where can people find, follow and support your work?
I'm at Jackbox Games, where we're still flush from excitement at releasing The Jackbox Party Pack 3. Five really fun, funny games. Its reception has been great. Find out more at jackboxgames.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @bcharred.
Mortal Kombat Online again thanks Mr. Chard for talking to us. You can find many more conversations with the makers of Mortal Kombat in our Interview Archive!
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