Published on March 27th, 2013 | by Liam Dean2
The unsung heroes of audio design
It’s no secret that visual fidelity has always been of paramount importance when it comes to the progression of video game technology. Each and every console generation sees a significant bump in the amount of polygons we can expect to see in our favourite interactive experiences. This is, in essence, a tool that designers use to improve the amount of immersion we feel in a video game’s world. There’s no doubt that improved graphics can achieve this, but there’s something else that’s been around since the dawn of video games’ existence that’s been sucking us in since day one, and it’s a technology that’s shifted very little comparatively.
There are many moments that I can look back on from games I have played in the past which have been hugely impactful on me as a gamer. There’s the suicide mission at the end of Mass Effect 2, the fight with Big Boss in the field of white flowers in Metal Gear Solid 3, arriving at Sander Cohen’s Fort Frolic in Bioshock, the final fight with Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, crossing over the Mexican border for the first time in Red Dead Redemption and the warthog gauntlet at the end of Halo: Combat Evolved to name but a few. Right now I’m sure you’re imagining some of your own favourite memories, but before you assume that these are based solely on visual design or even gameplay mechanics, just think for a second about the sounds that accompanied each of them.
In all of the examples that I gave, the power of the experiences were based heavily on the musical scores that played during those moments of gameplay. When taken at face value, the actual act of riding a horse across the Mexican border in Red Dead Redemption seems unremarkable. It’s something that players would have been doing for many hours up until that point in the game, but when combined with the song “Far Away” by Jose Gonzalez, it takes on a whole new poetic meaning of discovering new lands – a theme that is prevalent throughout the game. Similarly, even though the suicide mission at the end of Mass Effect 2 contained very similar cover based shooting to the rest of the game’s missions, the familiar theme song rising in the audio mix makes the player feel as though that very moment is the culmination of everything that’s happened so far in Mass Effect 2, and that it is a struggle which must be won at all costs.
Using the power of musical scores to convey emotion in video games is something that’s been around for a very long time, and it’s an aspect that continues to tie them to the medium of film. We have debated at great length the connection between the two here at AWESOMEoutof10, whether it is the storytelling aspect that they both possess or how games can learn directly from the latest big blockbusters, but never has the comparison been so close as it is in the field of audio design. Indeed, the late Normand Corbeil, who composed the music for Quantic Dream’s Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain, won Emmy awards for his work composing the scores for Hitler: The Rise Of Evil and Human Trafficking in 2003 and 2006 respectively, directly translating his talents in film to the world of video games.
And it’s not just the need for emotive musical scores that video games share with film, but the use of inventive audio cues as well. There are many examples of games which use audio cues and sound effects to both heighten emotion and even contribute to the gameplay itself. The can even be some of the most disturbing aspects of scary games like Slender and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and can become incredibly important to a game’s atmosphere. One such example of this is the brilliant LA Noire, which not only subtly changed the musical score to reflect heightening danger, but also contained small piano cues which told the player if they were close to a clue or if they had correctly questioned a suspect. Sometimes the effect doesn’t need to be so subtle to produce the same result of immersing a player. The real life gun sounds of Battlefield 3, for example, are the same across PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC, offering players an equal audio experience irrespective of the power of their graphics processing hardware.
Somewhere along the line though, games designers need to make a choice about whether they want to pursue this idea of marrying film techniques to virtual environments, or whether they simply wish to revel in the fantastical weirdness of video games. There are many people who would argue that the chiptune scene of the SNES and NES eras have never really lost their appeal, and would much prefer the sci-fi beats of Super Metroid over the modern X-Files vibe of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
It doesn’t really matter if this is for reasons of nostalgia or artistic preference, as there are many new games which adopt this throwback retro vibe to great effect. Bit Trip Runner 2’s infectious time based platforming and Hotline Miami’s pulse pounding beats are two very different, but two very successful recent examples that show how diverse and inventive chiptunes can be.
The considerations that go into the audio design of each individual gaming experience are never the same, and that’s something that should be celebrated as games move ever closer to being widely accepted as a diverse art form. Sometimes audio designers will successfully move gamers with their expert timing and haunting soundtracks which serve to heighten moments of emotion and drama, and sometimes they will simply provide gamers with an infectious hook that makes them want to keep playing. Either way, the impact of good audio design is something that can be appreciated by players of all tastes. It is incredibly intrinsic to the overall immersion of video games, and it would do us good sometimes to simply sit back and listen, instead of only concentrating on what our eyes are telling us.