Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Sound as a Pound

Its rare that friends of mine, when talking about gaming, mention sound as part of their experiences. Which when I think about it is a crying shame for Sound in games in relation to the experiences we have when playing them, is not only paramount but a brilliant and useful tool.

Sound, in gaming, has come a long way since the beeps and bleeps of the early days but essentially it still plays the same role, to enhance and bring an extra sensory experience to make that virtual world in which we are exploring, that much more real. Typically sound in games can be split into three categories, Sound Effects, Game music and Atmospheric sound.

Sound effects, much like in film, are the audible events which replicate what something would 'sound like' in the real world, footsteps, breathing, doors opening, guns firing are all examples of such. The advantage that games have over the real world is that the sounds do not necessarily have to be natural. Aliens, sci fi weapons, monsters, or other sounds of science fiction are just some examples of when the game sound effects transcend what we may encounter naturally. For that reason, whilst alot of sound in gaming is real pre-recorded audio, a lot of game sounds are generated using computer software.

Historically sound effects in games are scripted, pre made audio files that either play when certain events are triggered or (in 3d games) 'attached' to moving models or placed in scenes to give the illusion that sound is emanating from them.

The effective use of sound effects results in an enrichment of the virtual experience, being a huge fan of Dead Space and well made horror games, sound (and sometimes lack of sound) is used as an effective tool in adding to the atmosphere and sensations that the game is trying to emulate. Screams, footsteps, and memorably in Dead Space, the sounds of tools falling from platforms and echoing in their descent really made my ears prick up and cause a state of alertness, its for this reason more than others that I enjoy horror games, not because of the gore (im not that twisted) but because they effectively scare me and I find that exhilarating and makes the virtual experience all that more real.

Speaking of atmosphere, games often include a soundtrack devoted entirely to creating a particular ambiance/feel to levels or events within games. Not really music, and not really sound effects, the ambiance soundtrack is often comprised of both but in a much more subtle manner. Different games often have different 'vibes' for example, an action packed adventure may use atmospheric sound to add drama to cut scenes, or moments in the game to build tension, these tracks usually work together with game music, for example a level may require the player to use stealth, therefore the atmosphere would need to be quiet but full of tension, when that tension is broken (such as the player needs to escape) this is usually when game music takes over. With horror games or moments within games that require the player to feel fearful, the ambient soundtrack is often eerily composed, with indistinguishable sounds that may coincide with sound effects that are used to create high tension and dread within the player. A great example of this would have to be within Silent hill's franchise, Akira Yamaoka does a fantastic job manipulating and creating sound to enrich the frightful atmosphere of the games. The use of a recording of a french air raid siren to signify when the game is about to take a darker tone is absolutely fantastic and still makes me shudder listening to it out of context.

Game music, much like the atmospheric soundtrack is also used to heighten the sense of drama, excitement and mood of playing games. The best, and my most favorite example of this would have to be Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori's brilliant compositions for the Halo Franchise. Capturing the sci fi and adventure feel to the world of halo was masterfully done and in a way that really enhanced the action and sense of exploration during gameplay. The use of a full orchestra to produce a lot of the soundtrack was fantastic.

Game music is appreciated widely both in games and out. A notable example would be the movement of 8bit music fans, whereby the emulation of early game music is now played in clubs and venues, spawned artists in the form of 8bit DJ's and most probably due to its nostalgic appeal has become a music genre of its own. Original soundtracks to games are sold in their millions and whilst many people may fail to appreciate its origins, game music is a widely respected genre of music.

PART TWO: Sound for Games Part 2
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