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Making Sound Important
by Craig Ellsworth on 02/23/12 09:30:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Videogames are a primarily visual and secondarily aural medium.  Consoles are, in essence, making a TV screen interactive.  Of our five senses, only two of them are used.

I would not count touch here, as pressing buttons is a form of input not output (you press buttons to do things, not feel things).  An attempt was made at tactile sensation with vibrating controllers, but they are disappearing in favor of motion-based controllers, and the two are currently incompatible.

So, with only two senses in use, you'd think we'd do everything we can with those.

Unfortunately, sound has yet to be truly integrated into games.  They rarely factor into gameplay, and when they do, it is often a gimmick.  Atmospheric games use sound the best, like horror games, which rely on sounds not only to scare, but to let you know where enemies are off-screen.

But the majority of games could be played mute, with subtitles for story.  This is true for TV as well, so it does make sense that television's flaws are repeated in games.

Now, the argument has been made that a game's soundtrack, sound effects, and ambience, while not necessary, greatly enhance the experience.  For instance, I have been told multiple times that Final Fantasy VII  is half as good without sound.  I think it is a fair assessment.

So, sure, I'm halving the fun if I listen to my own music, but the fact that I can still mute the game without rendering it unplayable still presents a problem.

Why is this a problem, exactly?  Because this shows that sound is simply not integrated quite the way visuals are in games.  If I turn off the visuals in a game, it's almost impossible to play.

Of course, not all games should be so integrated; naturally there is a place for both.  I will not argue that some of the greatest games ever made do not have good sound integration.

Indeed, old Text Adventures hardly need a screen, proving that not even visuals are a necessary component to all games.

But, just as we strive for better gameplay, depth of interactivity, and photorealistic graphics, we should also strive for integrated sound with gameplay, without resorting to gimmicks.

I feel as though videogames have a long way to go, and can learn a lot from sound-based games that already exist.

Consider Marco Polo, a water game that relies primarily on sound.  It's basically blind Tag in a pool.  Marco Polo, itself, is a gimmick game, but it's a clear example of sound-based interactivity (to the point of eschewing visuals).

But you can also rely on sound while playing Hide and Seek, Manhunt (the non-digital game), and even Paintball.  While sound is not strictly necessary for any of these, you can become a much better player by honing your sense of hearing.

Perhaps this is where videogames can start:  without resorting to gimmicks, games can be made to rely on sound in such a way that, while not being necessary, is so useful that muting it essentially cripples the player -- that is, cripples the gameplay, not just the overall experience.

Some genres already do this, such as Stealth games that require you to listen for enemies to avoid them.

There are also games in the Adventure and RPG genres that make use of sound to make exploration easier.  Often there is an item that will make a noise when you enter a room with a treasure or other secret in it.

Expanding on that idea, it is possible to make sound almost mandatory and necessary to find those secrets, not a reward to make the job easier.  Suppose there was a game where all secret passages were crawling with bugs.  If you can hear bugs, you know there's one around.

Incorporating subtle sound cues presents a slight problem, however:  if they are loud enough to play over the music, they are as obvious as making a secret glow neon, and just as gimmicky.  Playing them too low means you won't hear it under the music.

Oh, God, we have to get rid of music!

Sometimes, yes, perhaps we should.

Game developers listen to Hollywood way too much.  Games have epic soundtracks these days, with composers who have fame in games equivalent to John Williams or Danny Elfman.  Some soundtracks stick with us forever.

But Hollywood knows there is a time and a place for music, and on occasion they even try to immerse you without music.  Consider first-person movies like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.  They have no music precisely because it would destroy the mood they're going for.

Why do movies use music in the first place?  This is a legacy carryover from the silent era, when a piano, a record, or even a band would play to add sound to the moving pictures.  Once we could hear the actors speak and the trains whistle, we lost the need for music, but it was already a habit by that point.

And games just copied the formula.

Try playing a few games with the sound effects on but the music off.  Try Half-Life or Doom.  Both games suddenly have a much different feel, and you might find they even improve by eliminating the music.  I often turn off the music when I play skateboarding games.

A lot can be done with ambience that traditional music can't do.  Or ambient music, which blends in with the environment, like Silent Hill's industrial soundtrack, can give us the best of both worlds.

Figuring out how to add sound properly to truly enhance gameplay, and knowing when and where to make musical sacrifices, can add a new dimension to games still lacking today, and can further evolve games into an atmospheric art form.

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Chris Hendricks
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"An attempt was made at tactile sensation with vibrating controllers, but they are disappearing in favor of motion-based controllers, and the two are currently incompatible."

I'm confused... aren't both of those in the Wii Remote?

That's a side issue, though, since this is a post about the role of sound. Sound is never going to be given as important a role in video games as visuals, for the reasons you've already alluded to: you can play a video game on mute, but playing a video game without looking at it is pretty much impossible. It's a "video" game, after all.

Visuals have another advantage over sound as well... if someone around you is playing a video game, and you don't want to see it, you can just stop looking in that direction. Sound, though, intrudes into everyone's space. Sound can't be ignored nearly as easily, so people have trained themselves to do the next best thing... drown it out. (This, of course, hasn't helped the cause of people saying that sound is important in video games.)

In my mind, the best place for sound would be that you don't really notice it when it's playing, but you miss it when it's gone. Many of the suggestions in this article are good steps towards that.

Robert Boyd
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Also something to consider - if you make sound important to gameplay, you risk decreasing the accessibility of your game to individuals with hearing disabilities.

Joshua Darlington
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All games should offer the option of turning off the music and keeping the other sounds (dialogue, effects, tone etc).

Two hours of music content is a good match for a feature film, but not a 8-100+ hour game.

Players may want the flexability of setting their own mood. Perhaps they want some frenetic juke music. Perhaps they want the full phantasmagoric inspiration that can only be provided by an orchestral performance of De Falla or Stravinsky.

Tone can be VERY valuable in creating an immersive experience (we anchor ourselves in 3D space using sound - we have eyelids but no earlids). The art of tone seems to be under-represted in mixology. Layering tone can create some amazing results.

Have you read about "Dark Room Sex Game?" Some people are making games that dont require visuals.

Paul Sivertsen
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What can we do to make sound more important? How about we just sit on our laurels and do nothing while the rest of the dev team make and release a game without sound? Wouldn't that be lovely?

It seems like a no-brainer to make sound a vital component of development, but hey, there are plenty of situations that seem like no-brainers that our country is still debating.

Dan Porter
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Some games are going in this direction, but not all. I think that's a good thing :)

Mobile games tend to be designed completely devoid of sound, simply because many users play in situations where sound is muted or can't be heard over background noise. How many people do you see on public transportation playing an iphone game with no earbuds in?

By contrast however, many AAA games are leaning towards full audio integration. Try playing Battlefield 3 with the sound off and watch how your KDA drops like a rock... you really need to hear critical information like "there's a tank behind this hill... I can hear its treads" or "a sniper's bullets are pinging off the rocks around me" (in the latter case, the UI will not always show you that you are being shot at unless you actually take a hit... which is often too late). In games like this, sound is absolutely essential... which lends itself well to complex yet highly immersive fast-paced gameplay, since sound can be used to convey distinctive information at incredibly fast speeds.

Adam Romney
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For the most part, I agree with your statements. Two considerations I keep coming back to when I think about accessibility are 1) physical ability, as Robert Boyd pointed out above, and 2) hardware. Serving the population that fall under the first case is something I admit to know nothing about. But your point is that games already serve a visually rich experience, so I think the second consideration is more appropriate to this discussion. What are the numbers on ownership of high quality audio hardware among console and PC gamers? I was a bit put off when the latest generation of console game releases assumed the use of HD displays, as you likely would not be able to interpret the HUD/ UIs of most games. But you can still get by with the average speakers that come with the television.

I always speculated that this was one of the reasons why audio is neglected in game development. Presuming that a large percentage of consumers don't own quality audio hardware, why put so much effort/development dollars into something that few will notice? I love my 5.1 surround sound headphones, but am I in the minority? How significant are the resource requirements for including realistic audio occlusion, Dopplar effect, reverberation and/or just plain 3D sound?

And for my own personal gain, how significant is the demand for audio programmers in game development? Would it be worth carving out a niche?

For any interested (thanks to my Computer Animation Algorithms & Techniques course), check out the work of Van den Doel, Kry and Pai:

And Funkhouser et al