I’m about to tell you something you already know. Having good music and sound in video games is very important. Yet I think we’re on different pages, because I believe it to be VERY important. If not the MOST important. And here is why:
The visuals in a game mostly talks to your conscious mind. We can immediately notice a beautiful object in a game, or point out a great movement. We are used to talk about the visuals in life, we have a lot of words to describe what we see. We can easily define what something looks like (”the clouds look fluffy and grey-white”) but it tends to be much harder with sounds (”it sounds weird”). Why is that? Because sound mostly talks to our unconscious mind. It takes the highway around your brain, right into the feels. And that is why it is such an important tool in story telling, and that is also why it’s repeatedly neglected by game producers not familiar with the powers of audio.
Before creating games I worked a long time as a composer and sound designer for stage productions. Theatre audio and game audio has a lot in common. There is no timeline (as in e.g. film), so you’re creating a world for the actors / players to exist in. You need to come up with clever ways to dissolve and progress your atmospheres, because there are very few hard cuts during the story telling. I.e. the space is constant, and noticeable changes in sound can easily ruin the immersion. I’d like to talk about some of my ideas regarding sound and music in video games, and give a few simple tips on how to create a thought-through sound experience.
THE CAMOUFLAGE AND THE SUBCONSCIOUS
I’ve read somewhere that it’s the first second of a note that defines what instrument is being played. If you would for instance cut away the first part of a recorded flute playing one note, it’d be hard to hear what instrument it was. On the same note, if someone hears the first second of a flute playing, the listener will know that it’s a flute and will not pay any more conscious attention to it. Voila, we have access to the listeners subconscious area, and we can start manipulating that note into something else. This concept works exceptionally well when creating game sound atmospheres.
Say the player walks into a kitchen, and there’s a big fridge humming loudly. As soon as we’ve seen the fridge and connected it to the sound, the conscious mind will pay no more attention to it. Next, the player opens a locker. Slowly transforming that fridge sound into something else will communicate with the player subconsciously, telling him something is changing, or something is not right. But the player himself probably won’t know why. If we’d slapped a sound right when he opens the locker the sound would have been experienced consciously, and it wouldn’t have worked as well.
TEXTURING A SOUND
We’ve all heard the lonely, out of tune piano in horror productions. There’s a reason why. A great way to create horror is by distorting something that is considered safe and familiar. By taking a piano and bending the pitch, we transform it into something we’re not in control of, hence making it scary. I’d like to say that this phenomenon work on ALL sound and music. I like to call it texturing a sound, by adding layers or effects to familiar sounds. This is where your creativity sets the limits. Sometimes the sounds I create consists of ten different sounds, all working in different parts of the spectrum.
If a door sounds to weak, add the sound of pouring gravel, or boiling water, or a screaming horse. Audio is simple that way, as long as you have a dominant sound, additions won’t make it less believable, only give it a stronger personality.
The only thing that you can’t mess with is reverb. Humans are experts on detecting when a room doesn’t feel right, or two sounds with different reverbs are mixed wrongly. Always work with ”dry” sounds, adding reverb in the very end, or most preferably inside the game engine.
USING THE TECHNO FILTER SWEEP TRICK
Say you want to create a factory atmosphere. A constant, monotone machine sound. Well, you can’t. One minute after listening to that sound the player will go nuts. You need to set the mood during the first 30 seconds or so, and then you’ll have to start adjusting. If a sound is too monotone, it’ll eventually break immersion and the player will hear it consciously. If you start fading down the volume that’ll also be too apparent.
In these cases we have two possibilities: Either we have a number of different machine sounds, which we slowly cross fade in-between. Or we use a filter sweep, constantly adjusting the high, low or mids of a sound. Kind of like the sweep break used in techno, but 50 times slower. A constant change in the EQ create wonders when listening to a sound for a long time.
Slowly blocking different parts of the EQ spectrum can also be a great way to adjust volume.
THE PLACE OF MUSIC
Writing music for games is an entirely different thing than just writing music. It has to melt into everything else, giving support to what is happening, but never telling the whole story. As ordinary music sits right in front of your face, the game music should always be a part of the background.
Every composer works differently, but I'd like to throw in some pointers. Using a reoccurring theme is a wonderful way to tie everything together. Using instruments that conjoins with the sound design of the game is another. Work with contrasts - using monotone music before a melodic part is a great way to amplify emotion. Switching soothing music for dead silence is another. Try to envision your music as a body, and put it into your game. Does it fit? What if I made it smaller? Bigger? What if I replace the head with an ice cream cone? Every game is different, and the only way to know what will work is through trial and error.
When games get this kind of audio treatment, that is when the magic happens. When a snow storm is portrayed with superior audio, when the ending is amplified by a great theme, when the gun firing in your hand feels like it’s about to burst open. That’s when you’ll experience amazing gaming, and without good sound that chance is lost. It’s as simple as that.
Niklas Swanberg is the creator of horror game Sylvio, and is currently hosting a Kickstarter for the development of Sylvio 2.