Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
November 1, 2014
arrowPress Releases
November 1, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Using memorable, iconic sounds in video games
Using memorable, iconic sounds in video games Exclusive GDMag Exclusive
April 30, 2013 | By Damian Kastbauer

April 30, 2013 | By Damian Kastbauer
More: GD Mag, Audio, GD Mag Exclusive

Game Developer magazine columnist and game audio professional Damian Kastbauer searches for those iconic video game sounds, in this reprint from the April issue.

A cavalier attitude surrounds most game development; people treat each game as a special case instead of relying on what has historically "worked" when it comes to best practices. This spirit, coupled with each generation's limitations, has allowed for constant reinvention during the massive upheaval of creating something new within limitations.

The emergence of varied sound-as-representation-of-reality has swiftly replaced most iconic underpinnings of earlier game audio to the point that sound-as-communication is much more subtle. But when it comes to repetitive sounds that speak to the player, are we saying the right things?

Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before

It's likely that most of the pop-culture reputation that game audio has achieved hinges on the iconic sounds created during the birth of arcades and home consoles.

With cabinets and televisions cranking out chip sounds and 8-bit sonorities, those of us who grew up with it internalized the cues that were being communicated to us in the simple language of sound synthesis. We all remember the sound of Ms. Pac-Man gobbling dots, the multiple explosions exposing monophonic playback limitations, or Q-Bert's signature synthesized swearing.

If you were there back then, these sounds speak to you even today. It was clear that the sound of Super Mario Bros. had reached icon status when I heard it at a basketball game; a free throw never meant as much to me until I heard it coupled with the coin-collect sound from my childhood Mario. Those sounds don't just serve as positive feedback; they have gone on to transcend the living rooms and bowling alleys we grew up in and continue to define our modern lives.

Sound designer Mike Niederquell created a resource chronicling the most memorable and iconic game sounds over at, which hosts a wide variety of examples that go beyond just the early days of synthesis and "musical" sound design. Tellingly, one of the recurring themes throughout the list is that of frequently repeated sounds. This aspect of game sound was once a limitation imposed by a lack of resources or inability to load multiple variations of a sound into RAM. Hearing the same sound over and over had a way of reinforcing the action it represented and helped to build an association for the player. And that association became so strong that players would tune into these sounds and use them to augment their gameplay.

Something Pulls Me Right Back

How many times do you hear the coin sound during a level in Super Mario Bros.? Now think about how many times you hear a footstep, gust of wind, or bullet impact. Chances are good that you've heard these sounds just as frequently (if not more frequently), but you wouldn't be able to match them to a specific game. Real life is infinitely more varied than any current simulation. If reality is part of the design aesthetic for the game, it makes sense to honor that as closely as possible with sound - but that doesn't mean you can't still imbue your sound set with iconic aspects that can help "brand" it while still allowing for slight modifications across different versions.

Finding the qualities that help differentiate a sound speaks to the core of the sound-design process, but for designers, finding the "voice" of a footstep is secondary to making sure it blends seamlessly (and nonintrusively) into the environment. If we look at the footstep types for differently sized characters, we soon find that not all footsteps are created equal. Whether it's a lower pitch, a layered impact, or extra element that helps communicate to the player these differences, the outcome is a clearer indication of the sound's intention.

As consoles have grown in power through the years, we sound designers have gained the ability to move toward a more realistic representation of sound through variation. Being able to draw upon multiple sounds and randomize volume, pitch, and frequency filtering, for actions that may have a real-life equivalent, lets us more deeply immerse the player in our game by better mirroring our perception of sound in reality. Coupled with this is the desire to convince the player that the worlds we create are real. However, we still need to train the player with audio cues; finding the right iconic heart for a varied sound will enrich the players' experience and communicate your intention.

My Heart's Skipping, Skipping

We are swiftly approaching an age where audio will be freed from the current file size and quality restrictions, much to the delight of game audiophiles everywhere. With this increase in space and quality, players will expect more diversity in the sounds we use to represent the worlds we create. As sound designers, we'll have to balance the use of sound as a mirror for reality, and the use of sound as a tool to get the player to pay attention to something specific.

Looking at historical examples of iconic sounds in games, and otherwise, is a good template for what has captured the ear of our culture. In the never-ending quest to leave the player with a lasting impression of their experience, we could do worse than to create memorable, iconic sounds that convey character, while still being varied enough to immerse the player in the world.

"Communication is never simple, especially when it's you that's on the receiving end." - Little Boots

Related Jobs

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — Troy, New York, United States

Assistant Professor in Music and Media
Crystal Dynamics
Crystal Dynamics — Redwood City, California, United States

Audio Lead
The Odd Gentlemen
The Odd Gentlemen — Los Angeles, California, United States

Sound Designer


David Navarro
profile image
Ah, to hear the heart-stoppingly loud DING! of levelling up in EverQuest...

Paul Marzagalli
profile image
Games still find a way, I think. I was reminded of this recently in Mass Effect 3 when I did 183 pull-ups timed to the rhythm of the paragon and renegade interrupt sound effects. Thinking of some of the more iconic sounds in gaming history - the Mario coins, the guard alerts of MGS, opening a chest in Zelda - they are tied into significant moments and actions in the gameplay. I wonder if this is a chicken and egg thing - what comes first? The compelling gameplay feature or the iconic sound effect? :-D

I'm not sure we have to train players. I think they are already trained and expect these cues. LA Noire's musical cues during investigations and interrogations spring to mind here. Most players aren't police investigators, nor do they have a breadth of experience in forensic science. The musical prompts in LA Noire are a player's cheat sheet, and I would say that's true of most audio cues. Gameplay-driven audio doesn't break immersion, it allows players to buy more confidently into the experience itself.

Mark Kilborn
profile image
The pickup sound in Katamari Damacy is one of the most addictive and satisfying sounds I've ever heard.

Bob Johnson
profile image
Yeah the sound in modern games can annoy me specifically Battlefield 3. Its "soundtrack" is filled with constant explosions 24/7. It is trying to be realistic. At times to a fault.

Before (in BF42) there were fewer sounds and each was distinct. It was easier to make out the direction of each sound. And tell them apart.

Now BF3 is just filled with explosions non-stop that I actually find the ability to determine in which direction a sound came from more difficult than before even though the sound technology is better. It is much more difficult to pick up specific sounds because of the constant background noise of explosions. Pick up the headphones at any time and you are likely to just hear constant bombardment. It gets to be a little much for my ears. Not sure that is the experience you want in multiplayer exactly.

It would be like playing Madden and hearing the "coach" constantly yelling at you non-stop throughout the game. Might be more realistic but it would get pretty dam old quick in my mind. (For all I Know Madden does this now.)

Not that I don't enjoy BF3 and still play it. But the sound can be a bit much. Never mind the sounds are also more serious. There was more playfulness to the voices before. This time they went for more shock value. There are a lot of random f-bombs in BF3.

Christopher Thigpen
profile image
As a sound designer. If you use the Wilhelm Scream, you are a hack and you instantly remove me from the immersion of the game. I have walked out of movies for it's use. It is overused and not a very good sound at all.

Move on. Leave it in the dumpster.


Luis Guimaraes
profile image
Quite surprised to not find the words "anchor" or "neuro-linguistic programming" even once in the whole article.

Every time you load your game in Bioshock there's a short sound that basically says "welcome back to Rapture" to the player. This does an awesome yet underrated job a pulling the player straight into the state of immersion created in the earlier play sessions.

Trevor Cuthbertson
profile image
Popping a quarter into the old arcade game Reactor. Rock music to get you to press Player 1!

Erin OConnor
profile image
Double Kill.
Multi Kill.
Ultra Kill.
M-M-M-Mega Kill.

Killing Spree.

Need I say more?

Eric Geer
profile image
Just reading this annoys me.

Chris Sweetman
profile image
I remember reading an article about one of the very talented sound designers at Capcom and he mentioned the huge gulf between how sound is used in Japanese games and Western games.
They believe a lot more in repetition than we seem to in the west.
Playing a sound over and over to train the ears and make these iconic sounds that have been mentioned.
In the West it's considered a failure in a lot of cases if you recognise the same sound over and over again.
I personally like a bit of both but do lean a lot more towards making sure the key mechanics of a game have "recognisable" sounds to aid in game-play.
I remember thinking the soldier dying sounds in Half Life were a stoke of genius, you don't need to see anything to know a enemy is take out.
I agree with the complexity of modern soundscapes its very difficult to pick out iconic sounds
Hence why so many of these sounds come from a different era when space for sound was premium.
I myself would like to go back to that way of thinking despite having loads of space.
The perfect one sound for a specific moment in the game.
It makes you think so much more about the design of each individual sound and its place in the mix.
It's why I love games like Machinarium and other IOS titles like Walking Dead, Year Walk etc you have to hone in on what's important to telling the story, not get bogged down in layers and layers of sound.
I think the greatest leap forward in audio storytelling will come from titles where space is premium and thought must be applied ! : )

Aaron Oostdijk
profile image
I don't find myself recognising sounds in games as often as I do in movies, which I guess is because it is a more common practise (as far as I can tell) to use sound banks in editing for movies to constrain budget. There's so much to draw from, that you'd be crazy to redo everything. That and game audio is repeated far more and thus needs to be way better to avoid negatively standing out, like the gun sounds from Colonial Marines. Works great in the movies, not so much in the game.

The funny thing is that most of the sounds I recognise in movies, I first encountered in games.

Take the door sounds from Max Payne, for example. They're everywhere. I hardly see any show or movie and don't encounter one of them. Django Unchained uses them, to give a recent example. Also the sound of children's laughter I first heard (or first remembered, which might be an interesting point to make) in a game called "Lose your marbles" is in pretty much every movie that features kids ever.

A recent example between games I noticed that was a little more obscure is the Quake 2 jump sound in Borderlands 2, on Zero. It actually uses more of the samples, instead of just the one used in Quake 2. It's of a much higher quality and the pitch is slightly lowered, but I'm pretty sure it's the same sound wave.

Eric Geer
profile image
The sounds of Dead Space resound with me. I can here them in my head just thinking about using a health pack, opening a door, moving near an item/picking up an item, or getting a new objective. Just very iconic sounds that didn't change through the course of 3 games.

Dean Boytor
profile image
I am a huge fan of contact sound. Its gratifying to hear a trash can smash as you make contact with a heavily armored foe.

Lately I enjoy the contact noise from the old Black isle games(Baldurs gate, icewinddale, plainscape torment).

Sounds like someone kicking someone with a pocket full of spare change.