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Dynamics of Narrative

September 24, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

The Tricks of The Horror Genre

Simple ways to think about the dynamics of audio are by looking at horror movie, or survival horror games that have successfully taken the intended game-play intensity and mapped audio onto and against these curves. Often leading with audio, the viewer's expectations are manipulated within the horror genre.

Silent, or extremely quiet moments where characters (players) are listening to the world around them often precede extremely loud and sudden violent moments in the horror movie genre. This is of course completely by design and always playful within the established conventions of this genre.

Survival horror games such as the excellent Silent Hill series have taken the way that sound leads and incorporated it into a variety of game-play elements. Non-diegetic sounds are used well in this mode of game to play to evoke the elements of unseen horrors within the player's imagination. Their use of visual darkness and fog effects is also exemplary within video games in allowing sound to develop and evoke an often never revealed visual world. Moments of near silence are followed by sudden and disturbing attacks from increasingly bizarre creatures.

While this genre in particular lends itself to these kinds of extreme dynamics, these are certainly ideas that can be picked up and used within all other game genres to help increase dynamic range.

Establishing Conventions and Then Going Against Them

A cleverly constructed montage of silence and sound has far more dramatic effect than the loudest of sounds in isolation. The structuring of how silence works in conjunction with sound, in a sequence, is similar to the film editing practices espoused by Eisenstein nearly a hundred years ago, in that expressive power is only gained when these elements are edited together and deliberately played against one another.

These techniques can be clearly heard in the horror genre of films and games. A lone teenager creeps through a creaky house at night, high pitched strings in the musical score build, a creaky sound is heard, phew it was only a cat, the strings stop and for a brief moment there is the silence of relief, then, in that moment where the audience is catching it's breath with relief, then the enemy strikes. It is in this way, playing with silence and tension, building and releasing, that helped forge and define the conventions, particularly in horror genre movies in the 1980's.

Adapting Horror's Rules: A Simple Formula

Racing games, open world games, non-horror FPS games can all learn from techniques in the narrative dynamics displayed in the survival horror genre. It is as simple as this... 'Precede very loud and intense moments with quiet and tense moments'.

In order to make an event seem really big, it makes sense that immediately preceding that event is a drop in both game-play action and an accompanying drop in sound levels; this will make the subsequent sonic barrage perceptually seem so much louder, even when in measured decibels it is not.

One all too common pitfall for games designers is that game-play dynamics are often never plotted out visually on a graph until the game production has been completed. If a simple dynamics curve is applied pertinent game-play elements, with some understanding of how to make things seem more intense by preceding them with low intensity moments, then sound, art and technology teams can use these curves in order to make critical planning, aesthetic and technical decisions that not only match the curves required by the game-play but that are able to deliver the intensity required when it is required, while also exposing the potential to play against these established expectations later in the game, thus magnifying their effects on the player's senses.

It is this ability to draw in the audience, or player, with sound where dynamics begin to be fully realized in an artistic way and the game becomes a cohesive structured experience. Without a suitably defined dynamic range game-play curve within which to do this, it can be a more difficult job than it needs to be to deliver the same high and low dynamic moments within a game as there already exists in filmic or classical musical structures.

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