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[In this feature, experienced audio director Rob Bridgett (Prototype) explains how the expanded possibilities brought by modern technology have lead sound directors to have to make careful collaborative choices to support a game's vision.]
Today's audio designer, working with refined tools, is largely freed from the technical constraints imposed by prior console or development environments, and has entered a comparatively luxurious age of choice and possibility. There are freely available, high quality sound libraries and synthesis tools, as well as convincing orchestral and instrumental samples. We also have the ability to place sounds anywhere in 3D space at sample rates comparable to film sound. All these advancements give today's sound designer or composer a bewildering array of artistic choices.
It is precisely these wider artistic freedoms that are now more than ever desperately in need of having limits ascribed onto them. This feature will start to tease out some of the collaborative and creative challenges and expectations within console based video game audio, as well as starting to talk about some of the ways in which teams work together to establish direction or artistic limitations on their work.
While technical limitations have until recently provided convenient aesthetic constraints for the industry, the limitations are now being provided and even deliberately sought elsewhere: artistic, economic, artistic, and production-based limitations.
Narrowing down an audio direction, or aesthetic, can be a difficult task, and establishing limitations are absolutely key to this.
The soundscape for a video game can be imagined or interpreted in a million different ways, with the end goal of creating a sound direction which supports the artistic and technical direction and the wider product pillars and game design architecture.
During the course of a production it is also pulled in many different directions, to either fix problems, push ideas further or even as a distraction to draw attention away from certain less polished elements of the game.
It is important to realize that, the limits today, in the middle of a mature console cycle, rather than from the technology, are coming from the kinds of games and the kinds of music and sounds being requested (and expected) by the games themselves. The kinds of games that are going into production, and are deemed to be successful are, on the whole, becoming more narrow in their aesthetic, particularly within the so called "triple A" space of franchises.
Many games are defined now by their genre, and indeed the expected sound of these games is also driven by the expectations within those genres from the top down. The relationship a game has to its genre is a critical one; it seems that there is a choice to either play it safe, or to innovate with art direction.
Generic sounding games are nothing more than a by-product of generic games and a generic game development process in which originality is flattened into the expected sound paradigm of a given genre (call it a Hollywood focus group mentality if you will). It is, after all, the primary function of the sound design to support the game, so in many cases the desire to innovate may put the sound designer in direct conflict of interest with the product goals.
In this context, an instrumental, orchestral Hollywood film score paradigm, as well as a realistic (yet exaggerated) weapon-based sound design style, has been ascendant for at least the last ten years within many triple A titles, and while the production quality, artistry and craft involved in creating these scores and sound mixes is to be admired and applauded, and while it is not always possible, and not always a good idea to do something different, one can't help but lament the lost opportunities to have done something unique.