Never Skip A Beat: Immersion Using Sound
When we think of video games we often think of the visual, interactive, and plot elements but the sound design is one of the most vital aspects of your game. An immersive soundscape can take even the most lackluster game and elevate it a whole other level. It can also lay low a great game by robbing the immersion delivered by strong visuals, plot, or mechanics. So strong the emotion response is the sound design of some games that even a simple sound effect such as the coin pickup in Super Mario Brothers or the announcement of low power in Command and Conquer can transport you to another time and place. By placing your audio as a second class concern in your overall game framework does a disservice to the rest of the product. Let’s take a look at the components of the soundscape to get a better understanding of how to make an immersive experience.
Surveying The Land: Types of Audio in Games
Generally you can break up sounds in games in three rough sections (though I’m sure sound designers would be happy to prove me wrong) Sound Effects, Voices, and Music.
First we’ll talk about Sound Effects, these are the mundane sounds in every game from as simple as a squeak of a tire all the way to the blast of a nuclear device. Every conceivable sound in a game is essentially a sound effect from UI interactions to the way your character taps their foot when you sit idle too long. SFX can be both interactive (so directly created by player input) and passive ambient SFX such as crickets in a background. This in itself a huge topic covering a wide swath of audio experience more so than can fit here, some would even argue is even more important than music as this is what essentially breathes life into your game. However all good sound design is holistic meaning that SFX and Music only really shine when used in conjunction with one another.
Next is Music, this are the instrumental, rhythmic, and lyrical tracks that overlay over the rest of your game. Music has the ability to elevate your gaming experience by evoking emotion experiences in your players. Cued with situations in your games you can evoke happiness, dread, fear, relief, and a host of other emotions that take a game that would otherwise wouldn’t resonate with a players into an unforgettable experience. If sound effects are your foundation then music is the frame of the building that is your game’s audio experience. The start of a musical score at pivotal moment like the plucks of a string as you walk through a spooky house or the strum of a electrical guitar at the apex of a critical juncture can make all the difference in the world.
Lastly but no less importantly is Voices, this is the spoken dialogue of either your character or other characters in your game. This doesn’t even necessarily even need to be actual dialogue or even actual words as grunts, coughs, sighs, crying, or any sort of sound made by the human voice. This extends to even artificial sounds such as robotic voices or beeps, snarls, tics, or other sound that translates into communication. Some games have iconic voices that define their entire series such as Mario in Super Mario Brothers, GlaDoS in Portal, Master Chief in Halo, or Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell. Some games such as the Sims don’t even have a real spoken language but still evokes a wide range of emotional responses that players can understand and enjoy. Voices are especially critical in narrative driven games where the player has to identify with one or many characters to drive the story forward but even the grunt of your character taking a hit can endear or infuriate your players.
Reverberate: Sound Design That Permeates
With this greater understanding of what makes up sound design in a game you can begin to scratch the surface of this incredibly deep topic. You should deign to block out as much time as any other essential component of your game such as the AI, game feel, mechanics, or style if not more so. Many great games have been cut short by weak or lacking sound design that otherwise would’ve propelled them into the cherished memories of gamers around the world. Examples of excellent sound design would be Halo, Portal, Command and Conquer, Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, or Super Mario Brothers but there are countless other titles with unforgettable sound. Study your favorite games, understand where and why they choose to employ sound to better craft your own soundscapes. Until next time, happy coding.