Friday, 11 April 2014

Elements of Game Technology, part two: sound for games

Sound is something that naturally comes to us… literally. We are born with the ability to hear, and this allows us to take in the world around us, giving us information, which in some cases triggers a visual representation of what we have experienced before. Even if we have not witnessed these events take place, we still have an understanding built from the sound that our brain has registered.

Visual entertainments have tried to enhance and further use music and sounds in order to trigger an emotional response for decades. Film has grown to create masterful scores and spend a lot of time perfecting audio in order to really create a sense that we are in the events of that film. Sound in these cases are used to instigate, fear, excitement or sadness through known and unknown sounds. They can help us to understand the world of the characters and it can draw our attention and focus to specific areas that the story teller wants us to see.

As games have developed into a more “mainstream” mode of entertainment and their popularity has increased, so have the budgets and technology. Because the technology has improved so rapidly over the years, the visuals have improved and stories in games have become more complex; even more serious and require more cinematic moments in order to help tell the story and set the players mood and focus. One thing that has come with this is the realisation of the importance of music in video games. Composers have begun to make revolutionary and popular scores to accompany a game; such as you’d find in a film. The music is important for many factors to succeed. The music can set a mood, triggering our emotions; which altogether enhances gameplay and in some cases nurtures a player’s skill. Another important use of music is identity. Some of the most popular games in the past decade have had extremely unique scores, in which the main theme will define that franchise over time. This can be seen with franchises such as Halo, Battlefield and Elder scrolls. Or classically: Mario and Sonic. This could also be said to have a major impact on sales.

The emotional response which is triggered by music may help a player, and could drastically change the way they play without them even noticing. The use of ambient sounds is important and breaks the barrier between fiction and reality. Most games may use music to do this, but others, especially in the horror genre may use ambient sounds in the environment; such as rustling trees, or creaking wood/doors. This could act as a signal to the player of where to go, but may also create a tension and fear for the player. Game developers have learnt how to use sound over the years, with the use of pentatonics, adaptive music and skilful sound theory.  Pentatonic scales have been used throughout gaming history in order to create cues to praise a player and to act as acknowledgement of a correct action. Doing this saves the use of a visual cue instead and can work with the music to enhance the players feeling throughout without them even catching on.

The use of non-linear sounds is also very important with its ability to instigate fear or confusion, but also its ability to lead a player. These are sounds which exceed the “natural” range of living things. Something that may be used as a distress call in the animal kingdom shows a sign of danger yet also attention. This is an effective tool for both sounds in horror games and setting negative tones in musical scores.

Although music is not always required for a game and in some cases even interrupts gameplay or concentration. Sound is a very important factor in the video game industry. Without it emotional strings cannot be pulled and that sense of enjoyment can be lost. I think sound in video games is something that really sets it aside from other forms of entertainment. While it produces scores which compete with some of the best in movies, the genius of sound use in games is one step above the immersion of films or tv. The ability to create the sound freely as you control the in-game environment can spur creativity and a drive to change the way you play or the emotion which drives it.

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