Editor: Bracken Lee-Rudolph
Sound presentations in video games are both incredibly important, and often woefully overlooked. Many developers look past the soundscape of their titles in an effort to focus on another facet of their title – usually graphics – or to reduce costs. However, soundtracks, scores and sound effects are vital parts of creating an immersive experience, and many games, such as the blockbuster Call of Duty franchise and Skyrim opted to forgo a focused sound performance to benefit other aspects of their title, such as the multiplayer in the former and the expansive environment in the latter.
What I don’t understand is how this actually benefited the titles in question – Black Ops 2’s audio performance is laughable at times, especially in the voice acting and sound effects, while I felt that Skyrim, while undeniably massive, had no long term hook, as the quests largely followed a pattern of “Go to this dungeon, fetch this thing, kill this boss, return to me and get reward” and the environment was very, very empty.
In comparison, Battlefield 3’s booming use of surround sound made sure that you always knew where your enemy was and what gun/vehicle/WMD/Doomsday Device they were using, as well as where your teammates were with their shouts of “Reloading!” and other warzone essentials in addition to the visual prompts. Additionally, in a title I much preferred over Skyrim, Dragon’s Dogma, the often unnerving sounds of the plethora of monsters were matched by the grand, booming combat soundtrack and the clattering of steel and iron against flesh, rock, bone or whatever armour was adorned by your foes. The constant chatting of your pawns may have gotten on your nerves after a while, but the way they went on in combat certainly created a frantic atmosphere in which to fight.
These two titles were not necessarily better than the ones that I had cited previously, in fact, I tend to prefer Call of Duty over Battlefield, and Skyrim received reviews that were on average well above those that Dragon’s Dogma received, but the sound performance of the latter two titles made immersion a far more successful and seamless experience. Some titles this year have also shown that in order to be a complete gaming experience, games must focus quite heavily on sound performances.
The Last of Us, a title I continuously praise as one of the finest gaming experiences this generation, does this perfectly. The voice acting of the characters is absolutely superb and conveys emotion and subtle meaning perfectly; the sound effects, especially of enemies like Clickers, are distinctive and let you know in what direction and how close your enemies are and the soundtrack, composed by Gustavo Santaolalla, sets the atmosphere for many emotional, tense or action-packed moments perfectly. All of this is in addition to a fantastic gameplay and graphical experience and adds a lot to the wonderful immersive quality that the title possesses. The quality is no less excellent in the multiplayer, where the subtle footsteps, echoing gunshots and shouts of your enemies can often be pinpointed accurately with the title’s surround sound features, which can be set in the pause menu.
While I consider The Last of Us to have the best sound so far this year, other titles have also had notable sound performances. Crysis 3 was highly praised for its visuals, but the voice acting for Prophet and Psycho was incredibly well done and the soundtrack and sound effects fit the title perfectly. Bioshock Infinite also had some incredible voice acting and an ambient soundtrack that fit the early 20th century setting. Even Battleblock Theater, The Behemoth’s latest Xbox Live Arcade title, matched its cartoony visuals and arcade style gameplay with a high-energy soundtrack and voice acting performance, creating an enjoyable and fun atmosphere.
Sports titles are adept at using ambient noise to create a believable atmosphere in which the sport is played. Titles like FIFA and NHL use pre-recorded running commentary and crowd cheers to create a scene similar to a live broadcast on television. Other sports titles, like Grid 2, still use the concept of ambient crowd noise but to a lesser extent, so that it seems like you are hearing the crowd as you drive past the grandstands. All of these go into creating a realistic atmosphere, once again to improve the ease of immersion.
A lot of these titles don’t even try to use photorealistic graphics in their presentation, so it’s not a case of immersion due to being placed in the real world. Bioshock Infinite and Battleblock Theater are both exhibits of this, having used unique art styles. Borderlands 2 is perhaps a prime example, using cel-shaded visuals but remaining immersive through a loud and in-your-face sound performance with a massive soundtrack and energetic enemies (those damn midgets!).
However, some sounds in games break immersion, speech glitches, voice acting that doesn’t match the subtitles and badly voiced characters chief among those. Another sound which breaks immersion for me quite significantly is the ring of a trophy being earned on PlayStation 3 or the pop of an achievement or a friend logging into Xbox Live. When these sounds pop up often during cutscenes, often counter to the atmosphere the title is trying to portray, I consider drop kicking my console out the window (and subsequently reconsider, as I have neither the money to replace the console, nor the inclination to hurt my foot by kicking my consoles). I was incredibly happy when the newest PlayStation update allowed me to switch the sound of trophy notifications off, as it meant I can now play my games uninterrupted by silly rings for insignificant awards.
Sound, undoubtedly for me, often makes or breaks a game, and so getting it just right is important. Does it play the same role in a video game to you? Or can you just as easily play a video game without sound? Let us know in the comments!
10 points to whoever can name me the musical reference in the title.