Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Task 19: Sound for Games

Sound has been present in games from the very beginning of their history, and in some ways has evolved parallel to the graphics as the capabilities of the systems have improved. The ability to synthesise sounds has been around for quite a while longer than video games, but for a long time was primarily stored in an analogue format, which required delicate physical components and was therefore greatly limited by practicality. Digital sound was much more affordably, but for early handheld game devices, sound was limited to synthesised music with very few notes and subsequently basic tunes. PC games were also limited, because producing sound took a significant amount of processing power, and even in modern games audio is demanding.

However, better technology does not equate to better music. In fact, sometimes the simpler tunes are the most memorable. Plenty of basic tunes have accompanied game along their development, becoming synonymous with the games themselves. They evolved alongside the graphics into theme tunes which in some cases are still used in those games. Theme tunes are an easy shorthand to represent a game even if it goes through major graphics reinventions, and create some amount of nostalgia for long-time players.

My own gaming experience has been solely limited to PC games, which for some don’t seem to produce the same scope of memorable theme tunes. The nearest thing I’ve probably experienced is hearing the Elder Scrolls theme song in the Skyrim teaser trailer and thinking “well, about time”. The main theme music for Skyrim purposely uses the same melodies as the previous games. Subsequently, the lack of the TES theme music in the recent Elder Scrolls Online cinematic trailer has been one of the most common complaints – as people have rightly pointed out, without the signature music it could be advertising any generic fantasy game.

While sound for games is still system-intensive, the main limitations for quality are mainly down to skill and budget. This is part of the development of games into a large industry, with increasingly large budgets and production teams. There’s been a demand for the quality of the music to increase alongside the graphics, to a point where it’s no longer feasible for a single person to produce sound for an entire game.

Sometimes it’s not just ingame music or theme tunes that get associated with a game title. The Assassin’s creed: Revelations cinematic trailer featured a vocalised song by a group called Woodkid, which has become irrevocably associated with that particular game. You also get songs written specifically for the game, such as the songs during the end credits of the Portal games, which were written specially for the games.

Composing for video games is now not all that different from film, and some composers working in games, such as Michael Giacchino, also work in multiple other genres such as film and TV.
Music for games is increasingly gaining the recognition it deserves. In 2012, for the first time, the Grammy awards included video game music as contender for Visual Media awards,
For a large part, sound in games is used much the same way it is in film; to convey mood and to create tension. This happens right the way from the title screen – action games have heroic or upbeat title music, horror games will play something creepy to set the mood.

This works within the game too, on a more specific basis. Thematic or more neutral music might play when the player is just travelling around the map, but when the player meets an enemy more fast-paced ‘combat music’ will start playing, drawing them into the action. As in films, the choice of music and sound has a huge effect on players’ experience of the games, and really shouldn’t be underestimated. Amnesia, for example, is much less scary without the player character’s rapid breathing, but with the sound on that alone can get your heart racing, even when there’s nothing to be afraid of. 

Sounds can be used to convey information to the player much more quickly than visual information can, especially during situations where the player has to focus on multiple things at once. The combat music mentioned above also serves to alert the player to the prescience of enemies that the character would have noticed, even if the player did not. During combat, there will be different sounds for the player getting hit, and for the player landing a hit on an enemy, and even for different types of attacks. Having different sounds leaves the player free to focus on aiming and moving around, and only checking their stats when prompted.

Sounds might also inform the player about things happening in their environment, such as telling them a gate has opened, whether a lever or button has worked or not. Footsteps of enemies alert the player to enemies they can’t see, especially in first person games. Sometimes musical cues are also used to tell the player they’ve completed a task or finished a level.

Voice acting in games is a fairly recent development, although it’s quickly become expected in any large-budget title. It’s not particularly vital, since there’s little that can’t be conveyed through text, but it adds another level of realism and depth to the game. On the negative side, it limits the amount of dialogue and greatly adds to production costs. If done badly, it can be worse than having no voice acting at all. This is more a problem in games with dialogue options than in linear games where voice acting is scripted. It’s very difficult to make conversation seem natural, and if you play a game for 40+ hours anything the characters say more than once will become noticeably repetitive unless it’s only said once.

One way games get around this is to create a made up language, since if the player doesn’t understand what’s being said it doesn’t become repetitive. The most well-known example is The Sims, where all the characters speak ‘Simlish’ –  which has since been coined as a general term for any conlang used in games for the purpose of remaining ambiguous.

Other examples of this include Magicka, where – unlike in The Sims - the (mostly) nonsense words are accompanied by English subtitles. In this game, the use of simlish is mainly a way to reduce voice acting costs and to make the game easier to translate into other languages, although it also adds a certain charm.

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