Sound Maketh the game
Confession time: I've been playing a lot of open world online RPGs recently, and the one that sticks in my head like sonic adhesive is a sound effect rather than a soundtrack as such. It’s the little noise that pops up in Guild Wars 2 when your character, blissfully running through fields or scaling snow-topped mountains, suddenly comes under attack. The background music drops in volume to make way for a sound like “Bwhoosh”, reminiscent of spooling back a reel-to-reel recorder, like the blood in your body suddenly spiked with adrenaline, that weird dissociative slowing-down sensation that presages fight or flight. So when I'm crossing a road and traffic refuses to brake, the sound ringing in my head as I dive inelegantly for the pavement is “Bwhoosh”. When a brown envelope drops through the letterbox screaming “Bill!” in big red letters, it lands on the welcome mat with a Bwhoosh. No need for music-streaming here; I have an earwig for that, not an app.
Such is the power of sound, a powerful tool for evocation in the hands of a skilled programmer. The same instinct that makes a rambler straighten up in a hurry at the snap of a twig, in the manner of a meerkat on full alert, can be harnessed to bring depth and breadth to a game playing experience: sound effects serve as memory triggers, in a similar way that scents can.
We see this principle at work in computer games of all kinds. Mute the volume on a popular 3-reel slot game like Break da Bank as featured here, and it’s just a silent screen of blurring reels, but crank the volume up and the convincing ker-clunk of the simulated lever pull and the accompanying whirr of spinning reels transforms the experience entirely. The sounds of a live casino come tumbling in; a convincing layer of ambience that lends contextual depth to gameplay. The same can be said of any pick-up-and-play mobile game out there. Bethesda, to take a recent example, pulls off a neat trick in their 2015 free-to-play app-game Fallout: Shelter by rendering the pneumatic sigh and laboured clang of the airlock door that seals the settlers into their vault as a faithful simulation of the sample for that effect found in the original Fallout PC games - thereby doubling down on their own mythos with a sound effect that sets the scene for a stage they have already created.
This is an old trick but a pertinent one. From the muted click of the mouse button to the modestly triumphant trill of notes that signifies that Windows has finally woken up enough to load its desktop, programmers have been using audio cues ever since the first home gaming systems were hooked up to television speakers.
The Unspoken Benefits of Bells and Whistles
A video game bereft of soundscape is a strangely passive beast, not much more than a dumb person's lantern. But hang some bells and whistles on the action courtesy of a decent synthesiser and suddenly a video game becomes an interactive event, infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Whether we’re talking the clunk-click reloading mechanic favoured by Doom (MS-DOS, 1993) and pretty much every first-person shooter thereafter, or the outraged yelps and taunts of Angry Birds, sound design frames the onscreen action and adds a hypnotic rhythm to gameplay that keeps us playing longer and more intently than otherwise we would. Solid sound design can make or break a game – think how iconic and memorable the hungry glubba-glubba-glub of a roving Pacman is to us, even now. A two-second burst of that audio sample is enough to conjure the monochrome maze and chasing ghosts, some 37 years after Namco’s game first found its way onto arcade machines.
Sampling the Digital Horizon
With the enormous and expanding range of industry-quality digital synthesisers hitting the smartphone market on both Android and iOS platforms, it is easier and cheaper than ever before for indie game developers to assemble a crisp spectrum of digital samples to spruce up any video game they might care to bring to market. The only limit prescribed is that of the human imagination, and that’s really no boundary at all.