It’s always about the graphics, isn’t it? Video games are, by their very nature, a visual medium – and we tend to judge technical progress by the number of polygons or pixels being displayed on screen. We analyse in deep detail the lighting, the resolution – heck, the rise of Digital Foundry means that even a release's framerate has become a popular point of conversation. But what we see on screen is only half of the illusion – it would count for little without sound. So why is it so often overlooked?
I was thinking about this while playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice recently. For those of you who haven’t been following the game closely, maybe check out my video review for some examples – but the game uses binaural microphones (similar to those popularised by ASMR videos on YouTube) to capture the positional data of recorded sounds. Without getting too complicated, it sounds unnervingly like there are people in the room with you.
And the game’s use of 3D audio doesn’t end there. While the “voices” which haunt the dreadlocked heroine compose an enormous part of the plot, they’re also intertwined with the gameplay: they’ll alert you to impending attacks, and sometimes they’ll try to deceive you. Heck, there’s even one level where your vision is totally impaired and you must use sound to navigate a pitch-black room – it’s a mechanic also leveraged in one Black the Fall puzzle.
In fact, Ninja Theory’s got me thinking about sound a helluva lot. I’ve been trying to think of occasions where audio is married to gameplay in titles that aren’t rhythm based, and I’ve honestly been struggling. There are stages in Rayman Legends where the platforming is paired with the soundtrack, and your movements almost feel like they're choreographed to the music, which is a great example. The Witness also builds a handful of line puzzles around the pitch of some sounds.
But beyond that, we never really talk about it, do we? One oft-misunderstood myth pertains to the breakout box that accompanies PlayStation VR; some claim that it adds additional power to the PS4, but that’s not entirely true. Y’see, in addition to being a fancy image splitter, what the virtual reality headset’s stationary box actually does is process 3D audio, so that a sound's position is determined by the direction that you’re looking.
And this is super, super important in games like the London Heist, which is a part of PlayStation VR Worlds. When you’re being interrogated by one of the wannabe Mitchell brothers, the game uses all sorts of sounds to coax you into doing what it wants you to do. For example, the demo needs you to look at the exit door in the grimey underground space you’re being held hostage in order to continue the story, and so it draws your attention by having a train pass overhead, from left to right.
Now I’m not saying that sound is completely ignored. We all have our favourite soundtracks, and we all remember how Austin Wintory’s score in Journey helped shape our mood. But I do wonder if we underappreciate the sound design in some of our favourite games; the way each attack in Tekken 7 is underscored by the metallic clash that accompanies it or the way weapons fizzle and sizz in Star Wars Battlefront.
Next time you sit down to play a game, I’d encourage you to just listen to it. How is the sound design affecting the way you play? Is the audio being used to direct you or reward you? Is the music being leveraged to stimulate a particular emotion? Because for as much as we talk about how good a game looks or how impressive a title’s visuals are, we often forget that the senses entail more than just our eyes – and the ears play an equally major role in our enjoyment.
Why do you think sound is so underappreciated in games? What are some of your favourite examples of great audio design, and why? Open your ears in the comments section below.