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What Makes Great Game Sound

Article by George Spanos

Why is it that when reading reviews on video game websites and reading posts in forums and newsgroups, some games score really high marks for sound? Is it because the sound designers were given years to perfect their sounds? Is it that the music cues really draw the gamer into another world? Maybe it's because the publisher spent truckloads of money marketing the game? Maybe it's varying degrees of all three... or maybe it's something else entirely.

The Idea

For this article I'll discuss sound design as it relates to big budget AAA titles. Cell phone, internet, and handheld games require an equally adept knowledge of sound to pull off successfully, but that's another article.

We all know that some books tend to draw in the reader more than others. Granted, most great novels employ common techniques to draw in their reader by using foreshadowing, wit, deepening of plot, and important central conflicts. But what makes the word on the page stand out and paint that picture in your mind?

The same question can be posed regarding sound design. We all use equalization, Foley, reverb, and field recordings. But these things are not enough, even when properly executed, to form great sound design. As in the writing example at the beginning of this section, we need more than just techniques and technical prowess. We need an idea. Rather, the game needs to have a great central theme... and of course, be fun.

Making a game 'fun' is not an easy task. It involves a lot of planning, a lot of play testing, and a lot of patience. Without it, no-one would care about it. The same can be said for a great central theme, or idea. The difference being that this should be set out before the game starts production. Sure, ideas can be tweaked, conflicts and characters can be added and taken away. But the main idea has to be there from the start, and it has to be good. So how does all this relate to sound design? Well, without a great theme your game will have limited mass market appeal. There are many examples of video games that appeal to small niches of gamers and these games often develop a cult-like following. But for the most part AAA titles cost a lot of money to make and therefore need to sell in the millions to make any sort of profit.

Now, there is an important distinction here. There are many underground games that have really good sound design, but I truly believe that to make GREAT sound design other things, like the central idea have to be top-notch. Sound goes hand-in-hand with story and a well-executed idea. So, this is a limiting factor that the sound designer cannot control. He or she may be perfectly capable of creating great sound design but his/her best efforts may go largely unnoticed because of weak storytelling. I'm not trying to offer this as an excuse, but rather, an important if not foundational step to supporting the story with sound design.

I often say that sound exists to support the storyline, and that great sound cannot make a bad story great.

The Setup

We're all familiar with that scene in the movie Cast Away where Tom Hank's character Chuck Noland is on a doomed FedEx flight. He finds himself in a rather precarious situation when all of a sudden the flight starts losing altitude. As he is tossed around the aircraft and thrown from side to side, we see through the cockpit glass that the plane is rushing towards a massive body of water that is getting closer and closer until finally, the plane is submerged in water. As he attempts to free himself from the wreckage he inflates his raft that contains a flotation device. As he pulls the release tab a clip from the raft catches on a part of the sinking aircraft and starts to pull him downward. He manages to free himself and is catapulted to the surface of the ocean only to narrowly miss getting shredded to bits by one of the aircraft's roaring jet engines that breaks apart when it falls to the water. Finally, he manages to make it to safety.

In the above example there are many instances where sound plays a vital role. The loss of altitude, Chuck's body being thrown around the aircraft, the water quickly approaching, the stuck lifevest, the roaring jet engine. These events are setup to allow sound to "speak" and help tell the story. Thus, the setup of any sound is just as important, if not more so, than the sound itself. Too often people focus on achieving the "perfect" sound for a given situation. And while striving to achieve the best sound is definitely part of the job, more importantly the event that allows the sound to speak is of critical importance to great sound design. Think of the setup as the facilitator that allows you as the sound designer to paint the canvas with the best possible brushes.

The Sound

So we have the idea, the story, and the setup. In order to properly move the story along we must design sounds and employ sound effects that will enable the player to suspend disbelief and believe that this 2D world really exists. It does help to think in terms of events when piecing together sound. In the Cast Away example above there are definite "beats" to the progression of the story:

1. Loss of altitude

2. Fighting for balance

3. Water rushing towards the plane

4. Plane is submerged

5. Life raft clip gets stuck

6. Almost to safety

7. Narrow escape of jet engine and explosion

But, this is a film. Video games do not play out in exact sequences like films do. There are however, many common threads between the two mediums. Breaking apart the events like in the above example can help you to design effective sounds. Unless this scene was an in-game cinematic where you do have linear control and know the outcome, you will have to build sound design and separate it into pieces so that the engine will be able to play the appropriate sound at the right time, when the user triggers the appropriate action.

This sounds complex. It is and it is not. If you break down the most important events of any game "scene" you will find it much easier to create the right sounds for the right moments.

One method that I like to use is what I call the "heavy brushstroke" technique. The main idea is to only create sounds that are absolutely necessary to the events that are taking place. Detail can definitely be a great thing but it can also hinder you, and it can negatively impact your mix. In reality creating "heavy brushstrokes" is much more difficult than creating detail and takes years of experience. Every sound you put in must be of the highest quality and each sound must be an integral piece to the canvas.

If we look at the above example sounds immediately come to mind for each point. The sound of the plane engines roaring as the pilots try to regain altitude; the plane hitting the water and perhaps the sudden loss of sound; the sharp 'clink' as the clip gets stuck; the sound of the jet engine breaking apart. These sounds are integral to the scene. Of course general ambience will help to paint the overall picture, but the objects that will be in the clearest focus on our canvas will be those that hit each "beat". Ambiences (wind rushing, water laps, fire) will be there constantly throughout but play a more blurred role. The ambiences can also be brought in and out of the mix as needed when clarity is an issue.

Granted, it is much harder to bring sounds in and out of focus in games, but even the most rudimentary of mixing implementations can offer you this. For example, if we want to emphasize the 'clink' of the life raft we could assign it to a specific mixing channel that will lower all ambient sounds in the game at the instant of it triggering.

There are many ways to emphasize the "broad brushstroke" and audio mixing is definitely one of them. Another is to make preceding events quieter than the main event. You may wish to quieten the ambiences before a big boss battle thus allowing the battle to feel more intense. Getting rid of extraneous noises before such a big event will also help. Instead of making the preceeding sounds interesting, try a duller approach that downplays the scenes before the main event.

Another important benefit of the "broad brushstroke" sound design technique is that we are still very much limited regarding space on disc and RAM. Even though today's gaming consoles are very powerful machines compared to earlier models, audio still has to fight for every last Megabyte (or, more appropriately every last 100 kilobytes). Creating your sound design in the most memory saving way is imperative. You must also consider compression ratios and what they will mean to your sound. Will that high pitched shriek of metal tearing apart as it hits the water in the Cast Away example above come across after it's been compressed for consoles?

What Does This All Mean?

The game must have a great idea and storyline, or some variation of those two with excellent gameplay. The ideas must also be executed in a manner that lets the sound designer create sounds that relate to the moment. Characters and events must be designed with the intention of helping sound to speak for the actions that are taking place on screen. All the most amazing, awe inspiring, hard-to-create sounds in the world will not help your title to achieve that 9.5/10 rating without the aforementioned qualities. A large part of what makes a great game is sound. If the game is designed to help the sound speak, then the title has one more advantage to help keep the player enthralled in every moment.

That all being said, once given the idea and the setup it is up to the sound designer to augment the scene by using all the techniques available to him/her. Punctuate t hose moments of high intensity with sharp brushstrokes and paint the scenes in between with a soft and fine brush. Remember that it's often not how many sounds, but which ones that you decide to incorporate that will speak the loudest. Do not be afraid to cut sounds that are just there because you're in love with how you recorded them, how you made them, or just because you like them. Think outside of the box.

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