Sound matters: What does the player need to hear?

Sound matters: What does the player need to hear?
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 1st 2016 at 10:53AM

John Broomhall kicks off our Audio Special by asking sound designers to question the most important part of their work

All this week, Develop is taking a deeper look into sound and music in video games through our Audio Special.

This year’s Develop Conference audio sessions reminded me how great it is to work in the world of music, sound and dialogue for games. For the eleventh time, it was my honour to curate and host the Audio Track and – as I said on the day – the willingness of both relative newcomers and leading luminaries to share hard-earned knowledge, expertise and experience from the coal-face in a wonderfully collegiate atmosphere is always heartening.

But of course, it’s not just a couple of times a year at conferences that this interaction occurs. For instance, for VGM forum subscribers, this generous community-minded approach is witnessed day in, day out. So it couldn’t be more fitting that Develop magazine has its own regular audio specials facilitating yet further dissemination of the game audio gospel and a platform for sharing design and production experiences and know-how.

Brighton’s sessions celebrated and explored four outstanding game audio productions: Until Dawn, Quantum Break, Assassins Creed Syndicate and Star Wars: Battlefront. They all sound amazing, each an aural tour de force. Together they amply demonstrate that game audio in a pretty good place right now. Look how far we’ve come – literally from sound-chip to symphony.

To me, these titles are all notable for their excellence in the design and application of sound, music and dialogue. Consider: game sound started (not actually that long ago compared with the history of film sound) with figurative sounds providing player feedback and navigation aid – and solidifying player actions/input. The technology available determined that games couldn’t sound real, so sound effects had to be representative yet ‘believable’. As you hurtled round a corner on the edge of tyre grip in a primitive racing game, the screeching, squealing sound you heard may have been synthesized and lo-fi but you needed it: it provided vital game world feedback. And with so few channels, the concept of a sound event’s ‘priority’ was paramount. We were effectively forced to ask ‘what does the player need to hear’?

Many games look ‘real’ and simulate a ‘real life’ experience, but I think the sound in them never has to be entirely literal or theoretically accurate.

Now, as each of big four titles show, we create audio in a context of enormous technological provision and possibility. We can have all the triple-A high fidelity digital audio replete with real-time manipulation and on-the-fly compositing our little audio hearts can desire. We can describe a game world in minute sound detail and imitate real world acoustic behaviors more accurately than ever. 

Now we can ask a different question – and actually deliver the answer in-game – ‘what can the player theoretically hear?’ 

But that’s a rather different question and potentially a rather different audio result. And actually, I suppose the danger is that what the player really needs to hear – to help tell the story, sell the scene, assist navigation, provide significant feedback, ‘soft magnetism’ to game locations, and to generally drive emotion and drama – can potentially be lost or compromised within a sound implementation and mix methodology that merely panders to the question ‘what can the player theoretically hear?’

‘Need to hear’ denotes focus. ‘Theoretically hear’ risks confusion and at worst, cacophony.

Also, many games look ‘real’ and simulate a ‘real life’ experience, but I think the sound in them never has to be entirely literal or theoretically accurate – and certainly not the mix balance. Arguably the very 3D audio tools we use point us towards a literal description of the game world – but whilst this may be a useful starting point, you might argue that overriding that literality, and embellishing it, and twisting and subverting it is where things can get really interesting in many titles, whether culling, focusing, magnifying, enhancing and manipulating sound (and especially the mix) to provide dramatic shifts and story-telling focus… or simply to provide non-fatiguing sonic clarity over extended periods of play. 

From the beautiful sounding mix of StarWars, to the expressive sound of Quantum’s time stutters; from the alarmingly emotive scares of Until Dawn, to the impressive music, sound and dialogue design of ACS helping players understand which London borough they’re in even with their eyes shut... All exhibit a strong sonic identity and sophistication in their approach to the use of sound, music and dialogue and in my opinion, one way or another, all address seriously the question of what the player needs to hear.

John Broomhall is a regular Develop columnist, composer, audio designer and co-founder of Game Music Connect. You can find more of his work via www.johnbroomhall.co.uk.