Opinion Piece

Take A Moment, And Just Listen

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Graphics hog the spotlight. As gamers we spend hundreds of words describing how beautiful a view is from atop a cliff, or marvelling at the level of detail displayed within a world. We ooh and aah at slick animations and realistic facial effects, or exclaim how amazing the rain looks as it glints on a car bonnet. When the graphics don’t meet our high standards we stamp our feet in outrage, such as it was with Watch Dogs.

And do you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Venture around the internet and you’ll often seem bold comments talking about how real gamers only care about the gameplay, and not the graphics. Indeed, gameplay is king, but such a claim is still pretty shortsighted and, frankly, stupid.  Gameplay is indeed the primary concern of most games, but to say that’s the only thing to care about is a disservice to the artists who spend countless hours designing the visual style and then bring it to life through procedures akin to sorcery of the highest order. Good or great graphics are important in immersing you into new worlds, with helping you form connections to characters through subtle details in their movement and to countless other things, like making you feel powerful in combat or conveying smaller story details. Graphic are arguably more important in story-driven games or those that place emphasis on creating living, breathing worlds. Skyrim would still have been a lot of fun had it looked like Morrowind, but would it really have been as good if the world wasn’t so pretty? Would it have been so good if you didn’t feel the urge to stop halfway up a mountain to soak up the view? L.A. Noire couldn’t have worked without having such high quality facial animations, and Mass Effect wouldn’t have been able to tell its stories as well without the lovely presentation.

The Battlefield series looks awesome and sounds great. Double whammy.

The Battlefield series looks awesome and sounds great. Double whammy.

Graphics are important, yet they do constantly overshadow another aspect of game design that holds arguably just as much power over your enjoyment of a good adventure; the audio. When was the last time you noticed how beautiful a game looked? When was the last time you spent a couple of minutes admiring the small details? It probably wasn’t that long ago, especially if you own a titan of a computer capable of running everything at the very highest settings. But when was the last time you really noticed great audio design? Maybe you did note a particularly great score or admirable voice acting, but what about the smaller details? The sound of footsteps on concrete, or the click and whirr of machines in the background? The noise of passing cars, the hustle and bustle of people, the gentle squeak of a vehicle coming to rest or the rustle of paper? The thing about great audio design is that if it’s doing its job well, we barely even notice its existence. We only tend to take note of it, and complain, when it’s bad, unlike graphics or gameplay or even writing, all of which we pay far more attention to regardless of quality. Read most reviews and the author will spend great heaps of time talking about whether the writing is good or bad or just mediocre. He or she will wax lyrical about how ugly a game is or how pretty it is. Vast stretches of text will be given over to talking about how one gameplay system works with another, or how the shooting is crap, the jumping mediocre and the ability to turn into a butterfly  awesome. But for the audio,  most titles get just short, often vague sentences. Guns may just be described as “meaty” for example. Voice acting and music tend to get more words spent on them, but even then, not as much as one might think. I’m just of guilty of doing this. Looking back at my reviews, so many of them skimp on detail in regards to sound design. Through being a musician I have quite an appreciate for the pure quality of sound, hence my love of good earphones and speakers. But it wasn’t until this week when I sat down and thought about how important good audio was in making a truly great game that I felt the urge to write about it.

Just try to imagine for a moment what the Halo series would have been without that iconic music? Or the voice of the Chief and Cortana. You can’t, really, can you? Both of those things are integral to what the series is, but are they truly more important that the myriad of other little sounds that go into making a game? The Battlefield series has long been considered a true example of fine audio design. Indeed, whack on a good quality set of headphones or sit in the middle of a home theatre setup and it’s like artistry for the ears. Guns snap and crackle and echo. Inside a building the intensity of the action is ramped up by the audio as footsteps give you an indication of where the enemy are, but only if you can make them out through the echoing gunfire and explosions. Without such dedicated audio work the Battlefield series would still be good fun, but something important would be missing, and sadly the majority of gamers would never realise that until it was gone.

Detail matters. Take something as simple as the footsteps of the main character, especially if the game takes place in a first-person view. If the sound department takes their time and does a good job, then that simple little detail plays a big part, because realistic sound footsteps make the character feel real and connected to the world that he or she inhabits. The same goes for every interaction they have. A dud sound, or in the cases of a lot of budget games a complete lack of sound where some should clearly be present, can yank you out of your immersion, or stop you from every really sinking into a game in the first place. Indeed, budget titles are where bad sound design is most obvious. Take the recent Risen 3; at the very start of the game there’s a sequence where two ships are side by side, cannons blazing and men fighting with swords to the death. It should be a dramatic, powerful sequence and a wonderful opportunity to really let rip with the audio, but instead it feels…subdued. The entire scene is quiet, and feels like it’s missing so much. The main character jumps over an obstacle for example, and there’s no sound when he lands. Cannons sound weak, there’s no sense of wood splintering and buckling under fire. There’s no screams of agony, yells of effort or any sense that men are fighting. The piss-poor audio destroys the entire sequence.

Company of Heroes featured some great audio design that brought the battles to life.

Company of Heroes featured some great audio design that brought the battles to life.

Perhaps the most important job of sound is in creating ambience, the impression of a completely alive world filled with all the incidental details you would expect to hear when you step out your front door. If the wind doesn’t move the leaves and the birds don’t sing and the sound of the rain just isn’t quite right…does it matter if the world looks stunning? No matter how vivacious the graphics may be, without the audio it’ll never be right. Your brain will never accept it. Watch Dogs does a decent job of this as does GTA V. Skyrim has some very good audio that helps bring its vast world to life. But if you want a stranger example, look at Crackdown. It has some truly great sound work.

The creation of a game’s audio is something akin to a bunch of cackling witches hovering over a bubbling cauldron. Actors stride into booths to deliver lines and rarely ever meet their fellow cast-members, while composers spend countless hours toiling away to create masterpieces of music, be it the gentle, rolling score that permeates the Mass Effect series or the iconic Halo theme that gets the blood pumping. And then there’s the people whose job it is to bang a strange assortment of things together in order to build the vast library of small sounds needed to fill out the audio design. They stamp on gravel, shut tiny doors, pop balloons, smash together bucket lids and presumably raid bins in order to find the sounds they need before passing them through mighty computers. These glorious people, these wizards of the noise, are responsible for making that AK47 you wield sound powerful, vicious, brutal and ever so pleasing to the ear. Yet they go strangely unappreciated.

Truthfully, I do struggle to consider the last time I was truly, truly amazed and impressed by a game. Sure, there’s been some awesome scores and great voice-work, but I can’t remember the last time I was genuinely taken aback by the quality of the audio as a complete package. When I look to movies there’s plenty of examples of fabulous audio. Just recently I rewatched the 2009 Star Trek reboot, and was again blown away by the clarity of the sound. It’s so crisp and clear. The music makes my hear race, and all the little audio details give the film a certain…completeness. Go further back in time and The Matrix’s lobby scene still offers up incredibly positional audio in regards to its gunfire. Consider as well the lengthy storming of the beach in Saving Private Ryan which is almost literally staggering in its audio design, ramping up an already breathtaking scene to an emotionally gruelling high. It’s a perfect marriage of visuals and noise, combing to the create…well, an experience like no other.

Naturally, as I’ve said before in this article, the Battlefield series springs to mind when thinking about great audio design in a game. Battlefield 3 was arguably the last time I felt truly, completely impressed with the sound being pumped to my headphones. However, there are plenty of other examples. Dead Space and Dead Space 2 both delivered some creepy design, providing a clear example that being subtle in sound design is important. The same goes for Bioshock. Mirrors Edge also featured quite minimalist design that worked well, as did Limbo. The old Thief games were brilliant because the sound design played an integral part in the actual gameplay, which also makes this years Thief reboot all the more irritating with its truly horrible direction sound problems. The Mass Effect series, especially the second and third games, also feature brilliant design across the board, from the quality of the acting and music to the sound of the guns and more. Going back in time again, Black was pretty much a symphony of destruction. Special mention goes to Bastion. The mix of that gravelly narrator and poignant music made a game that arguably had pretty standard gameplay something memorable. There’s countless others, of course.

But none in a while that have truly impressed and amazed.

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The next time you sit down to play a game take a moment or two to really listen. And then take some time out to strike up a discussion about it on your favorite gaming forums. Consider how important it is to your experience for the game to have good audio design, and through that you’ll learn to appreciate it just as much as sumptuous graphics or even gameplay. If enough people chat about it then maybe developers will remember how important it is too, because some times it feels like they forget. As many game’s as there are with great audio, there’s few I could consider coming close to being reference quality, unlike movies which have many examples.

Maybe that’s unfair. Considering how much time does need to be spent on the gameplay above else, perhaps demanding such high standards of the audio is stupid, especially when gamers place far more emphasis on the graphics than the sound. But as time goes by I seem to be more and more rarely impressed with a game’s audio than I used to be, and that trend seems to be matched perfectly with the increase of graphics and the important of having powerful visuals to stick in teaser trailers used to build the vast machines of artificial hype. As more emphasis goes toward resolution and lighting and anti-aliasing techniques and pixel counts, less time and money is spent on the sound of guns and footsteps and doors slamming and birds singing.

 

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