Aaron Marks Special: Function of Game Sound Effects
The following article is an excerpt from Game Audio Development (Chapter 3). It’s used by permission of Delmar/Cengage Learning.
Sound effects have an incredible influence on the overall game experience. While a game may be able to get by without music or dialogue, one without sound effects will be very disappointing. It’s inconceivable to think of players firing “silent” weapons or seeing soundless conflagrations erupt in their paths. Early games may have been rudimentary, but their designers always understood that sound effects are more than just entertainment. The complexity of today’s game sound has led to an entirely distinct job description and career path—involving the creation of nearly everything the player will hear. From environmental ambience to button presses to player feedback sounds, the sound designer imagines, records, creates, and edits sound effects. The term used for the creation of sound effects is referred to as sound design. The primary function of a game sound designer is to create sound effects and assist in their implementation. Effective sound can elevate a solid game to something even more fun and entertaining— but poor sound can bring a great game down a few notches. Keep this in mind as we discuss sound effects in this chapter—and focus your attention on creating high quality sounds that not only fit the game but actually set the bar high for the rest of the team to meet and exceed.
Purpose of Game Sound Effects
Sound effects exist specifically to give feedback to players, immerse them inside the virtual realm, and provide an entertaining experience—all of which are key ingredients to a successful video game. Since a game is nothing more than lines of code and pixels of colored light, the sense of sound is what adds warmth and familiarity to what is happening on the screen. Although many current games employ 3D and even hyperrealistic images, the player is still only looking at pixels; the only “real” sense fully experienced by the player is sound. Granted, players aren’t hearing a “real” bird chirp or weapon fire—but the sound they do hear is an actual recording of the real object or a close reproduction of it. Whether it is a “real” sound or not, the impact is the same and the sound plays its specific role.
To illustrate what sound does for the virtual experience, turn on a movie and mute the volume. Without the sense of hearing, clues to what is happening on screen are difficult to detect. While the actors and their surroundings may be visible, the subtlety of their actions and environments are missing and the personal connection you may have felt by being a part of the “scene” is completely absent. What is happening “off camera”? Is there a hurricane madly blowing outside? Are there tanks rumbling by? Is there gunfire or shouting? Often what is happening outside the field of view has a huge impact on the emotion of the experience—and if it’s never heard, half of that “experience” is completely gone. Worse, with the audio absent from the onscreen visuals, sounds from the physical surroundings in which the film is being viewed will invade and detract from the immersive experience. That’s why the sound of others talking in a theater during a movie frustrates many movie goers; the audience hates being forced back to reality by outside distractions.
Let’s also take a look at this occurrence within the settings of a video game. Find a game that allows control of the sound effect volume and turn it off—leaving the music and dialogue untouched. Starting with the menu screen, press a button. Besides seeing the button press and the screen changing, what happened? The player has no aural feedback from pressing the button, and vital clues or emotional reinforcement to this simple action is missing. A good game experience is one that will totally immerse the player; something as plain as a button press can set the stage and convince players that they are actually doing something within the virtual setting. This minimal action still requires a sound—something which is true to the experience and makes it convincing. Button sounds for games such as Halo and Medal of Honor are not identical and incorporate the themes of their respective games.
As you continue through the game, your mind expects to hear environmental sounds, feedback from any actions you may be engaged in, and sounds that match what your eyes are seeing. In the absence of these sounds, we are unable to receive clues or judge what is happening to us or around us. In reality, consider that even within a completely quiet room, we are always aware of the others around us, the mood and atmosphere that is present, whether we are safe or in danger, and other signals that would indicate what we might need to do. While there may be other forces at work here as well, such as visual or physical indications, the cues we hear play a huge part in determining our well being and what is going on around us. Yes, we may be sitting alone in a quiet room—but in the next room over, someone else may be hurriedly moving about, rustling through the medicine cabinet looking for aspirin. Outside, there may be emergency vehicles and sirens blaring, rushing to a nearby disaster. Screams in the hallway might reveal that the disaster is too close for comfort and that you need to take shelter or run for your life! But, sitting with headphones on with the sound blasting, you’d be completely oblivious. Sound effects in video games accomplish much in the way of setting the mood of the environment—giving clues to the surroundings and providing some great entertainment in the process.
Understanding the purpose of sound effects is a good first step to appreciating the objectives of a game. This broad knowledge will guide the production team and sound designer in the creative process to take full advantage of any features of the audio engine and to use sound effectively within it. Understanding which specific areas within the game environment require sound and the purpose they serve is equally important and will ultimately direct the audio production to a successful end. The purposes of sound effects include:
- Setting the mood: Whether silly or serious, sound effects can help set the appropriate mood of a game through everything from simple button presses to ambience tracks. For example, games designed for the younger crowd, such as Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo, use fun, cartoony sounds to keep the mood light—while horror-themed games such as Resident Evil IV and Doom 3 make effective use of dark, eerie sounds.
- Adding realism: The Medal of Honor series utilizes era-appropriate sounds that create authenticity and help players feel as if they are participating in 1940s conflicts. Sounds associated with weapons, aircraft, and vehicles are specifically designed to match those heard during that particular time in history. Background ambience is also used extensively in these types of games, suggesting that action is taking place all around the character.
- Providing clues to surroundings: First-person shooters (FPSs) such as Halo, Call of Duty, and BioShock make good use of sounds to alert players to clues and other activity within the immediate environment. For example, players looking for a waterfall as a next waypoint would first hear it faintly in the distance; it would then increase in volume and from a more defined location within the sound field as they approached it.
- Enhancing entertainment value: A video game’s primary purpose is to entertain, and sound effects are integral to the fun. Nothing beats hearing earth-shattering explosions, gunshots, or car crashes in direct relation to your actions. The shot sound in the casual game, Zuma, is so satisfying that players find themselves looking forward to the next click of the mouse.
- Creating tactile and interface feedback: Creating reality in a virtual environment is often a difficult proposition. In real life, something as simple as flipping a light switch produces a subtle sound that provides important feedback. These sounds are even more important in a game setting by notifying players that their actions have accomplished something that can’t always be visualized. Consoles such as the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii provide audio feedback for button presses and screen transitions.
- Establishing brand identity: Nearly every game produced today strives for a fresh and innovative identity. In attempting to develop an original look, feel, and sound of a game, the developer is inadvertently creating a recognizable brand identity that defines the game and any others within a series. Consequently, anyone seeing artwork or hearing a sound can instantly identify that particular game. Popular game series such as Guitar Hero, Halo, and Need for Speed are easily recognized by their “sound.”
Placing Sound Effects
Each video game title has specific places where sound effects are a “must”—in start screens, active interface menus, cinematics, and gameplay. Every game—from simple puzzle games to full-blown, massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs)—uses audio in these places. Let’s take a closer look at important areas to place sound effects.
As a game loads, players are met with a variety of animated logos for publishers, key developers, and other creative forces. It’s obvious these are there to promote the companies who are involved in the game’s creation and distribution, but they also serve another more subtle purpose. Without knowing it, the developer is setting the stage for the player, building the excitement, setting the mood, and most importantly, making sure the sound is turned on. Grabbing players and absorbing them fully in the experience can’t be done if the sound isn’t working, and this is the last chance to ensure the player doesn’t miss out.
These sounds don’t have to be fancy or even that noticeable, really. A slow “whoosh” or simple “click” is subtle enough to do the trick. However, this doesn’t mean the player can’t be wowed from the opening screen. The sound designer can really have some fun creating these types of sounds!
Cinematics & Cut-Scenes
Opening/closing and transitional “movies,” respectively known as cinematics and cut-scenes, establish the story’s background and drive it forward, set the mood, provide needed clues, and give praise for completing a difficult level. They are typically found at the beginning of a game, between each level and as the final sequence at the game’s end. Occasionally, they are also found within each level or prior to an encounter with a “boss” character in order to highlight a shift in the story plot and add appropriate tension or excitement. Since these “mini movies” are non-interactive, it’s also a good opportunity for a player to rest and mentally regroup before the next event.
Any major game release today uses a powerful opening cinematic to set the stage. StarCraft: Brood War is a classic example of a well produced opening movie that immediately grabs the players’ attention and aggressively sucks them into the virtual experience. The sounds that accompany these significant features are usually of the highest quality and created by the most experienced sound designers within the team. Since the first impression of a game establishes its overall perceived quality, opening sequences usually hold nothing back.
In-game cut-scenes propel a story forward by summarizing what the player has already accomplished and alludes to things to come in upcoming game levels. WarCraft III uses this tool effectively to not only reward the player for recent victories but to introduce a major twist in the story when Arthas, the returning hero, betrays his father. These types of movies are often very dramatic and depend on audio to portray the mood—in this case changing from triumphant to dark.
With a player investing an incredible amount of time in a game, successful completion is a major accomplishment. Reward for this feat often appears in the form of an ending cinematic, skillfully designed to leave the player feeling good about a victory while revealing more of the plot. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a good example of a finale that gives meaningful context to the game and heightens the overall game experience as everything is put into perspective. The audio remains true to the game and adds much to the sense of drama.
From a creative standpoint, sound effects are produced and integrated into this pre-scripted medium similarly to film. Background ambience, foley, and other required sounds are created utilizing a myriad of techniques with an edited sound file as the end result. There are no implementation issues or audio engine limitations to be concerned with, but there are specific post-production details to consider so that the work is effective.
Sound effects are mixed with background music and dialogue so that volume, panning, and equalization are adjusted appropriately; they are accurately synchronized to animations to match what the viewer is seeing. Sounds are prioritized to preserve the intentions of each scene, keeping the overall soundscape manageable and understood. Finally, the sounds serve a specific purpose—whether to add believability and a sense of realism, or simply for entertainment.
Interface & Menu Screen Effects
The interface is an onscreen menu area where adjustments to the console or game features can be applied. Interfaces can be either pre-game menus that appear during or immediately following the initial start-up sequence, or in-game controls and features that typically frame the viewing area; they can also be active menus that require feedback from the player, or passive heads-up displays (HUDs) that inform the player. In-game interfaces allow players to make quick adjustments during gameplay and provide important information regarding health and supply status, location, and clues necessary to successfully complete a sequence.
World of WarCraft utilizes an effective in-game interface. A usable interface is important in this type of game due mainly to the often incredible complexity of gameplay. Character and inventory management, player health and status, map, and messaging windows all are available on screen for quick access and to streamline play. Associated button, screen transition, and attention sounds, while subtle, are present to provide the needed tactile feedback and to audibly verify that the player has selected what was intended. Since interface screens depict what the character would be carrying in real life, their visual and audio qualities should reflect this in an understated manner.
Menu screens can be simple or complex, depending entirely on the needs of the game; the sound effects created for these areas are usually fairly subtle and are always within the game’s theme. Button sounds, ambience, environmental sounds, alarms, attention signals, and other audible indicators are typical for these areas. Music loops and occasional dialogue will also share the soundscape, and these elements must work together.
::::: Matching the Theme in Call of Duty 3
Sound effects should always match the theme of the game. There are many games within specific genres that utilize sound effectively and illustrate the concept of theme more clearly. Call of Duty 3 is a good example of a ‘World War II’ based game series that recreates a variety of conflicts during that global struggle. This particular game not only portrays warfare associated with the era realistically, but it aims to accurately recreate weapon, vehicle, aircraft, and environmental sounds in their full glory.
Great care is taken to remain clear of ‘modern’ and other inaccurate sounds or any other sound that might break the spell. Everything from button sounds to ambience adheres to the theme of the game—making the sounds very effective.
Ambience & Environmental Effects
Background ambience and environmental sound effects are what give “life” to a game’s virtual world. With total immersion as an objective, these sounds not only add a sense of realism to the visuals but also help mask any sounds in the player’s living room or bedroom. Whether the scene takes place within a hectic cityscape or a quiet countryside, sounds indicating activity within the setting are a must.
The overall ambience is often complemented by specific environmental sounds from significant objects present in the location. A cityscape may have an ambience that includes the general “rumble” of the city—such as traffic noises, construction sounds, and airplanes flying overhead. Environmental sounds portray items that a player encounters while exploring this setting; a fire crackling inside of a trash bin, a buzzing street lamp, or a gushing water fountain are possible noise-making objects that players expect to “hear” as they approach them.
Any game in the Medal of Honor series contains ambient and environmental sounds that are both well constructed and well implemented. As players explore their surroundings, background sounds such as low-flying aircraft, barking dogs, distant explosions, or weather are often present. These sounds aren’t associated with any specific object—and no matter where players turn or move within the setting, these non-directional sounds effectively suggest activity just outside of their view.
Environmental sounds are also depicted quite well in this series; the difference is that these sounds are based on important static objects a player can find within the game setting. The sound of these objects are anchored in a fixed position, enabling a player to aurally detect their location through the use of sound. In an actual mid-20th century battlefield, and in these games, players expect to hear the static of a military radio, hum of an electrical generator, or crackling of a shorted-out fuse box as they pass close by. These sounds, which are very easily implemented, have a tremendous impact on the realism and believability of the setting.
For games based in modern settings, such as True Crime: New York City, the sound designer will spend many hours in the field with remote recording equipment to capture various ambient elements that are edited together back in the studio. Fictional settings in games such as Crysis and BioShock require a bit more creativity when producing individual ambient elements, but an appropriate ambience can be developed after thoughtful layering. Sounds of specific objects are often collected in the field, but also can be recorded in the more controlled atmosphere of a studio when possible. For items that are cumbersome or impractical to record, other objects can be used in their place or taken from sound libraries.
Main Interaction & Player Feedback Effects
Main interaction and player feedback effects are the “meat and potatoes” of any game experience, and are the sounds that take center stage. These are the gunshots the player hears when the trigger is squeezed in Halo 3, the explosions in Call of Duty 3, the whine of a high revving engine in Need for Speed, the heavy clank of a sword in EverQuest II, the magical fireball in Might & Magic—these sounds players “feel” as they interact with the virtual experience. While music, ambience, and dialogue are important, a game cannot and should not ever be without these vital sonic elements.
These sounds are what primarily provide the audio entertainment. They are, without a doubt, a large part of the fun of playing games. For example, have you ever, fired a weapon in a game over and over again just for fun? Sometimes the sound is so perfect that it alone provides great satisfaction to the player. Imagine a game where all of the sounds were this incredible! People play games for amusement, and the sound designer has a great opportunity to deliver with these types of sounds.
Secondarily, these key sounds give the player feedback to their onscreen actions. The sound often will not only validate that something is being done, but it will provide other subtle clues. For example, a player moves to open a closed door. As expected, the door handle or actuator mechanism will make a sound—but whether the door is open or locked is discovered by what is heard. With sounds complementing the visuals of the door opening or remaining closed, the player has the information needed for the next move.
Creating Sounds for Make-Believe Objects
Creating sounds for objects that don’t actually exist can be a challenge if you want to keep the sound suitable and still evoke a sense of believability. Typically, the sounds are based on real objects, such as swords or pistols—but are manipulated to give them a more “alien” quality that marries them to their make-believe environment. Each sword strike or gun shot will be familiar to the player while also sounding “off” or different.
For objects that aren’t based on reality, the key for the sound designer is to make them sound as if they did come from the object in question. Puzzle games such as Luxor, Zuma (shown), or Bejeweled utilize arcade style sounds in an effective manner to entertain the player while providing tactile feedback and clues to what is happening in the game. As game pieces are matched or bonus items are displayed, sounds provide important hints to keep the game engaging. These type of games are highly addictive—due in no small part to their skillfully applied sound effects.
Game Development Essentials: Game Audio Development
Aaron Marks & Jeannie Novak
© 2010 Cengage Learning Inc. All rights reserved.