I was watching an episode of How About This Game? on YouTube recently, a show about game design by Barry Kramer. I value Barry’s opinions a lot, and I think his view on games is very interesting, so by all means, take a look below. In particular, I love hearing him talk about satisfying things in games. Sometimes I even joke that he’s a “game design hedonist” because he’s always drawing attention to things that feel good in games. A nice color palette, good controls, and satisfying sounds.
Sound is one of the most important parts of a game. What you do in a game must be satisfying in itself, and sound plays a bigger role than you might think. It can be a way of setting a mood, making an environment come alive, or empowering a player.
One of my personal favorite examples is the Unrelenting Force shout in Skyrim. It’s always my preferred shout, not only because it’s useful, but because it feels incredible to use. Whenever you trigger it, there’s a buildup as your avatar utters the words of the shout. It culminates in a sharp, echoed lightning crack, and the shaking of dust and grass in your surroundings. These aren’t particularly complicated sound effects, but combining them in context makes the player feel like a god.
Wandering around a large world with nothing but the sounds of your environment as company has a striking effect as well. Look at the echo of a cave of chamber, the sounds of animals in the forest, the rippling of water. They can make you feel happy, lonely, or afraid. This is where some indie platformers and RPGs succeed thematically. A lack of music directs focus specifically to the character of the environment. This is why the soundtrack to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is so interesting. The soundtrack has drawn a lot of criticism for its very minimalist, non-iconic soundtrack, but the emphasis on environmental ambiance drives home the hopeless, dire story themes much more effectively.
Realistic sound can be great for this kind of thing, but as with visuals, realism isn’t always appropriate. In fact, some of my favorite examples of cool video game sounds come from cartoony 3D character platformers. Your Crash, your Sly Cooper, your Ratchet, Jak, and Banjo. These games have a lot of silly action and collectibles, and usually the tasks you do aren’t epic or compelling in themselves. So the solution is to fill the game with fun stuff to do at every second.
One of the core mechanics in Crash is “collecting” boxes by breaking them. When you break the boxes, it makes a short, sweet sound. You hear the surface of the wood breaking and all the pieces knocking into each other. It’s simple, but packs a punch. Other can take ten bounces before breaking, and each successive bounce gets higher in pitch before the box breaks. Again, a great buildup and payoff. This kind of thing is small, but so visceral that it sticks in your head for years afterward. In fact, this is one of my gripes with the Crash trilogy remake: the sounds have more fidelity, but feel less satisfying.
As with every aspect of game design, sound is a key tool in making the player feel what you want them to feel. It can reinforce the feelings behind an action, and its absence can make the player fill in the gaps. Sound can take us into another world completely. The tension of lightsabers clashing, the breathing of a predatory alien…these things affect us to the core. Think about sound as you make your game: it can make the difference between a good one and a great one.