The Importance of Sounds in Video Games

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 RatchetJak, 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.

Online Gaming and How The Legend of Zelda (NES) Predicted It

I’ve had Zelda on the brain for a while now (AKA my entire life), and while playing Breath of the Wild one day, I thought about how confusing it can be.  It feels like the 30-year sequel to the first Zelda, the original open-world masterpiece.  The Legend of Zelda for NES could be confusing too, and this is a common criticism in the face of all the praise it gets.  But Zelda‘s wild-west design resounded to present day through online gaming communities.  How, though?

1986 Zelda wasn’t ruthless, but its players were mostly hung out to dry.  Aside from the general point of the game, it had no long-term direction.  There were eight dungeons in the world…somewhere.  And there were secrets, hearts, and items hidden…someplace.  You could save your progress and keep these things when you found them, a major bonus.  But just when you’d made it somewhere new, the game starts you at square one with each new session.

The Legend of Zelda golden NES cartridge! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Looking at the “map” tells you nothing about its layout or terrain.  You only saw which screen you were on relative to all the other screens.  If you weren’t paying attention to where you found that nifty heart piece in the ocean, it was on you.  There were secrets around every corner, but the only way to find them was through your own intuition.

If you’re wondering how this ties into gaming online, it’s coming.  See, Zelda was one of the earliest games to take advantage of its community aspect.  I’m not looking to read the designers’ minds, but I think the game’s simplicity plays into this idea.  The most famous anecdote about Zelda‘s inspiration comes from lead designer Shigeru Miyamoto.  He wanted to recreate the feeling of pure, unpredictable exploration that he had exploring the woods near his home during childhood.  By making a virtual world, he saw the opportunity to create new terrain for people to explore.

Keep in mind, also, that in 1986, games mostly appealed to kids.  Furthermore, there was no Internet to help people congregate and talk about games.  The closest we got to “tips and tricks” was Nintendo Power (R.I.P).  This meant that if an 8-year-old was looking for secrets in Zelda, his best tools were himself and any friends who played it.

The Zelda overworld map
The Zelda overworld map! (Photo: rd76pag via Flickr)

When the New World was being discovered by European explorers, what did we see?  It wasn’t all obvious where things were.  They had to scout, experiment, and exchange information.  There were often gaps in their understanding.  The geography of the territory they were exploring wasn’t clear-cut the way it is now.  Co-operation was the key to progress.

Same thing with Zelda.  Maybe one kid was great at finding dungeons while his friend could find his way to the far edges of the map to look for secrets.  These two could help each other out to create a bigger picture.  The game not only became more fun and interesting, it also brought people together.

With the mass popularization of the web, this community aspect of gaming has changed a lot.  I could look up a 100% completion guide to The Legend of Zelda and get all the information at my fingertips from a dozen different sources.  But just as there are more ways of talking about games, games themselves have gotten bigger.

MMORPGs like Guild WarsWoW, and so on have massive communities that constantly put out information to help newcomers.  Open-world franchises like Final Fantasy, the Elder Scrolls, and to a certain extent Zelda have expanded to the point where its huge communities can still bond over them.

Although it started small, the vision of exploration from games like Dragon QuestFinal Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda have reached their full potential after three decades.  And what potential it is — the energy of a community of virtual explorers is so infectious and widespread that people have now made careers out of it.  From the kid next door to thousands of YouTube users, sharing is still caring in the world of video games.

Movies, Video Games, and Bridging Different Media

Video games have a sad-but-true record of mixing terribly with the movies.  Even those that manage to be entertaining are objectively pretty bad.  There’s a lot of people who want to see their favorite games treated with the cinematic majesty of film.  So far, there isn’t much hope.

EA has recently announced that wants to give Call of Duty not only its own movie, but its own cinematic universe.  This made my blood boil a little bit.  Admittedly I hate CoD, so that’s a big part of it.  But more importantly, this is a perfect example of why video game movies shoot themselves in the foot before they have a chance.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one to cover this topic.  The Game Theorists (whom I love dearly) made a video a while back that does a great job laying out the obstacles that game spinoff movies face.

TL;DR, one of the big faults of video game movies has to do with active involvement vs. passive involvement.  Cutting out the in-between experiences that normally rope the player in makes a normally engrossing story feel tame.  Admittedly, though, I have seen good examples of game universes making the leap to TV and film.  One such example, ironically, is the TV show Sonic Boom.  I say ironically because critics and fans severely panned the actual games that tied in with the show.  But that didn’t stop OuiDo! Productions from making a good show.  I’ll lay out the number of smart things this show does, but I can summarize the bulk of this manifesto in one word: caring.

Let me explain in the context of Sonic Boom – what I see is a combination of knowing source material and applying proper standards for the medium.  OuiDo! was tasked with making a cartoon based on modern Sonic games, and so they did what you’d reasonably expect – they emulated the relationships between their main characters as demonstrated in the games.

They then used these relationships to create smart and entertaining scenarios.  Every joke in this show feels well thought out.  I never felt like the writers phoned it in.  The dialogue isn’t just funny, it also makes sense considering existing content.  It’s full of instances of “oh, of course Sonic would say this,” or “of course Amy would do that,” without being blatantly predictable.  Basically, it’s a decent cartoon regardless of association, but it’s great for those who are fans of the series already.

Sonic Boom
Poster for the Sonic Boom TV show! (Photo: BagoGames via Flickr)

This rule applies to just about any medium outside of games.  Respect for the source material is just as important in adapting games as adapting anything.  But then the issue arises of the transition specifically from games, an interactive medium, to passive media like movies.  In a way, games are a hard experience to compete with.  Even narrative-driven games are different from movies, because they lack the immersive quality of games.  But that’s not to say a video game movie can’t have value — it just needs to strike a critical balance.

On one hand, it’s important to remain true to any given series, and give loyal fans something familiar.  On the other, though there has to be a certain level of separation between, say, game and film.  A retreading of what the game has already done is going to bore fans and leave potential fans uninterested.  They might as well play the game instead.  One of the worst offenders is the new Ratchet & Clank tie-in movie.  Not only does it pull cutscenes directly from the remake, it fails to level up from cutscene writing to animated movie writing.  Again, money was the whole motivation for the project, and no caring went into it.  That’s a shame considering the fact that Ratchet & Clank has huge potential as an animated movie.

Although this statement may draw some criticism, I thought the 2006 movie Final Fantasy: Advent Children did this fairly well.  Sure, it’s a silly movie.   But its different art style and story compared to the source sets it apart, even as it maintains the personalities and narrative throughline of the original game.  It even treats the viewer to fluid action scenes that the game was missing.  After watching that movie, the game honestly became more appealing to me.

Final Fantasy Advent Children promotional art
Final Fantasy Advent Children promotional art. (Photo: p50310p via Flickr)

 

Plenty of video game movies might be great with just a dose of creative professionalism.  But another major component of this process, I think, is to consult the fans constantly.  Take things like art, details, concepts, even teaser trailers and put them out there to see what people think.  Generally, fans will know when a movie has strayed too far from the game they love, and even people who aren’t fans can probably pick up on the difference.  If nothing else, involving the fans will build brand loyalty, and it will likely result in a better movie.

Ultimately, I think even though making a movie or show out of a game is tough, it’s far from impossible.  In fact, as game narratives have evolved, I think movies and games overlap much better than they did even just a few years ago.  It’s all a matter of caring.  Of all the failed attempts at making visual entertainment out of video games, I get the sense that few of them really try.  In fact, some made them specifically as part of scams.  Making a full cinematic universe out of Call of Duty is not the way to do it.  Instead, companies should treat their movies as professional projects, and look to their loyal fans for input.  If done right, this can make the series stronger than ever before.