More than music, more than art, more than programming and far more than game design as its currently practiced, the audio design of a project can determine the quality of the experience of world-immersion (as opposed to the focus-immersion of Flow associated with highly engaging play) a modern videogame delivers. This world-immersion is an aspect of what Roger Caillois groups under mimicry, the acceptance of an “imaginary universe”. I expect every modern game player understands what this phrase can mean in the context of videogames.
But why should audio have such a prime position in this respect?
The experience of world-immersion is about suspension of disbelief, which can happen through many different ways. For instance, when you watch a theatrical play, the social context is an avenue to this willing suspension of disbelief, as is the case with a tabletop role-playing game. In a videogame (and for that matter, a movie or TV show), social context is usually not a factor, and thus it is the graphics and sound which carry the brunt of the task.
It is a sad fact of all media (excepting, perhaps, novels) that advances in technology raise the bar for mimicry, thus making it difficult for people who make their money from a creative medium as they must constantly adapt to the new conditions. Consider what effect blue screen technology had on the cinema in the 1970s, and later the effect CGI had in the 1990s and beyond. The same situation occurs in videogames: the quality of the graphics improve, making older techniques which once seemed impressively “real” seem clunky and blocky. Can anyone remember what it felt like when the original Sony PlayStation and its rival the Sega Saturn raised the bar into 3D? It was the games industry’s equivalent of the blue screen watershed.
But now, as I have mentioned before, improvement in graphics are actually quite marginal. The transition to modern shiny graphics (which is difficult to pin down, but certainly happened in the previous generation of consoles) was the last major advance – and as a result, the new machines are not as graphically impressive as they could be (however technically impressive they may be). It’s not that they aren’t of a very high standard visually – it’s that the bar hasn’t taken a quantum leap upwards this time. It’s just slight improvements.
That’s what opens the door for brilliant audio design to make such a difference. We arguably hit the pinnacle of audio design the moment we had digital sound – sound engineers having had a century to develop their craft – which means this discipline isn’t greatly affected by technological advances any more. Rather, it is the care and attention that a game’s audio designer takes which makes all the difference – considering everything in the world that might make a noise, and then providing those sounds in all the right places.
Consider how flat the island locales of Far Cry would be without the sounds of seagulls and the lapping of the wave against the floor, or how the sound of a TIE fighter engine in a Star Wars game brings both the smile of nostalgia and world-immersion. Not to belittle the neat interface improvements and decision to support co-operative play in Halo: Combat Evolved, but Martin O’Donnell's sound design on this title was perhaps the best aspect of the whole game, with the quality of the sound effects far outstripping (for instance) the weakness of its derivative storyline.
But surely, you might be tempted to say, game design is just as important as audio design in evoking an imaginary world? After all, isn’t what you can do in the world the centre of the play? Well perhaps it should be, but in our industry as it stands the role of the game designer is hamstrung by old fashioned attitudes concerning what the term “game design” (and, for that matter, “game”) means, exacerbated by a slow-to-adapt corporate culture. In a hundred games where the central verb is “shoot”, what value is the game designer going to add, exactly? They generally end up just leading a few key mechanical decisions and generating mountains of paperwork, while the audio designer brings the virtual world alive with their creations. In a strategy game, in an RPG, for these and certain other genres, perhaps, game design still holds the cards – but when we just consider world immersion, the importance of the role is significantly reduced.
I’m proud to have worked with a number of great audio designers, including Paul Weir of Earcom who did the music and sound effects for both Discworld Noir and Ghost Master. Paul pursues the task of audio design with a diligent glee – I hope I get the chance to work with him again on something suitable in the future. On the right project, there’s a good energy between all the different teams working on a project – programming, art, audio and design – and it’s that creative energy which can make all the difference.
I have never underestimated the importance of audio design in videogames, and it is never more vital than in games that attempt to induce that escapist sense of world-immersion. The sound of dry leaves beneath your feet, the distant blowing of wind through the branches and the forlorn cry of a distant bird – these are the means that audio effects can employ to transport us body and soul into another world.
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