Sound makers search for depth, texture
If your video game's sound doesn't add to the experience, why spend money on headphones and a wig?
September 3rd, 2011
08:21 AM ET

Sound makers search for depth, texture

When is the sound of a shotgun blast not just a shotgun blast? When it is paired with 14 other sounds, including a roaring lion and an object being sucked through a tube.

Sound and sound effects in video games are just as integral to the overall game experience as a good soundtrack is for a motion picture. And gamers are demanding more realism from their games and sound effects are crucial to the experience.

Whether it is a weapon blast, a fantasy creature screaming, or simple handslaps on a railing, the sound directors are searching for the right mix of sound to link gamers to the game. Simply recording a gun shot or a footstep won’t work for an effect that could be repeated dozens of times throughout a game.

A typical videogame sound, for example, a shotgun firing, doesn’t sound particularly exciting; it is just a short concussive blast. But in a video game, that shotgun could be close or far away. The sound needs to reflect that, said Chris Sweetman, sound director for Splash Damage.

“You’re taking a multitude of different source elements. And some of them are not necessarily being literal,” Sweetman said. “In the case of the shotgun in ‘Brink,’ there are a lot of non-literal elements in there. There is stuff like kick drums, explosions, air pressure, loads of different elements. And what that does is give you texture.”

Sounds can be triggered from so many different sources in a game and it is important to provide audio depth, says Gene Semel, senior manager of the sound department at Sony Computer Entertainment America.

“It’s not as simple as seeing a dog bark, have a dog bark anymore,” Semel said. “Sound playback in our titles has to have dynamics and variability, so that the consumer or the players can experience the soundscape in different ways.”

Semel, who has worked on numerous blockbuster franchises, including “God of War” and “Uncharted”, said technology advancements in the game consoles have increased expectations from the gamer. He points to the PlayStation 3 improvements including 7.1 surround sound, more memory and better data compression.

Both said the development in sound in video games has been driven partially by technology advancements, but also partly by gamers who want more realism from their experience.

For Sweetman, sound creation in games is not much different from when he started creating sound in the film industry many years ago with his father. However, he points to repetition as the biggest difference from film sounds versus game sounds.

“In a movie, you might have one sequence where Aragorn slices a Ringwraith with a sword and you have a particularly stylized sound. But because you only hear it once or twice in a film, it works,” Sweetman said. “But you can’t do that in a video game because you’ll be slicing ten Ringwraiths in a space of 30 seconds. Repetition is a big issue in video games.”

“We are also able to use filters and audio effects and run time to our advantage much more now than we have been able to in the past,” he said. “This allows us to use reverbs for each area of the game space so that all the sounds playing back in that space have the ambient reflection that you would expect in the real world. This creates a very dynamic environment that the player gets immersed into.”

Developing sounds to mimic those expected in the real world requires sampling many different sounds, then figuring out how to put them together to make them become “hyper real,” as Sweetman described it. Putting that all together and then figuring how it plays out in the game starts very early in the development stages.

“This is a blue sky kind of thing,” Sweetman said. “We could take some concept art from the game. Okay, what would this character sound like? What would its weapon sound like? What would its footprints sound like? Then block it out and work out from mixing together all these wonderful elements and figuring out how we can put this in a video game.”

As much work as it is to mimic sounds that exist in the real world, creating sounds for things that never happen naturally is even more difficult. Fantasy games, like “God of War” or “Dead Space,” require sounds that must be imagined first, but also have some grounding in the real world.

“Humans want to connect to audio with what they see on screen in a subjective way. We need to reach a humanistic response from the consumer in terms of fantasy,” Semel said. “These sounds are generally gathered from Mother Nature first and then manipulated to achieve the fantasy we are aiming for.”

Sweetman and Semel agree that fantasy sounds are the hardest for their teams to develop. Both men said it is tricky to make the sound believable without making it sound like something that already exists.

“That’s why I have nothing but admiration for David Farmer who did all the creature design sounds for ‘Lord of the Rings’,” Sweetman explained. “He effectively came up with these incredibly unique creature signature sounds and I don’t really know how he did it.”

Regardless of the type of aural effect they are aiming for, sound designers want their work to flow seamlessly and in concert with the game. How much gets noticed by the player depends on the effect the game designers want.

Semel said if they have done their job right, the player does not notice the sound, but is immersed in the overall experience. However, Sweetman disagrees when it comes to first-person shooter games because the weapon is the lead actor.

“(The weapon) needs to have an important voice. To me, in that case, it is one of the most important parts of the sonic landscape. It is your interaction with the world.”

Interacting or grounding the game character in the world with sound is vital in some types of games, according to Sweetman. While working on the “Burnout” franchise at Criterion Games, he said one of the most important noises in the game was tire noise.

“Tire noise is your connection, your car’s connection to the virtual world. Otherwise, it is just a virtual car traveling over an undulating landscape. But you put tire noise in and it gets grounded.”

It’s the small noises like sound of a moving tire that, when missing, become most noticeable. But add them in and it gives flavor to any scene.

“We spent two days at Shepardson Studios just outside London just to do footsteps (for ‘Brink’). On top of that, we have all the mantling sounds, all the hand claps as you are jumping over stuff, as you’re mantling over metal containers and sliding along different surfaces,” Sweetman explained. “Every weapon has its own unique sound when it is effectively being used, when it’s being fired, when it is being holstered, when it is being walked with or when it is being run with.”

In gaming, the right sound effect can make or break the experience.

“The player needs to have this empowerment, a sense of size, a sense of scale and a sense of power. We need to be able to give it to them,” says Sweetman.

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