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  • Functions Of Sound In Games

    [11.12.19]
    - Elliot Callighan
  • One of the wonderful things about sound is that it can accomplish many different things. Additionally, the same sound used in one context can have a completely different meaning in another. This is true from an emotional, informative and clarity standpoint. In my game audio classes at DePaul University, I always point out moments when we hear the same thing in games but have a very different response or reaction to them. 

    Sound is powerful - and if you work in games, you should think about its capabilities for your project or work with someone who understands what effects it can have and all the ways it can be used. A single sound can be doing many different things at once!

    So with that in mind, here are eight ways sound can be used in games:

    Contextual/Narrative Sound 

    This is probably the most straightforward entry on this list. When an action happens such as a character moving, using an ability, or the player selecting something in the UI, we need to hear something that seems "appropriate" concurrently. 

    If we don't hear something when expected, it can be one of the most immediate ways to lose that sense of suspending disbelief or "buying" into the experience. These sounds need to be present but also need to be choreographed to the visual gesture. Starting or stopping "out of sync" is just as much of a glaring error as not having the sound at all.

    Pretty much every game is chocked full of sound filling this role, but for an even more visceral example, check out the game, Perception.

    The premise of Perception is everything we see is based on sound reflected from the world. Think of it as similar to echolocation. If something isn't generating sound on its own, the only way we see it is if sound travels out and bounces off surfaces in the environment, and returns to the listener. 

    Everything we see is based off of sound, so if we see anything, it is because that action/object/event has an intrinsic sound with it. For some, seeing all the sounds that populate our game worlds can help make it clear how vital the sounds are.

    Focuses Attention 

    A very powerful intent from a design perspective is what our player is focusing on. Are they marveling at the art or environment of a new area in an RPG with a massive world? Will they be able to make the jump from one level to another in a platformer? Do they need to be ready to dodge an enemy attack?

    Most times, the auditory and visual cues work in conjunction with one another. This makes it very persuasive in telling the player that something is important and deserves their attention. However, having separate visual and auditory cues can be very powerful and have incredible effects on the player. Look at this sequence from Amnesia: A sense of danger is communicated through an invisible monster splashing through the water chasing you as you jump from box to box.

    Can you imagine how boring hopping between boxes would be without hearing the splashing footsteps coming after you? Are the boxes the real focus this whole time? No, not at all!

    That constant auditory reminder of impending doom is so strong! So strong that the player doesn't need to see the footsteps of the monster in the water to be utterly terrified of it.

    Defines Space

    We are used to different spaces sounding differently. If you yell in a small room, it sounds very different than yelling in an empty sports arena. Not only does it take longer for sound to reach a listener's ear in a larger space, but when we are in large spaces, most of what we hear is reflected sound as opposed to direct sound. 

    The sound of our voice goes out in every direction, with very little of it going directly to a listener's ear when we're in a large space like an arena. A listener may still hear this sound even if it doesn't travel directly to their ears, but not after it's bounced off a number of surfaces. This is what's called reflected sound, and it's most of what we'll hear in a large space.

    In a small space, our listener will be closer to us. This means more of our voice will go directly to their ear, and the reflected sound will take less time to reach their ear. This gives a very different character to everything we hear in a small space as opposed to a large space.

    Additionally, the materials present in these spaces play a huge part in what sounds we hear. We hear certain types of sounds more when hard flat surfaces are present as opposed to curved cloth couches.

    If we don't acknowledge and emulate these sound characteristics, our game worlds will never feel real.

    Game audio folks spend a lot of time ensuring game worlds feel real. Here is a portion of the implementation used in Hitman 2 to ensure this happened:

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