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How Sound Elevates Interactive Narrative Storytelling to the Next Level
Sound is an essential storytelling tool that immerses us, often imperceptibly, and is increasingly being leaned on to push the medium forward.
December 11, 2023
5 Min Read
Transcendent interactive stories are few and far between, but the experiences that resonate with us hit hard thanks to our deep emotional connection to the characters and their journey. Innovation erases the seams in experiences like this, thanks to teams of game changers who boldly blaze a new path forward.
Movies were my first love. That giant, enveloping cinematic experience opened doors to an unmatched level of immersion, excitement, and emotion for me as an aspiring young storyteller.
Metal Gear Panel
But when I popped Metal Gear Solid into my PlayStation 1 in the fall of 1998, I knew my world would never be the same. Cinematic storytelling on the level of a Jerry Bruckheimer or John Woo film was brought to life, to stunning effect, on a home game console. How could this be possible?!? Familiar details like opening credits, haunting music vocals, stylized cutscenes, and an immersive mix of sound effects and dialogue all made this possible. Each of the sounds had weight, personality, and a palpable reverb applied to them in a tasteful, believable fashion.
And OH, that dialogue!! The performances were evocative, introspective, vulnerable, and surprisingly touching. Somehow, someway this game had even evoked a quality I never could have imagined in the medium - a SOUL. The visuals certainly played a big role in this, but the audio was the unsung hero of Snake's story.
The game, as it were, had been forever changed.
By 2009, Naughty Dog had long since said goodbye to cartoony, youthful platformers and was knee-deep into dramatic, human stories with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Players got a taste of traversing environments and quipping one-liners like Indiana Jones with a stunning level of interactivity and fun. But Naughty Dog’s follow-up would fully launch us into a new cinematic reality.
Eric Marks with three of the past Naughty Dog audio directors who worked on the Uncharted and The Last of Us titles over the years
Quite simply, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a perfect game. In the 14 years since its release, I'm still not certain that ANY game has stopped its unique concoction of exhilaration, charm, awe, accessibility, jaw-dropping set pieces, and absolutely pitch-perfect writing. Many games have inched close to it, but have any truly surpassed this masterpiece?
Once again, audio fully immersed us in the experience, led by Audio Director Bruce Swanson and Sound Designer Phillip Kovats. The opening scene of Drake climbing a train off the side of a snowy cliff literally made me sweat and shortened my breath. In retrospect, much of this was thanks to the detailed metal groans, creaks, debris sounds, and Drake's vocal efforts as he inched his way up the train. The game as a whole was full of breathtaking chase sequences, fights aboard a moving train, and a narrow escape down a passageway from a relentless burning Jeep.
Yet again, the game had changed.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves happened to be released at a crucial juncture in my life. In the fall of 2009, I had just graduated with my masters from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, but the dust was settling from the 2007 WGA strike and the housing crash of 2008 had sunk the national job market. I was driven to become a filmmaker and yet had been an avid gamer for nearly 20 years at that point. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves had just exemplified what magnificent storytelling could be, and how thrilling and innovative it felt in an interactive format! What could be more exciting than paving the way for new types of experiences in a storytelling medium that was just starting to stretch its wings?
Months later, I began my career - not in film, but as a QA tester at Konami working the overnight graveyard shift. Soon after that, I was hired as a sound designer/mixer for BioWare’s marketing department, where I was lucky to build my sound chops on a number of Dragon Age and Mass Effect trailers. 14 years later, I can’t imagine my career trajectory having gone any other way, and much of that traces back to the spark that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves lit inside of me at the precise time I needed it.
It’s crazy now to reflect back on that moment in time, and to see the fruits of it in the years since then. I’ve worked on a number of occasions with Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory, who I am lucky to call a close friend. My companies, Transported Audio and Transported Music, have worked on over 400 game trailers combined over the past 8 years. We even recorded and edited all of the dialogue in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor for Respawn and EA in our studio.
For all we know, the next major milestone in interactive storytelling could be right around the bend. Innovators don’t stop brainstorming, creating and surprising audiences. I would never claim to be an innovator myself, but nothing gets my creative juices flowing more than helping true artists tell incredible stories. Sound is an essential storytelling tool that immerses us, often imperceptibly, and is increasingly being leaned on to push the medium forward.
Innovation is difficult to quantify. But as with films and shows that grab the collective consciousness, a game that transcends can unite us in a way few other forms of entertainment can. Game narratives have the power to inspire, connect, empower, and tap into our inner soul.
I feel so fortunate to have experienced this firsthand, as they were my guiding light early on in my own career. I dream of the day when I’ll be able to help pass along a similar experience to the next generation of creators by helping contribute to an innovative, transcendent interactive story. For all I know, maybe I already have and just didn’t know it.
Innovation prevails. Game changers will show us the way.
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