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Making Sound Important

With a handful of exceptions (music, stealth), most games today do not feature sound as a necessary and essential component of gameplay. What can we do, both in the mechanics/level design and audio development sides, to increase sound integration?

Videogames are a primarily visual and secondarily aural medium.  Consoles are, in essence, making a TV screen interactive.  Of our five senses, only two of them are used.

I would not count touch here, as pressing buttons is a form of input not output (you press buttons to do things, not feel things).  An attempt was made at tactile sensation with vibrating controllers, but they are disappearing in favor of motion-based controllers, and the two are currently incompatible.

So, with only two senses in use, you'd think we'd do everything we can with those.

Unfortunately, sound has yet to be truly integrated into games.  They rarely factor into gameplay, and when they do, it is often a gimmick.  Atmospheric games use sound the best, like horror games, which rely on sounds not only to scare, but to let you know where enemies are off-screen.

But the majority of games could be played mute, with subtitles for story.  This is true for TV as well, so it does make sense that television's flaws are repeated in games.

Now, the argument has been made that a game's soundtrack, sound effects, and ambience, while not necessary, greatly enhance the experience.  For instance, I have been told multiple times that Final Fantasy VII  is half as good without sound.  I think it is a fair assessment.

So, sure, I'm halving the fun if I listen to my own music, but the fact that I can still mute the game without rendering it unplayable still presents a problem.

Why is this a problem, exactly?  Because this shows that sound is simply not integrated quite the way visuals are in games.  If I turn off the visuals in a game, it's almost impossible to play.

Of course, not all games should be so integrated; naturally there is a place for both.  I will not argue that some of the greatest games ever made do not have good sound integration.

Indeed, old Text Adventures hardly need a screen, proving that not even visuals are a necessary component to all games.

But, just as we strive for better gameplay, depth of interactivity, and photorealistic graphics, we should also strive for integrated sound with gameplay, without resorting to gimmicks.

I feel as though videogames have a long way to go, and can learn a lot from sound-based games that already exist.

Consider Marco Polo, a water game that relies primarily on sound.  It's basically blind Tag in a pool.  Marco Polo, itself, is a gimmick game, but it's a clear example of sound-based interactivity (to the point of eschewing visuals).

But you can also rely on sound while playing Hide and Seek, Manhunt (the non-digital game), and even Paintball.  While sound is not strictly necessary for any of these, you can become a much better player by honing your sense of hearing.

Perhaps this is where videogames can start:  without resorting to gimmicks, games can be made to rely on sound in such a way that, while not being necessary, is so useful that muting it essentially cripples the player -- that is, cripples the gameplay, not just the overall experience.

Some genres already do this, such as Stealth games that require you to listen for enemies to avoid them.

There are also games in the Adventure and RPG genres that make use of sound to make exploration easier.  Often there is an item that will make a noise when you enter a room with a treasure or other secret in it.

Expanding on that idea, it is possible to make sound almost mandatory and necessary to find those secrets, not a reward to make the job easier.  Suppose there was a game where all secret passages were crawling with bugs.  If you can hear bugs, you know there's one around.

Incorporating subtle sound cues presents a slight problem, however:  if they are loud enough to play over the music, they are as obvious as making a secret glow neon, and just as gimmicky.  Playing them too low means you won't hear it under the music.

Oh, God, we have to get rid of music!

Sometimes, yes, perhaps we should.

Game developers listen to Hollywood way too much.  Games have epic soundtracks these days, with composers who have fame in games equivalent to John Williams or Danny Elfman.  Some soundtracks stick with us forever.

But Hollywood knows there is a time and a place for music, and on occasion they even try to immerse you without music.  Consider first-person movies like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.  They have no music precisely because it would destroy the mood they're going for.

Why do movies use music in the first place?  This is a legacy carryover from the silent era, when a piano, a record, or even a band would play to add sound to the moving pictures.  Once we could hear the actors speak and the trains whistle, we lost the need for music, but it was already a habit by that point.

And games just copied the formula.

Try playing a few games with the sound effects on but the music off.  Try Half-Life or Doom.  Both games suddenly have a much different feel, and you might find they even improve by eliminating the music.  I often turn off the music when I play skateboarding games.

A lot can be done with ambience that traditional music can't do.  Or ambient music, which blends in with the environment, like Silent Hill's industrial soundtrack, can give us the best of both worlds.

Figuring out how to add sound properly to truly enhance gameplay, and knowing when and where to make musical sacrifices, can add a new dimension to games still lacking today, and can further evolve games into an atmospheric art form.

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