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Soundscapes: The role of music and how Portal 2 failed

Music and sound are important tools in framing player expectations on what is happening in a game. In this article I explain how Portal 2 did things both right and wrong with its use of audio.

Peter Hasselstrom, Blogger

December 25, 2011

6 Min Read

This post originally appeared on Nightmare Mode.

In an episode of the podcast Irrational Interviews Guillermo del Toro and Ken Levine both agreed that 50% of any story is context. A critical component of establishing context is music. Whether the music is calm, excited or if it’s even present at all frames the expectations of the player on what is about to happen. By building up momentum and excitement the player will be put in mood where he/she will want to keep moving and live up to the expectations set by the soundtrack. If the player instead were to leisurely explore the environment to this soundtrack the dissonance in what is heard and what is seen would make the player think he is doing it wrong somehow. What Portal 2 did for the puzzle rooms was to have subdued ambient music that built up momentum depending on player action. If the player stepped on a jump pad and was thrown across the room the music would temporarily swell in volume and tempo to match the visuals. Not only was the approach novel but the execution was without fault as well. This attention to detail in how to use music most effectively in a game like Portal 2 impressed me and set a high bar for the presentation in the game.

There are two instances in Portal 2 where the music worked to ruin my immersion instead. The first time was about halfway through the game where the story is building up to a dramatic climax. As the player is moving outside of the puzzle rooms towards a showdown the dialogue, the music and the visuals all work effectively to build momentum and excitement that wasn’t present at any point earlier in the game. What happens though is that in the middle of all this built up momentum the game cuts to a load screen without any prior warning and effectively slams the brakes on the experience. The second time is near the end of the game and similar in that the music does not fade out prior to the load screen and is instead sharply cut off in the middle of a piece that is creating the expectation of forward momentum and climax. To betray this expectation that was built up by the music created dissonance that took me out of the experience and ruined immersion. Sharply cutting off music at load screens is something that shouldn’t have to happen anymore in games as some have already gotten around this problem.

A game that avoided the problems Portal 2 has is Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. During the opening scenes a man is transported to another dimension in a magical rite and the music builds up to a crescendo that fades during a load screen. The load screen together with the music acts as a cliffhanger and the pause adds excitement instead of frustration. When the player is exploring any hub area the music never stops during load screens and instead gently fades the screen to black and then fades back in when loading is done. If the next area has a new song the game also gently fades from the old track to the new. There are no sharp edges or stutters in the audio experience and this keeps the player engaged at all times.

The Opening Cutscene to Dreamfall
       The opening scene of Dreamfall, one of the best sounding games ever

Valve on the other hand managed to do a terrible job with the audio experience in Half-Life 2. You might not remember this but in the release version of Half-Life 2 the entire game would stutter for 2-3 seconds at every auto save spot and even during the opening scene with G-Man it stuttered while changing the background scenery. If you had a high end machine you would get a loud popping noise instead of a stutter in that scene change. This stuttering was an issue with the Source engine and it took until Half-Life 2 Episode 1 for Valve to fix it. If you play older Source Engine games that never had this problem fixed like Sin Episodes or Dark Messiah you can still experience this first hand. Depending on context the stuttering might not have been too bad, but because of how frequent they were they would inevitably happened during dramatic highs and had the potential on making the scene awkward instead of emotional. With subsequent titles Valve got their act together and their advances in sound design are to be commended. In Portal 2 for example if you went into a lift to change map the game would not load the next level until any voice over had finished playing. Load screens themselves also had calm ambient music and visuals that moved slightly instead of a static screen.

The audience does not want to feel like its time is being wasted. If you allow the players’ attention to start wandering to other things you have failed. Whether it is an action game, a non-combat story driven game or a racing game I feel the problem of how to keep the attention even during load screens has been solved. By winding down the pace of music and sound the player will instinctively expect a load screen and the transition will be done without harming immersion. If possible the loading itself doesn’t have to consist of staring at a still image for a minute.

A load screen can be disguised as something else than a traditional load screen. The most popular solutions to this has been to either give the player trivia about the game lore, general gameplay tips or to play a full movie setting up the objectives for the next map. For RPGs or similar immersive shooters I believe there is another approach. If the ambient sound of the next area starts playing during the load screen such as the wind blowing through trees or the sounds of a busy office the player will be transported there aurally and start to anticipate what comes next. A still image or even a video of the upcoming area together with the sounds will get the imagination going and stimulate the mind more than any gameplay tips could ever do. If the load screen is done in complete silence the immersion will only be held by the visual cues and if they are not interesting that might be enough to make the mind wander to real life issues.

No matter how the load screens may be done in a game it is of critical importance to frame the expectations of the player with sound and music in order to make the transition seamless. Awkwardly cutting off a song before it has finished playing without a smooth fade makes the game feel broken. By avoiding these sharp edges the player is more likely to be sucked in and held immersed in the game experience. That games can still fail at this no matter their production budget and talent is unacceptable.

Half-Life 2
           After Portal 2 the bar has been set high for Half-Life 3

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