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Using memorable, iconic sounds in video games

The jingling of coins in a Super Mario Bros. game, or the "waka waka" of Pac-Man -- our ears recognize these instantly. But as audio leans toward realism, have we forgotten the importance of iconic sounds in games?

damian kastbauer, Blogger

April 30, 2013

5 Min Read

Game Developer magazine columnist and game audio professional Damian Kastbauer searches for those iconic video game sounds, in this reprint from the April issue. A cavalier attitude surrounds most game development; people treat each game as a special case instead of relying on what has historically "worked" when it comes to best practices. This spirit, coupled with each generation's limitations, has allowed for constant reinvention during the massive upheaval of creating something new within limitations. The emergence of varied sound-as-representation-of-reality has swiftly replaced most iconic underpinnings of earlier game audio to the point that sound-as-communication is much more subtle. But when it comes to repetitive sounds that speak to the player, are we saying the right things?

Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before

It's likely that most of the pop-culture reputation that game audio has achieved hinges on the iconic sounds created during the birth of arcades and home consoles. With cabinets and televisions cranking out chip sounds and 8-bit sonorities, those of us who grew up with it internalized the cues that were being communicated to us in the simple language of sound synthesis. We all remember the sound of Ms. Pac-Man gobbling dots, the multiple explosions exposing monophonic playback limitations, or Q-Bert's signature synthesized swearing. If you were there back then, these sounds speak to you even today. It was clear that the sound of Super Mario Bros. had reached icon status when I heard it at a basketball game; a free throw never meant as much to me until I heard it coupled with the coin-collect sound from my childhood Mario. Those sounds don't just serve as positive feedback; they have gone on to transcend the living rooms and bowling alleys we grew up in and continue to define our modern lives. Sound designer Mike Niederquell created a resource chronicling the most memorable and iconic game sounds over at TheSonicSpread.com, which hosts a wide variety of examples that go beyond just the early days of synthesis and "musical" sound design. Tellingly, one of the recurring themes throughout the list is that of frequently repeated sounds. This aspect of game sound was once a limitation imposed by a lack of resources or inability to load multiple variations of a sound into RAM. Hearing the same sound over and over had a way of reinforcing the action it represented and helped to build an association for the player. And that association became so strong that players would tune into these sounds and use them to augment their gameplay.

Something Pulls Me Right Back

How many times do you hear the coin sound during a level in Super Mario Bros.? Now think about how many times you hear a footstep, gust of wind, or bullet impact. Chances are good that you've heard these sounds just as frequently (if not more frequently), but you wouldn't be able to match them to a specific game. Real life is infinitely more varied than any current simulation. If reality is part of the design aesthetic for the game, it makes sense to honor that as closely as possible with sound - but that doesn't mean you can't still imbue your sound set with iconic aspects that can help "brand" it while still allowing for slight modifications across different versions. Finding the qualities that help differentiate a sound speaks to the core of the sound-design process, but for designers, finding the "voice" of a footstep is secondary to making sure it blends seamlessly (and nonintrusively) into the environment. If we look at the footstep types for differently sized characters, we soon find that not all footsteps are created equal. Whether it's a lower pitch, a layered impact, or extra element that helps communicate to the player these differences, the outcome is a clearer indication of the sound's intention. As consoles have grown in power through the years, we sound designers have gained the ability to move toward a more realistic representation of sound through variation. Being able to draw upon multiple sounds and randomize volume, pitch, and frequency filtering, for actions that may have a real-life equivalent, lets us more deeply immerse the player in our game by better mirroring our perception of sound in reality. Coupled with this is the desire to convince the player that the worlds we create are real. However, we still need to train the player with audio cues; finding the right iconic heart for a varied sound will enrich the players' experience and communicate your intention.

My Heart's Skipping, Skipping

We are swiftly approaching an age where audio will be freed from the current file size and quality restrictions, much to the delight of game audiophiles everywhere. With this increase in space and quality, players will expect more diversity in the sounds we use to represent the worlds we create. As sound designers, we'll have to balance the use of sound as a mirror for reality, and the use of sound as a tool to get the player to pay attention to something specific. Looking at historical examples of iconic sounds in games, and otherwise, is a good template for what has captured the ear of our culture. In the never-ending quest to leave the player with a lasting impression of their experience, we could do worse than to create memorable, iconic sounds that convey character, while still being varied enough to immerse the player in the world. "Communication is never simple, especially when it's you that's on the receiving end." - Little Boots

About the Author(s)

damian kastbauer


Damian is a freelance technical sound designer working with the Bay Area Sound Department pulling off cool implementation tricks, experimenting with noise, and spreading the word about interactive audio. His contributions to the art of implementation can be heard in Conan, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and The Saboteur, among others, while additional articles on Technical Sound Design can be found linked at www.lostchocolatelab.com.

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