Take a look at practically any ad for a videogame and you’ll see lots of pretty, flashing lights and quick cuts that make even a Zach Snyder film look like it’s moving slowly. Everything looks pretty but is ultimately given very little substance otherwise. I’d like to say that this is only true of the ads, but even the console and PC designers tend to focus on making things look good; increasing processing capabilities to render more polygons and textures; packing discs full with gigabytes of beautifully pre-rendered cutscenes. These advances in graphics are sometimes jaw-dropping and aren’t without merit, but when was the last time the sound in a game induced that same reaction?
I’ve played a ton of games that had extensive soundtracks with a wide variety of music, all available at the touch of a button or a clumsy interface menu. These collections are found mostly in your driving and skateboarding games, i.e. the entire EA Sports library. There’s nothing really wrong with this practice and I do enjoy a lot of the songs in Saints Row 2 (especially the Deftones tracks), but if you have no connection to the music, what exactly does it add to the game?
The right music at just the proper moment can turn, say, the death of a character from something transitory to something memorable or heartbreaking. Sound design can also intrinsically alter and set the mood of the game, even more so than the graphics might. Anyhow, since I could fill this article up with dozens of different games and how they use sound differently, I’m going to focus on a couple successful independent games. Both are 2-D sidescroller/platform/puzzle games but with entirely unique takes on sound design and music.
Let’s start off with Braid, shall we? Everything about this game is filled with color and life. The pastoral tones of the main body of music lend a subtle mood to the game, keeping everything lighthearted as you run along, bopping enemies and collecting puzzle pieces. Killing enemies and dying yourself even take on a sort of comic effect through the sound, like a cartoon where no harm is really done, the coyote not permanently injured by the roadrunner. Then take into account the time-reversal mechanism of the game and you have a fuller picture of how these pieces fit together, creating an atmosphere of the impermanence of danger. Go ahead and take a leap off the edge without looking and fall into the fiery spikes. It can all be reversed.
In spite of this top layer, the game has another side running contrary to the first. Plaintive strings on the level select screen and on a few other levels give a more serious air to the proceedings, something deeper than at first glance. If you wade through the sometimes impenetrably dense writing and garner some meaning from it, you’ll know that the story isn’t simply a boy looking for a princess. But even at face value, the occasional musing strings build tension and a sense of urgency as you push ahead to the final levels, where the music picks up pace and ushers you to the conclusion of the game, which is one of the most interesting and shocking I’ve played. But I can tell you, it wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic had the sound design not been taken into consideration.
While Braid constantly uses carefully selected music throughout the game, LIMBO is on the other end of the spectrum. From the moment your eyes light up in the grayscale world of LIMBO, there is a distinct lack of any music. The world is a void and you’re stuck in it. And with only ambience, the character and the environment to contribute sound, each noise takes on a persona of its own. Each soft footstep gives a weight to the character that would otherwise be overlooked or ignored. Its general sparsity of sound actually amplifies the impact. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the boy as he hops along, encased in spiderweb, trying to escape his seeming fate.
Just as Braid gave a sense that things were right in the world and everything was OK, LIMBO again takes the opposite approach. Though any death you’ll find in the game will take seconds to recover from, you actually feel each one of them, whether you’re mushed by a boulder or impaled by a giant, hairy spider leg. Especially gruesome is the fizzle of electricity cascading through the boy’s body when he lands on an electrified rail or a dodgy hotel sign, falling limply to the ground. These deaths matter to the player, we want to root for the boy, we want him to find his lost sister. And it is those soft, plodding footsteps that will lead you to her.
In short, great sound design isn’t just the collection of sound effects or whatever licensed music was shoved into the soundtrack for the sake of having it. It should be a living part of the game that helps bring you into the world the developers have created. It should add value and meaning to the story and characters and heighten the emotional connection to the game. So anyway, think about that the next time you hear a developer bragging about how they went to the shooting range to record live weapons fire, or how they captured the rumblings of the newest model of Ferrari.