The Duty of Sound: The Importance of Sound within Video Games

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We often have preconceptions of how things should sound, as we hear them in day to day life without even taking notice of every single sound. But what is sound design? It can provoke a mood or feeling, and it can also inform the gamer with information such as doing a task with an audio prompt, or locating important clues such as an enemy’s footsteps close by, or a gun shot in the distance for example.

This project will attempt to outline the importance of sound from a video game project that I have created in the game engine: Unity 3D (Technologies, 2015). My intentions were to create a story-based adventure game based on a blind man that’s trying to find his guide dog so that sound is crucial for his task and also for his survival throughout the game. The game is rich in contextual sound so that the player could identify the different environments and obstacles that they would encounter within the game. I wanted the player to be able to distinguish what was happening throughout the game with little visual aid, in order to reinforce my argument for the importance of sound and sound design implementation within video games. I also wanted to demonstrate the purposes and values that sound can have and why they are so important to the gameplay.

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Sound and music within video games are often overlooked by players because of the engrossment that the video game can cause. In many cases, this can make the player disregard the significant aspects such as the graphic and sound elements which are the backbone behind all video games. Therefore, I have done this project to exhibit the sound functions, techniques and implementations that are found within the majority of video games.

The process of this was to create a first-person game that lasted around 10-15 minutes in gameplay (considering that all possible death sequences are explored). Even though this amount of time is nothing compared to most story-based games, the amount of aural detail and texture would compensate and ultimately create a rich atmosphere for the player.

In order to create a rich aural atmosphere, I needed to create a few different environments so that there was a wider variety of sound and sound techniques that could be used instead of one scene where only a selective set of sounds can be heard. For example, there are two or three areas of the initial city environment of my game that could only really adopt a certain pallet of sounds, such as the motorway or the high street. Along with this, I made a few different environments for the player to explore that would contain different sounds in order to make the soundscape of the game contextually rich and interesting.

‘You are partially blind, and you have recently moved to a new area following the recent recession that took your dog training business out of your grasp. Shortly after moving in, you decided to take the bus to the City to walk one of the new pups’ Rex. Unfortunately, Rex’s primal instincts kick in and he hunts for a squirrel, leaving you alone in an unfamiliar city’

One of my ideas was that the player would be presented a selection of different story lines such as the one listed above, but the soundscape would remain the exact same. This is an interesting approach which I considered strongly, however, I saw a problem with this, as even though sound effects can be quite ambiguous in terms of their meaning, most cannot be as flexible as to represent 3 or 4 different storylines completely. The sounds which are flexible would be mainly Foley sounds, such as footsteps, clothes rustling and the wind passing through the trees - these types of sounds can be included into almost any genre. Sounds that are unique and are somewhat tied to their own genres would usually be the backing music or specific sound effects. Sounds that would represent the genre and narrative would be something like a spacey sound design sequence for a sci-fi game or the sound of spells being cast to represent a fantasy game for example. These sounds give the game a completely different narrative.

Karen Collins states in her book that (audio in games) ‘is represented by the nature of games themselves, in terms of genre, narrative, the participatory aspects of games, and the functions that audio must fulfil’ (Collins, 2008). Reflecting on what Collins states, if the different stories all had the same sound library, it would be quite hard to distinguish the type of genre and narrative applied, as you cannot mix unique sounds from separate genres together as it would be somewhat nonsensical and not realistic to the environment the game is set.

Another idea that I could have done was to create 3 different levels with different sounds relative to the genre, with 3 different story cards that matched with the story line. I felt this would have also been a great approach to this project, but I also felt that it wouldn’t have been as effective as my original method in terms of highlighting the importance of sound within games.

I decided to go with a simple, but effective method. I didn’t want to reveal the storyline or the environment the player was in as I wanted to represent it with sound. I decided to use my own narration for the parts where sound couldn’t represent parts of the story, such as the main character providing narrative context and for certain critical points in the story to add texture to the sound pallet.

As my game is played on a computer, a device that is extremely visually oriented, the sound had to be textured greatly and correctly levelled, spaced, and must have an acceptable amount of reverb/effects applied in order to create an informative and convincing sound world.

The selections of sounds were also critical, as some sounds that are spectrally denser are easier to localise compared to a sound that is spectrally thin, such as a sine wave (Schmidt, 2013) - most sounds are usually spectrally dense, so it wasn’t really an issue when placing and spacing the sounds into the 3D sound scape. The biggest factor I wanted to incorporate when selecting the sounds was the level of immersion that the sound itself could create. Immersion is a key part of the gaming experience and it is ‘One of the most pleasurable aspects of a video game’ (Michailidis, Balaguer-Ballester and He, 2018), so I wanted to demonstrate that an audio-based world could suffice.

The game level design was kept simple for this Unity Project. I created the whole map out of simple geometrical shapes such as 3D slates, cubes and rectangles to tie in with the storyline of the main character being partially blind thus not being able to see much detail, and to compliment the soundscape. I also didn’t want to give too much away from where the players character was or what was happening from the visual as this would compromise one of my main objectives. Therefore, I decided to apply a blur to the main camera. Another reason why I wanted to keep the visual aesthetics low is because relying on eyes can make us lazy listeners, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to make the game more challenging overall. There were some very basic visual reinforcements, such as the cubes or planes being shaped as a structure, building or overpass, but this was only implemented so that the general experience is enhanced, rather than completely disorientating and confusing.

It was important to layer my sounds when an important action or event takes place within the video game. This could be anything from encountering an enemy or obstacle, to dying from getting run over for example. I added several ‘respawn’ points, where the player is brought back to the start of the level if they walk too far into the area where the enemy or hazardous phenomenon is located.

Shortly before the player is brought back to the start of the level, there are multiple triggered sounds that are played to represent the character dying. Alexander Branon states that when an event occurs in the game, ‘hundreds of sounds – instead of just one, as in the old days- are being combined to simulate reality more effectively’ (Branon, 2005). This is exactly what I wanted to implement into my game instead of just one or two sounds when this event occurs. When the player meets the area leading into the forest, there is a motorway where busy traffic can be heard. If the player runs into the traffic you can hear multiple sounds such as a scream, the sound of a car horn, a screech from the tyres and a body falling onto the tarmac. There are a few more areas where the sound is layered when the player enters the respawn zone. Whenever the player falls into the river, you can hear the player holding their breath, a splash and the sound of being underwater before they are brought back to the start of the level.

One more aspect of the level design that I wanted to point out was the linearity of the environment. I decided to keep this game fairly linear for a couple of reasons. To start, I wanted all the aural aspects of the game to be explored, which would be tremendously more complicated if the game was open world. Furthermore, the vision is almost entirely blurred, which would make a very challenging experience for the player to complete the story even with highly textured and informative soundscape. I wanted to keep this relatively simple but with some alternate routes or endings that the player could go down to keep the game interesting.

There were some games that I researched to help me build this project. A Blind Legend (2016) is a video game designed for blind people, where the video game only consists of binaural 3D sounds and no graphics whatsoever. This is the video game that I wanted to base my project on, as it has all the qualities that I wanted to incorporate, such as the 3D sound space and the dialogue/narration to explain the current situation of the players character.

A slightly less extreme version of this which is what I originally wanted to base my game on is a game called 'Three Monkeys'. It has basic 2D visuals and only requires the player to use the 'W, A, S, D' keys to play. My project turned out to be a blend of these two games as it took advantage of the binaural 3D sounds and had very basic graphics.

Lind (2016) carried out a research project on the music of Zelda. He states that it ‘features a blurring of diegetic and non-diegetic functions. Specifically, although “background” and “environmental” music is heard throughout the game: the initiation of musical themes is an integral element of the gameplay.’ (Lind, 2016) There are a couple of areas where you can hear diegetic and non-diegetic music within this game. One, being at the start where you can hear diegetic music from the restaurant and secondly you can hear non-diegetic music when the player enters the forest area. As the player enters this area, I wanted to change the atmosphere to signify suspense and danger. To do this, I created a thrilling soundtrack that is triggered when the player enters this area. I also used a selection of fear inducing sounds that I knew would do a good job of representing suspense.

To create the immersive element of my game, I added high quality sounds along with some sound implementation techniques. I created reverb zones, where there would be an echo tail on every sound heard within that area. I also created a convincing town atmosphere by layering the area with such as a pigeon call, a grocery store, restaurant and coffee shop sound. Additionally, I added a different wind sound to the initial tunnel you begin the game in and added a low-pass filter onto this. Once the player steps outside of the tunnel, they would hear a gentler breeze as they were no longer in a tunnel that was sucking the wind through it, causing the timbre of the sound to change.

There are several ‘categories’ of sound that are featured in this project. Some sounds have a shared value that add to the storyline and to serve as an indication to the player, whereas others simply enhance the soundscape and therefore provide a degree of immersion for the player.

A good example of a sound that holds several values within this project is the sound of the players dog, Rex. The barking sound of Rex can be heard multiple times throughout the game. As Collins additionally states, the sound can give the player cues to head in a particular direction or to run away, therefore affecting player decision making (Collins, 2008). I added an indication sound that stands out from the rest of the sound pallet when the dog is heard barking. This particular sound operates as a fundamental section to the storyline as it initially tells the player where to go and suggests to the player that the quest at hand is to find the dog. It is heard 4 or 5 times more throughout the game as it guides the player towards the end of the level. Finally, when the player reaches the end, they are left with a choice. On both sides of the player, a dog can be heard barking. The player must choose which dog sound to walk towards to complete the game. If they choose to walk towards wrong dog sound, they would be devoured by it but if they remember the sound of Rex from the many times he was heard throughout the game, they would complete it. I made sure to use the same audio file for Rex throughout so that the player would have a better chance at completing the game quickly.

As this is a game based upon sound, I wanted to make sure that the purpose of the game was not forgotten and to polish the idea of importance of sound within gaming by implementing this ending scenario.

Tan and Spackman state how the sound within games are there to ‘alert players to approaching danger’ They also state that sound guides the player in tracking the ‘moment-moment’ location of enemies’ (Tan & Spackman, 2012). I chose to Implement this technique into my game so that it provides information to the player before they choose to interact with it or not. For example, the aggressive water sound that is heard at the start and the crossover to the forest suggests that the river is life threatening. This is also the case with the busy road and the growling dog.

I also added a pathetic fallacy into my game. I did this by adding the sound of thunder and rain that gradually grows louder and more aggressive as you progress through the game. Instead of a direct threat to the player, it instead serves as personification of the characters emotions and also sets the atmosphere for the storyline. The distance of the sound can vary in tonality and timbre which makes it more realistic from the perspective of the player and it can therefore engross you rather than make you feel like you are watching from a third-party perspective.

I believe that these indicators are the most critical aspects of my project as they accentuate the importance of sound and how it can suggest to the player that there is danger.

To reflect on this project, there would be some changes that I would have liked to implement to create more immersion and detail. Considering that the creation of video games within software such as Unity 3D requires an intermediate to advanced knowledge of coding, I was unable to add in some originally planned functions to the game. One of these functions would be the sound of the footsteps. I would love to have the footsteps change sounds whenever the player walks upon different surfaces such as concrete or grass. I would have also liked to add more variation to the footsteps instead of the two vanilla step sounds that are inbuilt into the first-person controller.

One more function I would have liked to add was the ability of a sound source to move instead of it always being stationary. This function would have been great for the cars and the aeroplane as it would have created a more realistic sound-scape. Finally, I feel that I could have increased the overall size of the map with more environments and variations of sound so that I could simulate more accurately a project that I would undertake in my future career in sound design for video games.

This piece of work is distinctive amongst other research projects as there seems to be a lack of physically playable games and practical projects within this research topic, and therefore, it adds a more interesting and fun way of learning the importance of sound and audio for games. The key features of this game that I would like my audience to focus on are the sound indicators, the aural context that provides atmosphere and the storyline. However, I also urge them not to concentrate too much so that the audio can play its part in immersing the player within the fictitious game world and therefore demonstrating that sound is an important part of the gaming experience.

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The Duty of Sound: The Importance of Sound within Video Games. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-duty-of-sound-the-importance-of-sound-within-video-games/
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