ScOA 5: The Sound of Silence

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In that mysterious epiphanous, hour of the morning in which logic stays in bed, and sensibility takes the midnight train going anywhere, I was struck by a second thought, or more so an illusion. See, somewhere in the deep folds of the night, my mind was convinced that it heard the distant, haunting sound of a horn somewhat reminiscent of Half Life 2, and in a single, bizarre tangential leap, my mind instantly crossed into the territory of the emotional impact of sound.

It was a bit like canned jumpy moment within a horror film, the instant in which rational thought stops caring and redirects its efforts straight into the face of panic, but this was different. This was the potentiality of panic, the sum of irrational thoughts and expressions, generating a thousand impossible circumstances. It was a lot like waking up from a nightmare, alone and frightened in the dark, everything is out to get you; every last shadow, concealing its ulterior motive behind its encapsulating veil. However, this was more of a “what if” situation; what if that sound was the mighty air horns of an invading nation, slipping in, in the dark then arrogantly awakening us to their presence; the muffled wails of secretive machinery, toiling away beneath the mountain I live upon, or simply the creak of a door.

Sound is a brilliant medium because it embodies the gaps and ambiguities that our minds are so quick to give meaning, letting afterthoughts and indecision linger and breed. Out of these moments comes complete, yet fleeting and momentary control in which the individual can create their own emotions. This is something that games could benefit from.The power of the human input is in no way a sign of laziness on the half of the developer in creating explicit stimulation, but the balance that allows gamers to manifest their own interpretations within the scope of a situation.

But how much leverage or freedom is too much? Will creating more ambiguous aural experiences compliment, confuse or simply fade into the background? Creating sound effects within the context of the situation, is being used constantly in games, but to what degree should sound be left to the interpretive imagination of the player, in order to fill a richer, more diverse, and consequently more impacting atmosphere? Succeeding at this is going require criteria, and in lieu of elaborating ad infinitum, here are a couple key points that I’ve derived from my experiences.

Know your context.

A common error that I can see arising here is that a developer will mistakenly toggle the degree in which sound can be perceived, out of the context of the game. This would be the difference between orchestrating a scene in Half Life 2 in which you are locked in conflict with the Combine as you hear APCs roar past in the distance, helicopters whir over head and the metallic groan of the bridge around you, as opposed to centralising all audio elements on only what is present. In this situation, there is no right or wrong decision without first considering the impact of the sound in contrast with the players’ focus. The principle spans as wide as genres, and as narrow as a single event, but getting the right sounds in the right places at the right times can do wonders in crafting an experience that the player can partake in shaping.

Ignore your context.

Paradoxically, sometimes it will be an effective move to surprise the player in a similar sense that hearing what I thought was a horn at 3 in the morning surprised me, however this is not without its own conventions. Sound in this situation is not only designed to surprise, but to once again provoke an entirely original stream of thought from the player, to make them realise the possibilities. It’s a bit like traipsing through the darkness only to hear a far off mechanical roar “Is it an enemy, is it a friend”, what if that sound only existed to give us a stern reminder of what is happening around us, or what could potentially? This is the untapped power of surprise – not just a sudden jolt that puts you on the edge of your seat, but the lingering emotion that allows the mind to transform what it observes into its own reality.

In my time I’ve played a lot of games, and I can confidently say that sound is both an under realised and extremely powerful element. So many times in which I’ve experience that “wow” moment in a game, sound has been an equally powerful element as the immediate visuals and interaction that have allowed it to create a perfect harmony of sensory excitement, and something I’d like to see explored a lot more often.

Miles Newton – Dandy Spaceman

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