Thursday, 29 July 2010

SoundBytes: Audio in videogames

Now you might be asking yourself, 'Jake, is audio really that important and how do you get your hair so silky soft?'. The answer to that is 'Yes, and I wash it in unicorn blood. Take that, Harry Potter!'

When sizing up a modern computer game, the average person might look at gameplay or graphics as the features which add the most value. Rarely will a person even consider the role of audio in building a quality computer game, and audio continues to be an area that is overlooked by both developers and games critics, though this is a trend which is changing.

Loosely, three strands of audio can be identified: voice acting, music and sound effects.

Of the three, voice acting is the most recent development. In the good old days of the Amiga, Megadrive etc. voice acting was extremely limited. Limited in the sense that there really was none. The odd sample of audio dialogue might be found, but certainly not what could be termed voice acting. Due to processor and media storage constraints, any recorded voices were generally heavily sampled and of poor quality. One great example stands out in my head and that is the theme song from Cannon Fodder, the 1993 action/RTS game. Other games tended to treat the short samples of voice acting as sound effects and certainly not as a means of story exposition.

This started to change as the capacities of media storage increased, with games such as Perfect Dark or Resident Evil. By the time the Xbox and other DVD-based consoles came out, voice acting was considered a standard method of advancing the game plot.

Currently, you can find big oul' Hollywood stars providing voices for computer game characters. The likes of Martin Sheen, Ray Liotta and Jack Black have all provided their vocal talents for games, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, voice acting appears to have gained legitimacy among screen actors. I'm sure the huge amounts of money paid to them have helped.

However, the quality of voice acting varies wildly. In the main, this is due to poor scripting. Often, character dialogue is written by games developers, not screenwriters, which means nuances and modes of speech which would be commonplace in a professionally written script are lost. And as any actor can tell you, acting is nothing without a good script. Even Heavy Rain, a game so story-driven that the dialogue is arguably the most important feature, suffered from some terribly stitled lines.

Of course, there is a flipside to this. Games like Mass Effect or the Grand Theft Auto series feature excellent writing and voice-acting and, as a result, draw you into the plot in a way other games can't. Other games developers seem to be learning from the producers of these games, and I am hoping that we will see a greater consistency in audio dialogue in coming years.

I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent here and point out that I am deliberately discounting Japanese RPGs here. With Final Fantasy X through Final Fantasy XIII in mind, JRPGs are something of an anomaly. Generally, they feature excellent voice acting, with voices generally very appropriate for their characters. However, the actual scripting for dialogue is, by and large, horrendous. I think something is lost in translation. What might come across as an insightful and heartfelt comment in Japanese becomes hideously cheesy and cliched when translated to English. Final Fantasy XIII saccharine optimism, angst and naivety was enough at times to make me gag, but it is a staple of JRPGs and, as such, must be forgiven.

When it comes to examining music in video games, primarily two things have advanced the role of music in video; technology and budget.

We are now a far cry from the 3 channels of sound found on the Commodore 64. The PS3 offers 256 sound channels as well as Dolby 5.1 compatibility. Therefore, there is no reason why a modern game couldn't have the same level of sound quality as, say, a Hollywood movie.

Central to this process actually taking place involves a blurring of the lines between games and other media, and studios investing a greater part of their development budget into sound engineering.

Nowadays, it's not uncommon for games to be fully scored. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox is one example, with a full orchestra playing classical Star Wars themes and original music composed specifically for the game.

In a sense, this is what I am talking about in relation between blurring the lines between games and other media. Because the music is one of the most iconic things about Star Wars, it is essential for a Star Wars game to include the famous music in order to invoke the spirit of the films. This was especially true in older Star Wars games, such as on the Atari 2600, where the graphics quality was so poor that the developers had to use every trick in their arsenal to mark their product with the Star Wars license.

You will see this in other games. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has little in the way of music during gameplay, but in the intros and cutscenes, there is a punchy, militaristic soundtrack that sounds like the theme tune to an Arnold Schwarzenegger film written by Tom Clancy that was directed by Michael Bay. To sum up, it fits the tone of the game perfectly and puts the gamer in exactly the right frame of mind.

A more recent offering, which also shows the power of music in setting a tone, is Red Dead Redemption. This gunslinging epic uses music to set tone, differentiate between physical locations in the game world and is truly evocative of the Old West. The end result directly contributes to the feeling that you are the lead character in a Sergio Leone film which goes to show how powerful carefully constructed audio landscapes can be in modern gaming.

Moving on to the role of sound effects in games, in some ways there isn't a lot to comment on. Sure, we've moved past generic gun sound effects being used across a dozen games to a point where a sound engineer will record 52 different types of footstep for a game. Gaming had easily caught up with films in terms of the quality and range of sounds used.

However, really effective sound design still, in my opinion, has some way to go.

I have two examples, which are by no means the only examples, but reflect the fact that sound design doesn't always get enough love.

One, the first Resident Evil game. Okay, so it had absolutely horrendous voice acting, but the sound design of the game was quite good for the time and definitely contributed to the sense of disquiet I felt the first time I played it. C'mon, the creaky doors every time the game loaded a new room, or how about that silent, deserted corridor that you are running along and then CRASH, helldogs everywhere! That was good gear for the 90s.

If we look to a more recent release, one title, for me, stands head and shoulders above the rest. That would be EAs survival-shooter, surprise hit Dead Space. As if the subject matter of the game wasn't troubling enough, the sound effects of the game were truly fear-inducing. Here you are, clanking around on a silent, dead ship. You hear a dull clang from somewhere deep inside, reminding you that things may be crawling around in some dark recess and then BAM! a screech of stretching metal and some hideous deformity comes cascading out of an overhead vent. The music picks up volume and all of a sudden, your heart is thumping and you're wishing it wasn't 11:30pm at night.

The opening sequence is a prime example of this. Quiet discussion amongst your shipmates on the loading dock of this deserted ship and then all hell breaks loose, sirens going off, steam vents hissing, glass breaking, leaving the player in a state of confusion and fear. It also uses a technique seen in movies, most recently in Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell, whereby the volume of the music and sound effects rises to such a level that it becomes oppressive, almost painful and you just want it to be over. When used in an interactive environment like Dead Space, it becomes a tool for generating despair. It sounds somewhat melodramatic to say it, but if you have played Dead Space with the volume up, you'll know exactly what I mean.

Even more impressive, when you finally get a handle on the creepy background noise and the overwhelming action sequences and start to adjust to the noise, the game goes an pulls the rug out from under you by introducing sequences where the player is put in the vacuum of space, and you can't hear anything. So the absence of sound means you can't hear that horrible mutation sneaking up behind you, and it achieves the exact same feelings of panic and fear as you did when there was too much noise. It is a masterstroke and it constantly plays with your expectations.

To wind this up, audio, particularly music and sound design, is a factor oft overlooked by gamers which is a pity seeing as it can make a good experience amazing. Game design, overall, is constantly improving, in all aspects, so I expect that we should see more games like the examples above, which I for one welcome as it makes the escapism of video gaming all the more complete.

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