mandag 25. februar 2013

Sound in games

A while ago, I read this very interesting essay-thingy written by canadian indie developer Superbrothers, which argues that the “native language” of video games is primarily audio-visual, and that current-gen games, with their superfluous, excessive talk, menus and informational messages undermine the coherence of the game and disrupt the flow of the experience and its communication with the player.

The entire text is appropriately named “LESS TALK, MORE ROCK” and that is basically what it comes down to. Aside from talking about the language of video games, it also talks about creative processes and inspiration, how they often drown in talk talk talk, and suggests that maybe we should strive to get around that. Here’s a link to the text.

Why does text and speech disrupt communication in a video game setting? That’s the point of language, after all.

Images and sound (and when I say sound, I mean ambient sounds and music) are perceived differently from speech and text. When you see images and hear sound, your unconscious mind is working and mulling on it nonverbally, recognising shapes and patterns and looking for associations, but it doesn’t bother your conscious mind much, freeing it to reflect on what it is hearing and seeing.

Have you ever experienced having someone talk to you when you’re preoccupied with something else and you hear them talking but you don’t actually register what they’re saying? Probably you have. When you hear speech and read text, your conscious mind needs to turn its attention to that and interpret and understand it, and you are distracted from your conscious reflecting.

So when you cram your game with dialogue and textual information, you are robbing the player of being able to make their own reflections and thought processes as you instead patronisingly spoon-feed them superfluous information they would be fine without.

The Superbrothers-text explains it much better than me. Which is why you should read it.

Anywho! Back to sound and music!

My parents would always tell me to turn down the volume on my games. I understand the never ending bip-bops probably got on their nerves, but I don’t think they understood (or understand) what an important aspect of the experience the sound is. I absolutely can’t play games without hearing the sound, even if the sound would have no impact on the mechanics. Sound is such a huge part of the experience; I think it provides as much atmoshpere and mood as the visuals for me.

Even when game sounds were just bop bip bop and chiptunes (we had a very outdated console) to me, they were still such an integral part playing without was just no fun. One of my earliest video game music memories stems from Sonic the Hedgehog 2:

This is the final boss music, it’s really haunting and I still think it’s very intimidating, but there’s also a certain feel of triumph connected to it. You’ve made it to the final boss, after all. It’s also a bit pompous and bombastic, which suits a villain like Dr. Robotnik well.

Then there's Rayman! The original Rayman game had this really funky soundtrack that was also very diverse and embodied its equally diverse world very well.

And all the boss music was like rocked up takes on the music of the world they were the boss of.

I'll end this post where I started it by posting some music from Superbrothers and Capybara's game Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. The music for this game was written by Jim Guthrie and is definitely an example of music lending a lot of mood to the game. It's simple and clean and very esoteric and beautiful where it needs to be, sometimes it is sad and then it's piss-your-pants-scary where you need that and in this example it is quite comforting, which I think isn't really an atmosphere games attempt to convey quite often. It's really neat.

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