We gamers are fixated on the visual aspect of gaming. From the very beginnings of the 8-bit game scene in the 1980s through to the 1080p majesty of modern consoles (not to mention 4K on PC), there’s only ever been one brief moment in history where game audio really got a mention. 1992. That year, everyone was very pleased that games suddenly featured CD-quality sound… before they went back to talking about full-motion video. Said FMV was objectively awful, but it just goes to show how visually-oriented we are, getting more excited about ultra-grainy, letterboxed FMV than crystal clear sonic bliss. Gamers don’t care about audio.
But perhaps it isn’t that people don’t care about audio; they just think they don’t care about audio. After all, everyone can agree that a decent sound system is objectively ‘better’ than a small, tinny speaker. That’s why even the person who cares the least about music has a home stereo system instead of listening to everything through his phone’s speaker. It’s why Soundbars exist. And I bet you turn up your games when there’s no-one else in the house.
Sound has a massive impact on your engagement with a game, yet it’s seen as expendable. I don’t doubt this stems in part from the early days of home gaming when every single game sounded like death. You’ve almost certainly been asked (read: told) ‘can you play with the sound off?’ by an irritated parent or partner. Everyone has. Would they be as happy to turn the sound off while watching a film? Of course not.
It’s not like game audio is bad any more – the polar opposite, in fact. Audio production in games is taken every bit as seriously as it is in the music industry. Satisfying gunshots, the sound of rustling khaki approaching in CoD… none of that stuff happens by chance. Yet when an audio engineer does their job right, the best they can realistically hope for is that nobody says anything about the sound.
The only time most people really notice or comment on the sound is when it goes wrong. Even when stylised, the whole reason sound is added to actions is to make your two senses match up convincingly. Footsteps over gravel should sound crunchy, an explosion should boom… even a retro-flavoured power-up should sound like a retro-flavoured power-up when we grab it. Do it right and the player will accept the audio. Do it wrong and they’ll complain. So for all the artistry that goes into a game’s sound design, there’s no new way (bar the occasional novelty of a speaker in the control pad) to impress gamers with sound.
And even then, audio is easily described. ‘The music changes when you go underwater’ or ‘The music gets happier depending on how well you treat the A-Life’. Compare that to the wonderful and bizarre gaming vernacular chock full of visual terms. Resolution, frame-rate, textures, polygons, bump-mapping, normal mapping, aliasing, anti-aliasing… I call it ‘bizarre’ because the number of people who actually notice these things is minuscule. I’m certainly not saying we should all suddenly start pointing out games with audio fidelity of ‘only’ 41,000 samples per second (WHAT AN OUTRAGE). I’m not even suggesting everybody learns the terminology of music theory so we can discuss soundtracks like music critics.
But I do recommend that you really listen to your games. The way an engine sound changes in a tunnel or the way music picks up pace in high-drama sections. And you don’t need a super-expensive hi-fi to do your games justice – just a decent pair of headphones (I recommend Sennheisers). I’m sure they will make you care more about game audio.
For example, Resident Evil Zero HD‘s remastered sound effects are so clear, you can imagine the weight of a door handle in your hand as the latch clicks, the sharp sound reverberating around the marble floors of the Umbrella Training Facility. And the production quality of Amplitude‘s in-house, original soundtrack in campaign mode is absolutely monstrous. Listen through headphones and get all the parts running in ‘Phantoms’ – you’ll see what I mean.