Ambiance Up, Music Down

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Listening to the sounds above may help aid synthesis of the following text (No video to watch).

I like immersion in games. In World of Warcraft, you were allowed to adjust audio sliders for music, ambiance, and combat/interface sounds. One of my favorite things to do would be to slide everything down except for the sounds of my character and the ambient sounds of the game world. It made the game feel much more satisfying as an emulation of reality (ignoring the fact that WoW’s art style is heavily stylized on purpose). There were wondrous environments to explore there, aided by the sounds of crickets, birds, tumbling wood, sand storms, or rainfall. One of my favorite parts of this was how it gave the game more emotion by removing noise, instead of adding it.

Life is often silent, and I can remember many occasions being alone in some thick forest, casting out the reel of my fishing line, and just listening to the hum of the developer’s vision. It’s art unlike any other. I think I could appreciate it in a big way because I also liked camping, hiking, and exploring. The game allowed you to experience that sense of exploration; most importantly, it still let a feeling of wonder fall on you, as though you were exploring it yourself.

There’s something to be said about the desire to make games more life-like. By making a playable environment with elements of reality, you’re essentially removing the physical or mental work that goes along with attaining those experiences while still providing the feelings of being there. Some games succeed at this more than others, usually with role-playing games capping the top of the list. Other times, fans have modified games that already contain elements of exploration in order to make the visual experience more pleasurable for the user.

Below are two such examples of fan-made realism (click the images for larger pictures). The left picture is from the Grand Theft Auto 4 (GTA4) realism mod (link). The picture on the right is for a realistic Minecraft mod (link).

GTA4 Realism Mod   Minecraft Realism Mod

These games, and others that try to further immerse the player, are quite different in their original intents. GTA4 is a triple-A title about a man involved in gangs, violence, and money in a fictional city based on New York. Minecraft is an indie-made pseudo-dungeon crawler about gathering resources and building up your environment. Both of these games excel in turning the environment into a living world where the user is able to connect with people, places, and emotions.

Turning up the ambiance isn’t the only way to experience a game in more depth. It just serves as a lesson in that direction. Turning down the music can often even detract (i.e. don’t take the title as law). Trying to connect more closely to a game is something I would suggest to everyone at least once. It’s similar to the way you can get lost in a good novel or start crying during a compelling movie. Yet, it’s so much more experiential due to the medium. Experiencing a world, virtual or otherwise, in a new way is a great way to see life from a different perspective and to reflect on what it is about reality or virtual worlds that truly resonates with you.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. zkandell
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 13:21:34

    I wasn’t listening to the sounds as I read this, but I’ve started to notice the sounds and music more in video games and movies recently. I tend to play games differently with regards to what levels I put sounds at — for example, I play Minecraft with the music down so low I had to check if the game actually had music at all, though I keep the sound effects at full volume. Yet, when I play Skyrim, I have the music at full volume, probably because the of both the higher quality of music and the fact that it’s better fit to the situation, with a sweeping orchestral piece starting when you’re in the presence of enemies. That kind of semi-scripted music seems absent to Minecraft, though it has been a long time since I’ve listened to the music.

    I’ve also noticed that in Fallout 3, I felt much more part of the world when listening to the music from Galaxy Radio, which helped with the creepy “the 1950s destroyed the world” vibe the rest of the game has.

    I would argue that, most of the time, the music in the game adds to the experience more than not having it present. Also, in most games, it seems that the times that the music would detract from the experience, they turn off the music. Look for that next time you’re somewhere like the forests you mentioned — I can’t talk for WoW, but I’ve noticed a fair number of games in which that happens.


  2. ahwleung
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 14:28:46

    An interesting study can be made in how the use of “interactive” audio effects in games have evolved in both quality and quantity over the years.

    In the early NES/SNES era, audio was based on 2 parts: background music and sound effects. Background music was limited to 8-bit chimes (although this created many classic tunes; to this day I’m sure millions of young adults can instantly recall the battle theme of Pokemon Red/Blue). Sound effects were purely reactionary and came about as the result of player’s actions (e.g. “play the jump chime when mario jumps, play the coin sound when a coin block is hit).

    Modern audio in games is no longer based on this 2-part system, but has improved immensely as the result of improvements in both processing power and the innovations of audio engineers. Your standard AAA title will have different audio settings for everything from music, ambiance, environmental noise, character voices, audio cues, and sound effects. Every single one of these aspects is carefully designed and tuned to create a unique environment for the game.

    For example, the Left 4 Dead franchise features a dynamic soundtrack that will actually change depending on the situation players are currently in; it will dynamically change from slow and suspenseful to frantic and panicked based on how much danger the player is currently in. Making an interactive soundtrack like this is no easy task – it takes a great amount of effort to be able to seamlessly transition from one musical melody to another.

    In terms of “sound effects,” there is a much greater emphasis on both quantity and quality. From the shrill screech of a Hunter that sends chills down your spine to the sense of imminent dread generated from a Tank’s mighty roar, every single type of special zombie has their own set of unique alert chimes, sound effects, and attack cries. Digging into the sound files for Left 4 Dead 2 will show over 1,000 different audio effects, just for the zombies alone.

    I agree fully with the points of your post; sound design has really come a long way from the 8-bit chimes of old. Music and sound effects now play a key role in setting the atmosphere and tone of a game – something to consider for any future game development you may do!


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