Ambiance Up, Music Down

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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.

Moment of Awe at the Wrathgate

The ominous Wrathgate
When you first pick a race in World of Warcraft, an introduction plays that describes the race’s background. If you choose the undead (the Forsaken), it is a bit… unusual. While most horde races talk about uniting against the tyrannical alliance and securing their place in the world, the undead claim that their alliance with the horde is simply one of “convenience;”  they would strike down anyone in their path to “ensure their dark plans came to fruition.” (link)

By the time the second expansion came out (Wrath of the Lich King), nothing ever came of this. You get the feeling that the undead don’t really care about anyone but themselves, but it isn’t necessarily apparent in the story line. You couldn’t ever go out rogue from the Horde and start killing anyone you choose. Their weak allegiance was just a neat fact in the background. I always enjoyed this aspect of them, always ready to backstab someone to become more powerful. And it wasn’t just an evil thing; the truth was that the Forsaken had an awful curse placed on them and their past, and they had a strong sense of loyalty to their own kind. Alas, throughout Wrath, and after the past two games, I had largely forgotten about this aspect of the undead’s past and had come to expect nothing more than fun lore. That was, until the Wrathgate…

Never before had I seen a cinematic begin after completing a quest. It was completely unexpected and blew my mind. Suddenly I was questioning what would happen with the undead race: would they break off? What would happen to the factions? It was this moment of awe that sucked me into the moment, story, and environment. I was so excited for what was to come unlike any other moment I had ever played WoW.

What was it about that moment that blew my mind so much? Partially, it was the surprise: again, I had never seen such a cinematic midway through WoW. Partially, it was excitement, in that it was a great plot twist with possible game-changing consequences. But I think most of all, it was that I was so into the story: suddenly, the actions I did had impact on the environment. In Wrath, the world around you now changed as you did quests. As you fought your way up to Arthas, the main boss of the expansion, you would slowly slay his armies and establish outposts along the way. The Wrathgate was the first step in the process, and easily the most memorable.

The undead didn’t end up switching factions in the end. It turned out that a rogue faction of them had broken off in an act of vengeance against all others. I was a little disappointed in this fact, but the moment was still strong as ever in my mind. The ability to affect the player so personally in such a large massively multiplayer game is something I believe Blizzard, the creator, excels at (and is constantly getting better at). To this day, it’s one of the strongest moments of awe from a video game that I have ever experienced.