Friday, April 1, 2011

That Was The Sound Of You Winning

I recently read through this plea to Roger Ebert in defense of videogames being art, despite his popularly permanent claim that they never were, nor will they ever be. I really don't want to get into that discussion, not only because no one has ever made a good case for it either way, but because humans are still having trouble figuring out what "art" is in the first place, let alone if a videogame can be considered one. I bring this up because of a mention of Radiant Silvergun in that letter, noting the change in audio during the final battle against the human-like mass of all evil in the universe (if confused, please go play). At that point, I was again reminded how important sound is to an experience like that. It's probably the most important factor in a videogame's success.

What Did I Just Listen To?
As I've heard in many places, "The best sound design is transparent." That is, a sign of truly successful audio engineering in an experience is when the audience/player doesn't complain about it afterwards. Listening is passive. You can't focus your ears like you do your eyes to something visual; you can only pay attention to it more (and to other senses less). It's this reason why sound is the easiest way to subliminally get into a person's head without him or her knowing. And if that sound was meaningful for play? Then it'll not only enrich the experience, but make you remember it well after having played.

We should all be aware of how sound is used in movies: Orchestras tell us how to feel at any given moment, regardless of on-screen content. A lack of music lets us know that the current moment is important (or someone is about to appear in the mirror behind the supporting character who's about to die). The hero's gun is always louder than the enemies' guns. All punches and kicks are amplified so you can hear how they feel to the recipient. I could go on, but I wanted to address audio in games.

Hearing Is Fun Again
Games today look pretty cool. They have a way to go before we finally say, "Sweet, graphics can no longer improve." As for audio, the surface has barely been touched. It's pretty easy to make music for a movie, since that movie will play out identically every time. You can shape the music specifically to make every ounce of the movie stronger through smart sound decisions. Games, however (obviously), will not be the same experience between any two people. This is why it's so much more complicated to create that perfect experience. While one player may get a pretty good string of audio in his playthrough, another may get stuck in an area and hear the same segment loop over itself to the point of disgust. This is why scrolling shmups are the closest to being able to control an environment, as the developers will know exactly where in the level you'll be at any given time.

So I'd like to take a closer look (listen?) to some of my favorite levels from shmups I'm sure I've linked to far too often by this point, pointing out areas that help improve the experience through audio. I'm not saying that these following examples are the height of human accomplishment in audible excellence. I'm also not saying that other games never even tried. Most AAA games today have so many fancy audio techniques going on that I'm proud to see (hear?) so much effort being put into something we'll never visualize. However, they're not shmups so I'm not talking about them.

Radiant Silvergun

As mentioned in that argument for games as art, this segment of the game makes a drastic change from epic synth orchestra to a choir of sadness. It was a perfect switch to cement the fact that the rest of humanity and existence is gone by this point, and only you are left in this world to destroy that which created hatred (spoilers? Seriously, just go play). This is the only one of my examples that is just a looping sample, but in contrast to the rest of the game's soundtrack it makes a deep impact. Also of note is how certain audio motifs from the main theme are still buried within the harmonic schemes heard here, avoiding a complete sense of disconnect.

ESP Galuda II

The way the music starts in the first level was actually a selling point for me importing this game for lots of money from Hong Kong. I know this genre of electronic JPop-y music isn't up everyone's alley, but there's some smart stuff going on. The beat doesn't really kick in until the player gets his first powerup. The music takes a breather just as the first large enemy explodes, creating a sense of wonder in what was just accomplished. The finale of the piece doesn't conclude until the player has finished off the miniboss. The most complex portion of the music starts when the screen floods with enemies/bullets for the first time. All of these cues to the gameplay hidden in the audio have been a staple of Cave's games in recent years, so not only do these practices exist throughout the rest of this game, but they can be found in almost everything they've put out in the last 10 years.

Death Smiles

This one is just weird. Though to be fair, this is a game centered around Halloween and general ghosts, ghouls, and goblins. The final boss, closely resembling Death (complete with scythe), is accompanied by Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The song has always been an icon of grim times, so it's no surprise that it's used here. I'm only pointing this out because the rest of the game's soundtrack was totally original in composition. This kind of took a gamble to break the 4th wall and remind you that these developers have been doing homework and researching how to make your experience better. And I know this has been done many times in games over the decades, even with this piece in particular. I'm just saying it worked well. It made the experience creepy. It's possible they tried to create something original, but similar to Bach's piece, failed, and just used his since it's in public domain now. Either way, it successfully creates the perfect mood against a pretty menacing final boss.


I would have to say that all of Ikaruga's tracks are beautifully composed to match the experience going on. The music here not only helps to enforce emotional connections to what's going on, but also plays a vital role in providing cues for when certain patterns are going to appear (for score hounds like me, naturally). This level is by far the most complex (visually), and the score here does an excellent job of capturing that chaotic nature of movement, interaction, frustration, and hopefully success.

Listen Up
So the next time you recall a game you love, try thinking about the music that went along with it. It's likely you'll immediately be whistling main themes and boss battles. This is not only because you heard them so many times, but because you enjoyed those experiences. You've heard a lot of annoying commercials in your life, many times, but to ask you to recall their jingles would be a little more difficult (thank goodness).

And the next time you play a game, don't bother paying any more attention to the audio than you already do. After all, it's supposed to be transparent. It's likely you won't even be able to spot the best uses of the medium. And for that, I'm glad.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]


  1. Definitely something I have to hand to Ikaruga. I could tell how important the music's role in the game was when I switched from the Gamecube version of the game to the XBLA version. In the XBLA version, the music is slliiiightly off sync from the Gamecube version because there was a small amount of slowdown in the intro of the first chapter on the GC. The more powerful 360 does not slow down in this part. It completely threw me off completely for a fair amount of time until I got used to it.