Resonant Reality: Soundscapes in Gaming
Few things in life are as evocative as sound. It is something that surrounds everything around us all day and all night, and yet many are immune to its effects on us. However, it is exactly the way sounds affects us and produces emotional reactions that music companies and film-makers have been capitalizing on for decades. Much more recently, however, video game-creators have become interested in this as well. Since the 1970’s world of Pong, gaming has exploded in popularity with most households having some sort of gaming device, and some households, multiple devices. As technology has evolved, so too has gaming in ways that we could never have envisioned back then. Some of the most significant developments have been in music and sound, which continue to improve along with the graphics they accompany. Through extensive research into gaming and sound in addition to interviews with various gamers my aim for this essay is to examine the ways in which sound in computer/video games- i.e. sound effects, narration, music, environmental sounds, etc. affect that way people play and enjoy games. What impact, if any, does it have on gameplay? Do they embrace these sounds or find themselves turning it off? Do these sounds evoke any sort of emotions? These are only a few of the questions I seek to answer during this paper.
Mainstream video gaming as we know it, became popular when gaming company Atari released its debut game Pong in 1972, setting off a worldwide craze for the simple table top tennis knockoff. With its success, Atari then released one of the first in-home gaming systems based on their famous ball-and-paddle game with sales in the U.S. growing from 350,000 in 1975 to 5–6 million in 1977. Atari went on to have continued success with releases of their other games, while gaming systems as a whole declined in popularity after 1977. The 1980’s brought along with it lots of bad clothing choices, “hair” bands, and the video game crash of 1983. This crash was essentially a massive recession in the video game industry that abruptly ended the second generation of console gaming in the US. While sales revenue peaked at 3.2 billion dollars in 1983, by 1985 it had fallen to $100 million (Nintendo Land, 2017). In 1985 Russian programmer Alex Pajitnov released the powerfully addictive yet frustrating game Tetris upon the world. Along with its simple graphics, “the infectious soundtrack adds greatly to the puzzle game’s enduring appeal” (Gamespot, 2005). Also in 1985, a fairly well-known company named Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) which in conjunction with their game Super Mario Bros. played a pivotal part in resuscitating the previously deceased video game market in America. It was with Super Mario Bros. that the gaming public really started paying attention to the music and sound effects in gaming and experiencing it more as an integral and participatory part of the game, rather than just simple background noise.
Ask anyone about their earliest memory of sound in video games, and Super Mario Bros. will be on many people’s lists, mine included. While I was only three when the game came out, it was still an extremely relevant and often played game at school sleepovers and pizza joints all over my hometown in California. Even today, the simple 8-bit tune of a bygone era takes me back to my first time playing it and fills me with fond memories a time long since gone. The Mario soundtrack was created by Nintendo sound designer Koji Kondo, who not only wrote the score for the game but designed its sound effects as well. With over two decades of sound work with Nintendo, Kondo and his team spent their careers examining the ways in which a game’s sound effects resonate with one’s physical experience of the world and hoping that what they created would enhance the emotional and physical experience of the game. Kondo and his team not only succeeded in this but also played a huge role in heralding in a new era of video games (Kohler, 2007).
Towards the late 1990’s to early 2000’s, we had reached the sixth generation of gaming systems. In 2001 Grand Theft Auto III was released popularizing free roam games by using a “non-linear style of gameplay” (Joseph Turow, 415). It was a highly successful game both in a critical and commercial aspect and is considered a significant milestone in gaming history. Despite its accolades, however, its extensive graphics and sound upgrades were used as a pawn in the debate over video game violence and adult content, with advocacy groups like the Parents Television Council (PTC) and Mothers Against Video Game Addiction and Violence (MAVAV) decrying “the series’ glorification of prostitution, the Mafia, and violence, including that against first responders like the police and EMS” (Joseph Turow, 415). Many believed that the violent graphics, explicit language, sound effects, and music made the game morally bankrupt earning it the Guinness World Record for the most controversial game. Despite these issues, the Grand Theft Auto Series went on to release many more chapters and continues to be one of the most recognizable games, sound wise, to date.
Throughout the early 2000’s, sound in gaming continued to evolve just as rapidly as the technology did. Companies begin cranking out consoles at a rapid pace to keep up with demand, and with those consoles, more complex and interactive games. This holds true for computer systems and their games well. In 2004 Blizzard Entertainment released World of Warcraft, a new Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) and with it a complexity and depth of sound rarely seen before. In addition to thousands of sound effects for the dozen or so characters you can play and interact with, Blizzard pulled out all the stops with their symphonic soundtrack. Composed by Blizzards senior composer Jason Hayes as well as Tracy W. Bush, Derek Duke, and Glenn Stafford, these powerful mixes of string, percussion, and choral elements created sounds that brought the player deeper into the world of Azeroth, connecting the game world to the player’s surroundings (Hardgrave, 2016). It diminished the distance between the player and what happens on the screen and allowing the player to become part of the game rather than just a player of the game. Since its inception, 6 expansions for World of Warcraft have been released every two years or so, and with it a new soundtrack to guide you through your battles. Its top of the line graphics and professional soundtracks have made World of Warcraft one of the most successful computer game of all time with over 100 million accounts registered to its users (Sarkar, 2014)
In 2005 a new game like nothing anyone had ever experienced emerged on the scene. Around this time game creators were really starting to understand how big of a role sound played in video games and video game publisher, Activision, decided to bank on that by releasing Guitar Hero on PS2. It became an instant hit making a billion dollars within a week of its premier. The game itself revolves strictly around music and sound, allowing the player to use control slotted guitars to strum out the notes to some of the greatest musical hits of all time as if you were the band’s actual guitarist. Guitar Hero became so popular, songs from the game’s soundtrack soon started re-appearing on Billboard charts everywhere. Upon seeing the public’s response to the game, developers from Harmonix and MTV Games decided to create their own version in 2007 but amped it up to include all game consoles and included instruments like drums, microphones, bass, and electric guitars so that users were able to play as a group and essentially forming a real band in the game (Vernard, 2014). In order to try and stay competitive, the developers of Guitar Hero released the game across multiple platforms including Windows, Mac, and mobile. Unfortunately, changes in developers led to issues and shut down in 2011. Still, with over 19 games released in the series since its inception and over two billion dollars earned worldwide, Guitar Hero still made a lasting impact on gamers everywhere (Petersen, 2009).
Over the last six years since the demise of Guitar Hero, 14 gaming consoles have been released and with them thousands of new games, and in addition to that millions of new players to play them. According to a study done by the Entertainment Software Association, in 2016 65% of households own devices to play video games and spent a whopping 23.5 billion dollars on gaming. As a past gamer who hasn’t played in about 8 years, I was curious to know if the new systems and games being released had followed the same trajectory as those before it. Had the advanced technology inside these new systems brought with it more advanced graphics and sound, and if so, how was it affecting the gameplay of millions of people around the globe? After speaking to many gamers and observing their gameplay, it was clear to see that to all of them, sound plays an integral role in their video gaming experience.
Take for instance simple games like Pac-Man, Mario, Tetris etc. The sounds in these games let you know when you were making the right moves, jumping, ducking, firing, in danger, or defeated the bad guy. In narrative games like Resident Evil, Assassins Creed, Uncharted, and Max Payne, “The conversation is the game – it’s not the video in-between levels that you’ll skip because you want to keep on going” it draws you in, it captures your attentions and makes you feel as if you really are the character you are playing (Howitt, 2014). First person shooter games like Titan Fall, Call of Duty, Halo, and Battlefield wouldn’t be successful without sound as it provides important feedback to the player that is pivotal to their winning the game. Hearing footsteps signals someone approaching you, bullet noises let you know if you are hitting/missing your target or if you are being shot at. In role playing games like Everquest, World of Warcraft, Star Wars Online, and Order & Chaos the sounds are so complex that they provide a multitude of different functions for the user. The background music provides a nice ambience while playing, can set the tone, alert the player to danger, notify them of when they have crossed into a different location, and more. Battle sounds can notify you that you are under attack, in danger or near death, and quest sounds can alert you of your next location.
More recently, many co-op and RPG games have even started integrating microphone access into their user interfaces allowing playing from across to world to speak in really time to other people in the game. This was mainly created so that members on the same team were able to strategize battles and speak to each rather than having to type what you wanted to say while in the midst of a fight. While it is still used like this in most games that allow microphone usage, it has also allowed people who never would have spoken to each other to do so in a safe space they are comfortable with. However, on the other hand, this has also allowed some to hide behind the anonymity of a tv and video game console to verbally assault other players.
Regardless, over the last 30 years of gaming we’ve seen amazing advances in sound snd gaming. Long gone are the days of blips and bleeps while hitting a ball across a screen. These days we are lucky to be encompassed by sounds that fulfill a degree of immersion video games, in a sense allowing us:
To extend our sense of self beyond our physical body and into the intermediary space between and the virtual world or into the virtual world itself…The auditory realm of games thus becomes an extension of the self, a technological body through which we experience the game world (Collins, 42).
Further, besides immersion, it also goes much farther on an emotional level. It can build tension and create all kinds of emotional atmospheres. These include a wide variety of soundscapes “constructed to make sense of that world”, from fast paced and urgent uptempo epics during chase scenes or boss fights, to slow ambient tracks which can create a feeling of safety or wonder (Helmreich, 2007).
Sound is what makes collecting coins and squishing Goombas in Super Mario Bros entertaining; the feedback of the noise combined with the actual visual action is stimulating. Music/sound effects can also bring a sense of nostalgia when playing retro/old games; it can take you to a place or time where those sounds were culturally ingrained and popular and act as a sort of cultural snapshot. Often music is made intentionally for a game, and can take the place of a soundtrack for a film, and can highlight the finer details of a story or image. From trends in history we can tell that video games and the sounds that fill them will only continue to evolve in the future:
From education and business, to art and entertainment, our industry brings together the most innovative and creative minds to create the most engaging, immersive and breathtaking experiences we’ve ever seen. The brilliant developers, designers and creators behind our games have and will continue to push the envelope, driving unprecedented leaps in technology impacting everyday life for years to come (ESA).
What was once mostly ignored in early game creation, video game music is now a legitimate industry of its own. Today, internationally renowned orchestras perform entire concerts of music straight out of the games, and game soundtracks are regularly featuring top of the charts recording artists from techno, hip-hop, rock, and punk genres. Sound tracks to these games are being sold in stores, on iTunes, and Amazon, and gaming conventions have whole panels just for music and sound in gaming. With these amazing advances in the world of gaming, we should be marveling at and appreciating them for what they have and will continue to provide to the gaming experience.
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