The little touches: Sound design in video games

September 20, 2009

A game’s sound design could bring you into the experience or completely take you out of it. Some look for realism, others look for dramatic music stings, and some just want a lot of shit to blow up. Either way, there is generally a game or selection of games to suit your needs. Sound design is something that takes a lot of patience, but once the designers get it right, it will bring you into an experience even more so. Especially the games that rely heavily on sound effects and less on music. These are the little touches that matter most.

When running through the large battlefields in Killzone 2, you feel the intensity of battle. The Helghast shout, several grenades go off, and the constant sound of gunfire only helps you realize that you may not survive the fight. Before you can take cover, a Helghast charges up with a shotgun. It’s already too late, as your lifeless body hits the ground. It is at this point you realize it still is only a video game.

Call of Duty 4 has a very similar affect, and handles it in a way no other war game has in the past. It’s not the most realistic experience around, but it won’t matter when the sounds around you can lead to your virtual life or death. Eventually you begin to recognize certain sounds, like that of a grenade falling to the ground. The little touches that bring you into the experience so much more than any movie, television show, or book ever could.

Sound design is absolutely crucial when it comes to games. You are experiencing what is happening, you control the character, it’s all interactive. So the sound design needs to match it so precisely, because even if it is off just slightly, it may bring you out of the experience completely. It’s said bad voice acting can make characters in an RPG (or any game, for that matter) unlikeable, and make you potentially lose interest in the story. Whether or not that is true depends on the person, but I guarantee most of you can find an example of when it is true. Same goes for those little sounds, the ones that can make or break how much you immerse yourself into a game.

Dead Space, an excellent action/horror title from late last year, had some of the best sound design I’ve heard in any video game to date. I think the best effects are the ones where your character, Isaac, needs to go outside of the ship and into space. And, as expecting, it’s completely noiseless, aside from your character’s own heavy breathing. Of course, when you least expect it, an enemy could attack, as quiet as anything else in this specific environment. (If you haven’t played it, check it out for yourself.) 

So many different things go into a game’s development, but for just about all games, nailing down great sound design is crucial. And the hard work put into something that seems so simple really pays off in the end, and could, even just slightly, improve your experience with a game. It’s hard to tell for sure just how much it impacts your enjoyment of a game, that really depends on the person playing, but there is no denying that the best sound design immerses you in the experience almost flawlessly. Just those little touches that make everything that much better.