When was the last time you stopped to think about the audio side of video gaming? I don’t mean the Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound, high speed bit rates, frequencies, or codecs, but the way sound is used as both auditory stimulation and gameplay device. Chances are, aside from the obvious rhythm games and a few revolutionary gems like Rez for PlayStation 2, you haven’t seen or played many.
A discussion came up recently about the role of sound in gaming. It’s no secret that the PlayStation 3 allows developers to reach into Hollywood’s bag of tricks. Rob Bridgett, sound designer for Scarface: The World is Yours, discussed this very idea in an article he wrote for Gamasutra entitled “Designing A Next-Gen Game for Sound.” But designing with cinema in mind is as rewarding as it is limited. Though games such as Grand Theft Auto IV will show how powerful current console systems sound capabilities are, there are restrictions; not necessarily in scope or depth but most certainly in the player’s natural ability to fully interact and control those sounds. In these circumstances, sound does not affect the way a game plays, but only how the player enjoys the experience of the game.
We live in a visual society, where higher resolutions and more on screen effects are the norm, and subtle tricks of the trade largely go unnoticed. More often than not, we turn off the audio tracks in our games, either because of the repetitive nature of the sounds presented to us or because we’re marching to the beat of our own drum. Throw on a CD or an MP3 player and away you go. What happens, though, when audio cues not only affect the way you play the game but they’re the only way you can enjoy the game? How immersive will games become then?
Let’s take a trip down memory lane to a time when the Sega Saturn still sat on store shelves; a time when the original PlayStation had not yet decimated all competition as it most surely would years later. In 1997, a little known game named Enemy Zero, which started life on the PS1 but later moved to Saturn, was released. Starring Laura Lewis, of CGI heavy game “D” fame, it took place on the AKI space station after she awoke from a cryogenic sleep. The story borrowed heavily from the Alien series of movies and featured first person corridor sequences and lots of great CGI scenes.
But what set Enemy Zero apart from everything else on the market wasn’t its 3D graphics, which were mediocre at best, or its FMV, which was surprisingly good, but it’s audio. Only by paying attention to mandatory audio cues could the player make his or her way through the game. Like the game’s title suggests, the enemy was invisible but a special device that Laura acquired in the game gave off a high frequency pitch that fluctuated based on the creatures’ proximity and cardinal direction to the player. When the creatures were further away, the device beeped slower but when they were close it became a frantic scramble to figure out exactly how much time you had before they killed you.
Enemy Zero is only one example of audio used in interesting, gameplay oriented ways. Another such title is The City of Metronome by Tarsier Studios AB, which currently as no definitive release date. Pinned as “a unique third person adventure game where sound is your weapon,” Tarsier hopes to distinguish TCoM from other adventure games through the use of audio interaction. By recording sounds, whether natural or simulated, the player, a young train conductor in the city of Metronome, will use the recordings to solve puzzles, fight, and change the mood of the world’s inhabitants. And if the player can’t find a natural sound to use, he can create his own by throwing rocks through windows, shoving bookcases down stairs, among other things, and recording them for future playback.
The push for high quality visual fidelity has driven the audio part of gaming into a limited cinematic space. Not to say that cinematic audio is wrong, but variety truly is the spice of life.
Whatever the case may be, the power of the current machines on the market leave no room for excuses. Audio-based gameplay has advantages in the current climate that it never had before. Maybe with software like the aforementioned The City of Metronome and Rez, which is experiencing a bit of a rebirth on the Xbox 360 thanks to Rez HD, the possibilities of sound oriented gameplay have never been better. Perhaps then gaming will be as interactive as it should’ve been all along, with players using their fingers, eyes, and ears to manipulate and participate in the action.