Emotional Response to Sound
From the beginning we have been programmed to respond to sound. A mother’s voice, a church bell, or police sirens conjure an emotional response. Sounds help us to decipher the world around us. They warn us of danger, call us to action and bring peace and tranquility to our lives. The more expressive the sound is, the greater our emotional response to it. Sound effects correctly placed in a game should evoke this response while defining the environment, circumstance and personas on screen. Due to the random nature by which sounds are triggered in a game, they must effectively co-exist without losing definition or character when multiple sounds occur in close proximity to each other. Let’s examine some general observations in game sound design.
Beware of Sonic Sludge!
There is a finite amount of sound data that the ear can properly interpret before fatigue sets in. It is the role of the sound programmer or director to prioritize which sounds are most important and at what times they are important. The sound designer on the other hand, must always create content that will be effective, regardless of the circumstances that exist at the time a sound is played. Good sound effects should work well alone and in combination with many other sounds. This is a challenging task, but careful forethought and planning will produce a rich, dynamic and satisfying interactive soundscape.
The key to preventing sonic fatigue is to create sound effects that vary in volume and frequency in relation to each other. A single sound effect that is loud and contains equal amounts of low, middle and high frequencies may be effective when played alone, but if all the sound effects are loud and contain a similar frequency spectrum, it becomes difficult to decipher one sound from the next.
In most cases, the sound designer delivers the sounds at a reasonably loud volume, to allow the audio director or programmer to appropriately mix those sounds into the game, setting the playback volume for each sound. However, it is the job of the sound designer to emphasize different frequencies according to the requirements of each sound. To do this, the designer must know which sounds are likely to be played together at any given time, then selectively decide which sounds will emphasize specific frequencies. Higher frequencies provide detail. Upper middle frequencies provide presence, while lower frequencies depict power or energy. Too much emphasis on high and upper-middle frequencies will lead to fatigue, while too many sounds containing lower or sub frequencies, will become muddy and detract from the overall detail of the sound design. The goal is to create individual sounds that do not compete, but compliment. With this in mind, the sound designer must appropriately focus on the frequencies that will best suit each sound effect. This process essentially carves out any unnecessary sound space to allow additional room for other sound effects to be heard. When volumes and frequencies are selectively assigned, the sound effects will breathe and compliment each other regardless of when they play.
Pacing - Building Toward Climatic Moments
Now let’s examine the sound design from the “Big Picture” perspective. Game and level design documents will provide the structure of the game in terms of moments of emphasis. Generally, these structures take the form of peaks and valleys that convey changes in difficulty as the game progresses. Usually, the peaks represent a boss fight, though not necessarily so. When examined as a whole, the sound design should appropriately compliment these arching structures, and allow, from a sound perspective, a sense of building toward these peak moments. If the sound designer has examined the enemies and situations thoroughly, the overall sound design will naturally fall into place, appropriately following the peaks and valleys within the game. However, if for example, minions sound as powerful as bosses, some adjustment will be necessary to bring down the emphasis of these weaker and less difficult enemies. By not doing so will result in sound design that does not match the arching pattern of the game. To put it simply, there can be “too much of a good thing”. Let’s now look at some specific areas of game sound design.