Bigger then Big: The Game Audio Explosion Part 2 - Sound Design Feature - The Next Level

Bigger then Big: The Game Audio Explosion Part 2 - Sound Design

Steve examines some of the specific considerations of game sound design.

Article by Steve Kutay (Email)
March 24th 2006, 07:00PM

Ambience - Defining Environments Through Sound

Initially, ambient sound should effectively portray the setting, location and time frame of the game or its various levels. For instance, percussion and double reed music, a multitude of bartering voices and distant clanking iron would suggest a medieval marketplace. As the game progresses the role of the ambient sound is to support the circumstances with which the player is involved. Does the sound within the environment evoke danger or safety? Activity or inactivity? Conversely, ambience can be used to deceive the player through suggesting a false circumstance, such as creating a sense of calm before an ambush. Under all these conditions, good ambient sound should portray a living environment.

The psychological impact of ambient sounds can add much to the onscreen imagery, though not physically present in the scenery. For instance a distant, sustained cry of an infant suggests vulnerability or insecurity. A broken fence rattling in the wind of an abandoned city, suggests to the player a previous traumatic event. These are subtle examples used to arouse awareness in the player. More obvious sounds should be used to cue the player of his direct proximity to danger. Dark drones or muffled enemy vocalizations will prepare the player for fierce combat ahead. Fear, anticipation and anxiety are easily evoked by the careful placement of ambient sounds.

Impacts and Destruction - Breathing Death Into the Non-Living

From a sound perspective, impacts and destruction must primarily convey suffering and submission. These terms apply naturally to the vocal efforts triggered under an opponent or avatar under attack, but are more abstract when applied to inanimate objects. Since the human voice is the most expressive instrument in existence, applying human-like characteristics to the ‘non-living’, will help give the sounds a more life-like and expressive quality. Twisting, screeching metal, the deep thud and release of broken concrete and wood that creaks, pops and splinters convey expressive responses to the forces applied to them, in much the same way a grunt, moan and exhale expresses human injury.

Additionally, impacts and destruction sounds should proportionately depict the transference of energy between the weapon and the target. A metallic ping with a ricochet is an effective response to a bullet on metal, in which the transfer of energy between a low-mass object at high speed can be observed. A missile explosion, on the other hand, is more powerful and slower to develop, therefore requiring an equally proportionate response.

Weapons - Know Thyself, Know Thy Enemy

It is a lesser-known fact that a gunshot at close range, sounds less threatening than from 40 or even 80 yards away. Since most people have never fired a gun, their expectations for the sound of gunshots as depicted by the entertainment media are very high. Therefore, even in games based on historical simulation, some amount of sonic sweetening will be necessary. In the case of a “period” war game, multiple recordings of the specific weapon should be blended together to create a satisfying gunshot. These might include mixing together the various distances recorded for the gunshot, as well as the dry trigger and shell discharge sounds for the specific firearm. Sounds created this way will be sonically interesting while retaining the historical accuracy of the weapon.

For science-fiction or fantasy games, the imagination is the sound designer’s only limitation. As mentioned previously, the design documents will shed light on the abilities of the enemies and characters within the game. The weapons detailed in this document should explain the amount of damage incurred by each weapon. It is important that these sounds appropriately match the damage potential, since the player will, to some extent, be judging the amount of damage from each weapon by the sound it creates. For example, weapons that contain a charge-up sound before firing, indicates to the player that a great amount of force is forthcoming. Likewise, a weapon that produces a large discharge noise would produce the same result.

From a stylistic perspective, weapons are an extension of the personalities of each character and should compliment the character’s physical attributes, abilities and in some cases, their heritage or history. For instance, the sounds of swords, knives and shuriken should be as stealthy as the master ninja who wields them. The character of these sounds should compliment the physical qualities exhibited by the ninja and reflect the mastery of the ninja tradition. With this in mind you should expect the sounds to be light but fierce, focused and evoke quickness of movement.

Steve Kutay is the co-founder of Radius360, an award-winning audio post production company, specializing in sound for film and games, located in Los Angeles, California. For more information please visit or contact Steve at

©2006 Steve Kutay, Radius360. This article may be posted in partial or entirety as long as credit is given to Steve Kutay, Radius360 and

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