Like many people during this pandemic, I’ve sought escapism in the medium of video games. At their best, they can be a window into another world, and that’s something we can all appreciate, especially in these gloomy winter months.
Although usually thought of as a visual medium, games offer much for the sonically minded too. For starters, the scores to big‑budget video games can be at least as ambitious as those of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Indeed, they’re often composed and recorded by the same people: check out Harry Gregson‑Williams’ fantastically suspenseful work on the Metal Gear Solid series, or Trent Reznor’s Quake II thrash‑a‑thon for a lesson in high‑octane pace‑setting.
As fantastic as these scores can be in their own right, they go way beyond the normal passive listening experience when heard in‑game, thanks to a powerful combination of musicality and programming. Unlike in a film, where cues are static and the composer knows to put a horn stab here or a mournful cello there, game scores are dynamic, and are often ingeniously assembled in almost granular detail. Cues are triggered and sometimes even generated in real time, based on the actions of the player and the goings‑on of the game world. Slices of music are cannily composed in such a way that they can interject or overlap seamlessly, so that the ‘calm’ theme can give way to the ‘peril’ theme at a moment’s notice, as smoothly as it would if you were watching a film.
Game developers truly care about sound, and have done for a long time — the chant of ‘SEGA!’ that greeted people when they booted up 1991’s Sonic The Hedgehog apparently took up no less than an eighth of the cartridge’s total capacity.
And then there’s the ear candy. From the moment a game boots up, you’re hearing talented sound designers at work, on the developer and publisher idents, menu ambience, and even the little clicks and thuds as you navigate and select your game options. All these things add up to give the game a sense of gravity and import, and that’s before you’ve even started playing.
But most impressive, for me at least, are the sound engines. Not only are things like footsteps, wildlife sounds, engine roars, football chants and zombie moans meticulously recorded, they’re then placed into astonishingly realistic object‑based virtual environments. Real‑life phenomena like the Doppler effect, HF air absorption, early reflections, flutter echoes and more are rendered with a realism that most of our DAW plug‑ins wouldn’t dare dream of, to the extent that you could probably echo‑locate your way around some games blindfolded.
Game developers truly care about sound, and have done for a long time — the chant of ‘SEGA!’ that greeted people when they booted up 1991’s Sonic The Hedgehog apparently took up no less than an eighth of the cartridge’s total capacity. So, if you care about sound but have previously considered video games a distraction, do yourself a favour: pick a title you like the look of, don your favourite studio headphones, and get immersed.