Can we Mute this Guy?
We have all been in that lobby where that one guy just will not shut up. Or maybe it’s a whole gaggle of guys. They throw off concentration while demeaning every aspect of the game. So we mute them and the problem is solved. Yet, sometimes developers build characters into games that we cannot single out for a mute.
These characters could have obnoxious voices or terrible lines, but typically the annoyance comes in the form of repetition. Maybe it’s commentators in your favorite sports game repeating plays, or a fellow soldier calling out for ammo. Perhaps the vehicle comes in the form of repetitive music or sound effects that repeat agnosia. Whatever it is, sound can disrupt “the flow.” It can take a player out of the gaming experience faster than a crying baby at a movie.
My first article for Two Left Sticks involved a delving into my childhood love of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I did not mention there that the first time I played Ocarina, my TV had no sound capabilities. Yes. I could ignore Navi almost completely. I would have still loved that game just as much with her advice (and more with the sound/music in general), but who can deny that part of Navi and Ocarina’s charm comes from the incessant “Listen!”ing.
While Navi is surely delightful, repetition reminds us that we are playing a game. In many gaming experiences, the controls, sound, gameplay, and graphics should add up to something of an escape for participators. Plenty of necessary aspects of video games like menus and save files can remind gamers that they are gaming, but voices and sounds that repeat themselves are a seemingly avoidable detractor. When developers choose to add a sound that takes the player from inside the screen and back onto the couch, one must ask: why not just choose silence?
Take one of the otherwise powerful opening scenes of Heavy Rain, where Ethan is trying to find his son Jason in a shopping mall. Ethan cries his son’s name over and over while searching for him among the red balloons and crowds. This scenario stands in stark contrast to the rest of the game, which through it’s decision based narrative and stimulative controls makes for an extremely immersive experience. But try explaining how good that game is while crying “Jason!” in the same two sound-bits for five minutes straight.
Similarly with Resident Evil 4, where federal agent Leon Kennedy perpetually tries to rescue Ashley Graham, the president’s daughter. If Ashley requires assistance of any kind, she will repeat her request with the same line and inflection every few seconds. One cannot help but to wonder why Capcom did not record several voice lines for the handful of situations that Ashley needs them for. Alternatively, why not just keep her silent for longer and keep our ears intact?
While RE4 delivers the anxiety it promises with tense rescue scenes, when they end it is hard to determine whether we are glad because we just saved Ashley, or that she has finally stopped yelling. Games with repetitive voices can still be fun, but when frustration shifts from character to developer, the immersion ends.
The Sound of Silence… and Monsters in the Vents.
The importance of that immersion comes into focus with games that utilize sound. Many a horror game frightens its players through both it’s scary noises and the lack of clutter surrounding them. We know a game is going to be primo scary when it tells you to wear headphones to maximize the experience. If a brave player wears headphones during the Resident Evil 7 teaser, they won’t notice music or unnecessary voice lines. All they will hear is the sound of something walking upstairs and their own heart beating.
The goal of immersion is player identification with the character. Developers should always be trying to put players behind the eyes and ears of their game’s hero. While music and sound effects that are unheard to the characters might evoke parallel emotions for the players, silence is always a neutral and realistic middle-ground.
A classic example of an immersive experience comes in the Dead Space franchise. The menu system built into its main character, Isaac Clarke, demonstrates the importance EA Redwood Shores placed on absorption. The carefully conducted voicing, sound effects, and music only add to that immersion. Dead Space even avoided the horror game trope of “monster is nearby” music, opting for strategic silences that amplified the distinctly bowel loosening noises coming from the ventilation systems.
A Brief Word about Deep Purple and Wagner
Music, like voice lines and sound effects, can either have an intensely immersive effect or it can annoy players out of the screen. I have found that in some story modes, a certain repeated track can bother me so much that it’s end becomes my motivation for advancing.
Spec Ops: The Line is an underappreciated game that utilizes music for a seldom desired effect. They story takes us through a deserted Dubai after a vicious sandstorm. The player and their companions must fight their way through enemies, thirst, and insanity.
During several parts of the game, one of the adversaries blasts classic rock music over a sound system, which the characters react to while shooting up the opposition. They, like the player, are surprised and motivated by the welcomed pop culture. Immersion comes because the player experiences the music alongside the soldiers, as opposed to hearing music that the characters never will.
Typically, escaping into a game includes temporarily forgetting the about the decisions that went into making the experience. An exception to that trend comes during Farcry 3, when the music shifts from background dubstep to Richard Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
Ubisoft Montreal leaves us fully zoned into the gameplay while praising their awesome choice of music. Moments like these transcend subtlety and capture the emotion of the moment for both the character and the player. I will let this video explain the dichotomy of immersion and awesomeness.
Silence as a Starting Point
We have noted that sound can either drastically pull us into the screen, or eject us from the experience. The unfortunate fact is that we tend to notice when repetition or redundancy annoy us. So, when faced with the decision to either add more noise or not, developers should think carefully about how the sounds they employ will affect the player’s level of engrossment.
A developer truly demonstrates it’s wisdom for immersion in sound immersion’s most tender ground: The Companion. Will they be constantly pointing out enemies (redundant) or calling for healing (repetitive)? Having a companion in a game has its list of pros and cons. Watching a character perpetually grow throughout the story being a pro, and repetitive voice lines typically fall into the “cons” list.
One of the best games ever made recognized this fact and dropkicked it. Joel and Ellie are near constant companions in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. They fight their way cross-country through soldiers, bandits, and infected as they try to save humanity from the virus that has killed most of the population.
The effects of the virus are evident in the world, as the cities have been left deserted or in ruins. Most of the sounds the player hear come from nature. The score highlights, never distracts from, this haunting vision that Naught Dog has put forth. When the player meets human enemies, they hardly repeat themselves, and only when they’re making strategy against Joel.
Joel and Ellie have many conversations during both cinematic scenes and regular gameplay. During both, almost every word is meaningful. Aside from the occasional (stressing occasional) prompt to watch out for an enemy, or “wow” from destroying an enemy’s face, each word contributes to character development. The game features optional and pre-scripted conversations about the environment, random musings from Ellie’s joke book, and continued conversations about the plot. Joel even comments on notes that he finds around the game, each a unique remark related to what he and the player have read.
When the characters had nothing to say, they said nothing. This phenomenon made the player perk up whenever the characters spoke, never writing it off as stock voice lines.
That final idea should lead developers forward in any area where sound is concerned. Instead of trying to fill our ears with sound and then possibly whittling down the aggravating ones, what if developers started from the inherent immersion that comes with silence? Imagine if characters only talked when they had something to say, or music only played when an emotion was being communicated, or the vents only rattled when there was a monster inside of them.
The less needlessly pervasive a sound is, voice or otherwise, the more the players will truly listen. The more they listen, the more they care; and the more they care, the more immersed in the experience they will remain.