Manuel - Which elements do you most regularly focus on when discussing videogames with your friends? Gameplay, visuals, difficulty, length? Those factors have formed the basis of videogame commentary since the inception of print reviews, heroically clinging on as the yardsticks for quality assessment into the year 2009. But what about audio? Can we afford to underestimate the impact of an entire sensory input when evaluating our chosen pastime any longer? I don’t think we can.
Audio alters our game experience more than most players would ever give credence for, supplementing visual and gameplay design to form a cohesive experience. Would Halo have been as well-received without Marty O’Donnell’s evocative score? Would MGS garner the same critical approval without the unerringly atmospheric theme tune? Is Indiana Jones a lesser hero without John Williams bombastic overture? Absolutely.
With the PSN title Shatter turning out to be the first game that I’ve been driven to play almost entirely to hear the next audio track, the importance of a good score has never been more apparent for me. But what role does audio play for you? Do you often replace the in-game music with your own from the dashboard? Can you recall a moment in which the musical score perfectly supplemented the on-screen storytelling or action? We can all quote favourite movie soundtracks, what about videogames?
Pogo - I feel that videogame audio certainly is evolving with the technology. Personal highlights have been titles such as Silent Hill 2 or 4, where audio is almost used as its own character. Irregular pauses, fluctuations in volume and crescendos when not expected added a further level of dread to the experience. It allowed the game to consume the player. I must admit, there were even a couple of times where I had to just mute the television just to break the fear!
BIGsheep - I’m glad to see it’s not just me who does that. I can clearly recall playing both Resident Evil and Fatal Frame late at night and in utter darkness and I would be reduced to a nervous wreck by the audio. The latter especially produced a very unnerving atmosphere with sparing use of strings and subtle environmental sound in exactly the same way a full cinematic horror movie would. It still makes a shiver run down my spine just thinking about when a ghost came into view. From what Pogo’s been telling me Dead Space carries on that tradition, with the current generation.
Compared to cinema I believe the industry as a whole is still some way behind but the gap is closing, the titles we’ve just mentioned show this because they use audio so effectively, possibly even more so than their visuals.
It only takes subtle things, too, to get me excited. My first forray into Battlefield had me in awe of the sound as it was the first time I’d heard a shooter distort the sound of the guns properly. You’d be on one side of a map and yet you’d hear this muffled but tinny crack as the gun was fired; something so simple really brought a sense of distance to your surroundings.
Pogo - Another favourite of mine was the blend of music and visual style in the Dreamcast Jet set radio and then Xbox Jet Set Radio Future. The mix of manic Japanese hip hop and underground dance music synced perfectly with the gameplay. It was fun and made for some great atmosphere to spur on my spray painting antics!
BIGsheep - I would also have to put down the Banjo theme tune as one of my favourite pieces. Not the original, though, the one where Grant Kirkhope found his electric guitar for the sequel.
I’m not one to put my own music on when playing, I usually like to experience the music and sound effects as was intended without any interference, initially just to respect the musicians who have put a serious amount of effort into the process. They’ve spent the last couple of years of their life crafting an audible experience that they feel matches the pitch of the game and I don’t think I’m in any position to judge that before giving it a chance. I very rarely hate anything that’s emanated from my speakers but occasionally you find soundtracks that even have the ability to stand on their own, such as with Halo, and other epic tales.
Manuel - I’d cite both God of War and Shadow of the Colossus as standout scores in that regard; both stand on their own as eminently listenable and evocative outside of the game. I usually use friends or girlfriends as the acid test; if you can put something on and they don’t immediately reach for the volume control as they would with lesser examples, then that’s normally an example of videogame music transcending the fairly low quality threshold for a lot of filler titles. Not that my MP3 player is filled entirely with videogame soundtracks, I hasten to add – for fear of sounding like a 13-year-old fanboy.
BIGsheep - Another aspect we should consider are licensed soundtracks. Games that could be considered commercial, such as sports games and those based around certain scenes, are far more likely to have bought in music to give a more realistic representation of their target demographic. For instance, I can’t imagine Tony Hawks ever being backed by a concert orchestra or the next FIFA releasing with a selection of South American panpipes being the backing track to your Premiership success. There is a time and a place for it, however, and those who do license need to be careful about how they insert this very real world connection into their virtual one.
Manuel - FIFA is very clever in that regard. Whoever licences the music for EA Canada obviously has a very talented ear for pop music, as I’ll often hear songs from that soundtrack popping up on mainstream radio throughout the rest of the year, sometimes a good 6-7 months after featuring in the game.
Halo 2 skirted with danger on that front when they introduced “Blow me away” as the only licensed track within the gameplay (in one specific firefight), but they just about got away with it. That could have been a disaster though, and may well have sucked a portion of the audience out of the moment. In hindsight, it’s a supremely memorable section, but it does seem like a fairly artificial peak rather than a natural progression of the game.
BIGsheep - I remembering hearing that on the soundtrack – yes, I have all the Halo soundtracks, I’m afraid to say – and couldn’t remember where they’d squeezed it in. Playing Halo 2 back through, though, I was stunned I’d missed it before as it seems almost jarring when compared to the rest of the music. The tracks in the game that I was impressed by were the Incubus commissions; they did about four songs in total and whilst all away from the game sounded very much like their brand of music they also managed to blend their style to work with the game itself. I’m surprised that no-one else has gone down this route as it’s one thing to simply buy a track but another completely to commission a band to write something specific.
One big plus for licensed soundtracks is their ability to introduce new music to the player. I remember getting Burnout 3 and after playing it for a good couple of hours I needed to take a break to get on with some more mundane chores. Rather than putting the radio on, though, I left the game ticking over in the background. There I was pulled up in a layby, the other racers streaking past me, and I just turned the volume up on the in-game radio. I must have bought at least four albums off the back of that game.
Pogo - I agree. Burnout’s choices of soundtrack have been stellar throughout the series. I love the reaction of using your ‘boost’ makes the music louder. There’s not much better in life than ripping through the streets at breakneck speed listening to Airbourne!