The current HASTAC forum on Sound and Technology has me thinking about the way sound is used in video games. In particular, I have been thinking about the difference between the way sound is used to create atmosphere and the way it is used to create a sense of space. Below is the basic distinction I made on the forum with a bit more consideration.
By “atmosphere” I mean how sound plays into the overall aesthetic and feel of the world being presented. It is the way Bioshock uses sound effects, NPC dialogue, and music to flesh out the richness of Rapture. Another example is Fallout 3, the game I am currently playing (finally), which punctuates a near future post-apocalyptic landscape with ‘40s Big Band music. Together they give the game a bizarre tone that feels both historical and futuristic, but at the same time it is a perfect extension of the game’s central alt-history conceit which basically wonders what would happen if WWII led into a nuclear holocaust.
This is something different from the way sound contributes to an experience of 3D space. In Fallout 3, again, because it is an open-world game and enemies can come at your character from any angle, one has to rely on hearing the enemies when they are not in one’s line of vision. There is no peripheral vision in games, the limit of onscreen display is a hard limit, so sound becomes really important for locating one’s character – and potential threats – in virtual space.
From the point of view of immersion, sound should ideally blend into the background. Atmpospheric sounds work seemlessly with spatial sounds to compose the virtual world without becoming singularly noticable in doing so. I have found Fallout 3‘s background soundtrack, for example, to be pretty successful at this, as most of the time I am not aware there is any music is playing at all.
And, yet, there are often those times in games in which the relationship between atmospheric and spatial sounds is more complicated. Take for example, driving in Grand Theft Auto 4. The sound of the engine, tires, other cars contribute to the sense of moving through space. At the same time, the radio station one selects changes the tenor of that movement. There is something really cold about mowing down pedestrians while listening to talk radio, while listening to Barry White as you ramp your motorbike into the Hudson is pretty funny.
So, video game sound can mix atmosphere and space in lots of different ways. For example, the moments when the instrumental background soundtrack and sound effects give way to full vocal tracks in Red Dead Redemption produced some of the most substantial emotional experiences I’ve ever had with a game. Sound in games, then, is not just about creating a world, but also the affect that can emerge from an unexpected confluence of atmosphere and space.