Sound Design in Video Games and Film

By Erin

Sound design is a crucial aspect of video games and movies. What would Halloween or Jaws be like without their iconic soundtracks? Michael Myers is much less menacing in awkward silence. However, the way the audio of these different types of media is created differs between each one due to differing goals and challenges.

According to Williams, “Aurally, excess is marked by recourse not to the coded articulations of language but to inarticulate cries of pleasure in porn, screams of fear in horror, sobs of anguish in melodrama” (Willams 4). When thinking of the sound design in the games we have played as a class, these stereotypes don’t exactly seem to describe them. For example, in P.T. the sound design was much more minimal. For the most part, all you could hear was your footsteps through the empty house. Occasionally, there would be another sound effect like a door slamming or something falling, perhaps a radio turning on. The sound design, rather than an excess, was marked by an absence. The silence served to accentuate every small sound to draw the player’s attention to it. Because we didn’t play games with a lot of action, the only scenes that seem to fit this stereotype are death scenes, such as in P.T. when you are caught by the ghost; a musical sting plays as she jumps in front of you, accentuating the startling feeling. Sound design in VR horror games doesn’t differ much from traditional horror games in how it is designed or its purpose. However, it does have a different effect. Sound design in VR horror is a very important aspect of immersion in the game. It is much more important to have accurate directionality in sound effects or you lose the feeling of actually being inside the game.

Sound design also differs between horror video games and horror movies. Where the objective of a video game soundtrack is to create a feeling in an environment and add to the setting’s ambiance, movie soundtracks must be much more intentional in their design. A musical sting may accompany a jump scare in order to help startle the audience, or a swell in the music can serve to add tension to a particular moment. However, video games are rarely so scripted. Instead, much of the soundtrack will play on a loop. Every environment has its own unique backing track, but it will rarely have such intentional dynamics to accentuate the story. Instead, there will be shifts to different types of music, such as battle music or a darker soundtrack for a tense moment. Where movies will play with the dynamics of the music itself, games tend to focus more on timing and direction. A sound from an enemy may warn you to turn around. Some new sound effect may hint at a new development in the story. Using P.T. as an example again, when the radio turns on, it hints to the player to go investigate it in order to advance.

These differences in movie soundtracks and video game soundtracks occur in part because a movie soundtrack can be much more scripted and intentional because there is no variability to the experience. Every moment can have its sound design mapped out because there is no possible change to account for. In a video game, every playthrough by every player will invariably unfold differently. It is impossible to map out every second of the sound design. For this reason, video game soundtracks are instead designed to invoke a general feeling and create an ambiance rather than add impact to a specific moment as movie soundtracks do. As such, movie soundtracks require much more meticulous planning. However, this isn’t to say that less effort goes into a video game soundtrack. Due to its nature of being so static, a movie soundtrack only needs to be written and mapped out once. However, video game soundtracks must account for many different variables. Footsteps must start and stop when the player does. The directionality of sounds must shift as the player moves through the environment. Rather than having specific moments planned out, video games plan out all of the possible sounds in one location and program them to play when appropriate and with the correct qualities to seem cohesive with the environment, meaning they may sound muffled, louder or quieter with distance, or come from a different direction.

In conclusion, while video game soundtracks and movie soundtracks do differ, one is not more effective than the other, and both serve their purpose in the form of media they are designed for. Video game soundtracks may even differ in style or purpose from each other, but they are designed in a way that will best accentuate and add to the type of game they are made for.

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