The Importance of Audio in Games (or, creating the desired atmosphere and play experience through sound)
At a fairly early stage in the 2D Space Shooter I’ve been working on I added some audio feedback. Things like laser sounds, explosions, powerup sounds, and some music were pretty quick and easy to implement, and went a long way in making the game more enjoyable to play and test. The immediate auditory and visual feedback really helped the game feel more responsive, giving my actions some much needed meaning and impact.
I suppose it’s largely a matter of communicating changes in the game state to the player, for instance a sound when the player takes damage, deals damage, collects something important, uses something important, or perhaps when a new wave begins. I’ve so far found it pretty hard to overdo it with the number of sounds in a game, unless perhaps there’ll be too many for the player to process, there’s a file size limitation, or they’re a bit too loud and grating to be heard all that often (which is especially a problem with some of the more regular sounds in a lot of games, like jumping and shooting SFX). But by and large (and at a fundamental level), I’m going to want to know that the action I’ve tried to perform has indeed been performed and registered by the game, and if I can’t hear as well as see that’s the case then I might begin to doubt the responsiveness of the game or application.
I do feel this is particularly the case with key player actions within the main game loop, but some UI sounds for navigating menus and changing settings are also generally appreciated (although these should probably be subtler sounds).
Aside from audio feedback, choosing the right ambience and/or music for your game is understandably going to be pretty important (not least because the player will probably be listening to it on loop). I think the question needs to come down to what kind of game space/atmosphere do you want your player to be in for the game or for this section of the game. What is the intended play experience? Should the player feel exhilarated? Tense? Melancholic? Contemplative? Relaxed? And does/should it fit the aesthetics? The wrong choice of music or ambience can unfortunately do a remarkable job of ruining the atmosphere you were otherwise successfully creating. That being said, the opposite can be true when you get it right.
Games which lovingly come to mind when I’m thinking of this are The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Edith Finch, Night in the Woods, the Halo franchise, Doom, Hotline Miami, Undertale, Minecraft… They’re often creating incredibly different atmospheres, but boy do their soundtracks and ambiences go a long way in doing so.
This being said, sometimes the absence of music, or even it’s seeming absence, can be incredibly effective. Silence really can sharpen the senses when we need it to, but it can also be used to provide a huge sense of relief to the player (particularly when it’s in contrast to more active and more stressful parts of the game). I’ve spoken about it a little before, but the ending of the Amnesia’s ‘The Great Work’ mod, after having finally escaped the many horrors of its world, was due in no small part to the sense of quiet and stillness it created (in stark contrast to everything which had come before).
I’ve never done much with it myself, but I’m also thinking about how games create loop points in their audio so that the same soundtrack can play but with variations to better suit the location, action, or overall pace of the game at that time. The same music can become quiet and reserved, mysterious the next, adventurous in the next moment, and peter back down afterwards. I’ve never done anything with this myself, but I would very much like to one day.
Appreciate very little of this is relevant to what I’m doing in this 2D Space Shooter, but there really is a lot to be said about audio and yet so little I know about it. I certainly haven’t got the ability to produce it myself, but I really do appreciate the contribution music, and sound design in general, makes in creating the right atmosphere for the player.