The Medium of Sound – The Greatest Weapon In A Developer’s Arsenal?

With graphics and game design ever on the rise, we find ourselves in an age where most fresh-from-the-shelf titles boast a pretty and smooth environment in which players can lose themselves. But surely this is the most basic form of immersion. Any developer can create a game that looks nice, but can they make it sound good too?

Here’s a list of a few recent games whose sound designs hit all the right notes:

Final Fantasy XV – Square Enix

Florence + The Machine did an excellent job in Final Fantasy’s most recent instalment, with their cover of Ben King’s ‘Stand By Me’ powerfully ushering the player into a world where their new friends will do just that. Yoko Shimomora (lead composer), builds on this opening with a plethora of instrumentals which exceed the series’ incredibly high expectations. The soundtrack perfectly fits XV’s pacing, with loud, grandeur pieces for boss battles and chilled, relaxed tracks when kicking back with protagonists – Noctis and Co.

Famed for its classically dramatic set-pieces, Final Fantasy has always paired strong dialogue with equally powerful soundtracks. Lunafreya’s speech in Altissia serves as a prime example of the game’s prudent sound design. The instrumental builds subtly before finally reaching its crescendo as she delivers the line: “I will not rest until the darkness is banished from our world and the light is restored”.

Talk about goosebumps…

Cuphead – Studio MDHR

The epitome of tapping into our childhood and twisting it. In recent memory, few have achieved a music style so suited to gameplay or look – as players are transported into a world our favourite cartoon characters could call home.

Or so we first thought.

Soulless and indebted to the devil, the monsters of Cuphead are spliced with a demonic twist. Though seemingly innocent enough, the hellish platformer’s bosses will deploy any tactic necessary to halt your progress. All the while, light jazz will taunt you in the background as you attempt to negotiate an overgrown onion’s tears, or the lasers of a giant robot.

With original cartoon sound effects reminiscent of those old-timey cartoons which we all know and love, a touch of comedy is lent to Cuphead’s proceedings. Furthermore, the commentator’s boxing-like preamble to levels gives the player a valuable couple of seconds to prepare (to have their back-sides handed to them again).

Deadly yet gorgeous, the game’s music is juxtaposing only in its lightheartedness, a far cry from the actual game-play; which is nothing short of a stress-fest.

With all the stylistics typical of a nineteen-thirties cartoon, this game’s sound design is nothing short of a ‘knockout’.

Bioshock Series – 2K Games/Irrational Games

On the odd occasion, Bioshock’s fast-paced game-play is brought to a sharp halt by a musical interlude. In utilising these, the developer encourages the player to take a backseat and stop for a moment. To take a look at the world around them – an environment filled with minute details that can so easily be swept aside by all of the action.

As Booker DeWitt strums a guitar and Elizabeth takes to singing in Bioshock Infinite, we are shown the poverty and fear with which ‘Columbia’ is struck as a result of our actions. ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ quite literally strikes a chord and is a genius selection by lead musical director Jim Bonney. The piece reflects the ‘infinite’ nature of the sky-set city’s recycled political struggles, true of both the game and real-life.

The Bioshock series has always utilised sound well. They even know when to remove or change it altogether.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Moments of silence or change bring clarity, and with that, fear or shock. When Rapture’s lights and music go out, we stand in the darkness, suspenseful, dreading the splicer onslaught to come. When Elizabeth murders Daisy Fitzroy, a single, high note is followed by silence.

From then on, occasional reminders of the same key are audible at specific moments – reminding you that Elizabeth has been forever changed by the experience.

A final feature which Bioshock Infinite deploys well is their use of anachronistic music – or in Lehman’s terms, recent music or musical styles which are deployed in the past (think the cinematic version of The Great Gatsby). An instrumental variation of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ reflects Elizabeth’s sudden freedom from her captivity, whilst an archaic version of Tears For Fears’ ‘Everbody Wants To Rule The World’ functions in encapsulating ‘Columbia’s bourgeoisie agenda.

Not only do such implementations amplify the story’s immersion, but the innovative nature of such songs stick in the mind and make playing through the story an unforgettable experience.

A song or sound can resonate in a person’s head for weeks, and it is in this regard that successful sound design is so revered. If a game can so immerse or captivate you, then ultimately it has done its job.

It’s time games were acknowledged for more than just how they look.