Sounds About Right

The role that audio has played in videogames is one that has evolved dramatically since the early days of simplistic beeps and bleeps, becoming one of the most important and yet overlooked facets of a modern videogames’ design.

We are all very quick to exclaim "Ohh’s" and "Ahh’s" at the latest graphical wizardry and parlour tricks from graphic chipset makers ATI and nVIDIA and to count the extra frames our overclocked processors afford us, but rarely does one stop to think just how effectively a computer can render the Doppler effect.

Of all the areas of videogame design and technological advancement audio has perhaps received the least attention over the years. Whatever the reason for this however (and there are many I could postulate, from the nil-effects sound has on performance to the fact that we just take the sound in our games for granted) brave souls in the industry have continued to innovate to the extent that, without even noticing it, sound has become one of the linchpins of any successful game.

The way in which sound has been employed in games has affected their very nature. Take Thief, where sound is critical to your situational awareness when you can’t always see what’s hunting you. Try Alien vs Predator, in which the jangling of chains and a simple bleeping motion sensor can send you off into a trigger-happy panic attack. Jump into Call of Duty, where it is more often the sound rather than the graphics which put across the sense of energy in an artillery barrage or a pitched battle. Or perhaps Operation Flashpoint, where sound can be your only guide as to what is happening over the next hill on the giant realistic battlefields it recreates.

No matter how good the game is in other respects, I refuse to buy it if the sound quality is lacklustre. After first experiencing a realistic videogame take on the sound of bullets whizzing past my virtual head and kicking up the 0101 dirt around me I was hooked for life. It’s a bit like Plato’s allegory of the cave.

Before you heard a realistic take on the Doppler effect, which is basically the way in which approaching objects such as aircraft fade in and out of your hearing as they approach and depart where you are, you could be forgiven for not noticing that in many games the noise of an aircraft engine tends to just magically appear out of nowhere.

After hearing it, and realising just how right it sounds, you’ll never want to go back, and hence my reason for becoming an audio snob and not wanting to touch anything behind a 5.1 Surround Sound system (the Medusa 5.1 headphones do me) in an audio-rich game. I want my positional audio, my Doppler effects and if I don’t hear wildlife chirping when I’m not hearing guns firing then I’ll be noticeably perturbed.

Indeed, this happened to me once whilst playing World War II Online. For a game that touts itself on total emersion and realism, at the time I played it last in 2004 I found myself sitting in a ditch with a bunch of virtual comrades, awaiting an enemy counter-attack, and noticing the rather audible lack of any wildlife. Not so much as an owl or a branch rustling in the wind. I was just sitting there in my virtual ditch and then, like a truck suddenly coming through the office window, I noticed with a start that I couldn’t hear anything.

The term an "awkward silence" perhaps took on a new meaning for me that night, and these days I can’t sit still in a totally quiet virtual world.

My latest audible obsession has been for Creative’s latest and impressively powerful SoundBlaster soundcard, the X-Fi. As per usual the benefits that this feature-crammed card cannot be totally appreciated in videogames until developers on the software side fully unlock its potential through their coding wizardry, but the card does have some great promise.

The all-important positional element of online gaming in particular, in which pro-Counter-Strike players can often be seen straining to hear approaching footsteps, is promised a boost from the fidelity that X-Fi brings to our ears.

More important to me personally however is what can now be done for the overall ambience in a game. Too often whilst rushing into a very cluttered battle in an artillery-fest such as Call of Duty sounds have run over one another, mixed up and generally gone arse over tit to drag me kicking and screaming from my suspension of disbelief and immersed state. A decent soundcard and a good pair of headphones later and I hope never to have to experience audible mishaps in the future.

Finally, spare a thought for the poorly fed orchestral scores that an increasing number of games are beginning to employ. Even the mighty Half-Life only paid its passing respects to a top-notch soundtrack, but I dare anyone to play Hitman without its exquisite soundtrack playing at a comfortable volume. Not all games need soundtracks all the time, but without them Hitman wouldn’t be the game it is, and I probably wouldn’t be able to sit through quite as much Civilization IV as I do without some nice noise to help me along the way.

So, developers don’t forget to exploit X-Fi and whatever you do, don’t forget to include the bloody birds chirping. Everyone else, don’t forget to tip the busking musicians on the way out, lest I have to start playing Wagner in the background to my classy assassination games.

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