Sound design is important. Every time I say it I get a reply such as “yeah you’re so damn right, dude. Gosh I love sounds.” But still, sound comes last pretty much always.
I’m not talking about music per sé, though I do enjoy a good soundtrack. Sound design isn’t something that just happens, it takes a lot of time and effort and if it’s done correctly; nobody notices. Unless it’s absolutely vital to your game.
When Jeff Kaplan said “I don’t care about deaf people”, you knew he wasn’t playing around. Overwatch’s entire gameplay is pretty much balanced with sound. Ever tried playing Overwatch quietly while your girlfriend is asleep next to you? Perhaps you left your headphones at work. You’re kind of farked. Overwatch suddenly becomes largely impossible. All those distinct footsteps of flanking characters, all those announced super-moves. Even just the perfectly crafted aural distancing helps you tell whether a shotgun is in lethal range or too far away to be a threat. Vital information is given to your ears, not your eyes. Things that you take for granted, things you rely on so heavily are stripped away when the sound is off.
Then there’s bad sound design. Take Xenoblade Chronicles X, for instance. Let’s compare it to Dark Souls. Battle music is an important thing. It can greatly increase the stress levels (in a good way) of the player with tense dissonance and fast pace, increasing the immersion. It can also be really really annoying and make everything worse. In Dark Souls, the music is usually an orchestral number. Something epic and huge and imposing. It makes you feel that these ancient, incomprehensible beings that you are slaying are worthy of such chorus. It doesn’t always have to be high-stress, though. Listen to the song that plays when you fight the Moonlight Butterfly. A mysterious, awe inspiring and harrowing score. The butterfly floats from atop its ruined tower perch. A lone, melancholy soprano sings to you. With no lyrics, she chants a melody while a harp accompaniment is quietly plucked. As the fight picks up, another voice joins in harmony with the two present melodies. You really feel that you are destroying something beautiful.
What about Xenoblade Chronicles X? The battle music here is rapping over rock music. I love both of those genres, yet they still manage to combine to butcher everything I once loved. The combat can often last half a lifetime so the music just loops, it’s not a score it’s a song playing on infinite repeat. Something no one ever really does. You have characters throwing battle quips from a very, very small pool of recordings. You have the sound of the weapons clashing and the monsters attacking. You have numbers being scattered around everywhere and useless pieces of over-complicated UI crowding your screen. It’s just S-E-N-S-O-R-Y O-V-E-R-L-O-A-D. The game is filled with repeated songs, ones that would be best suited to the opening sequence of some mecha anime and not in a highly intense battle sequence. It was a soundtrack that wanted to be cool and down-with-the-children but actually it just annoyed the bejesus out of everyone.
How does it filter down to indie titles? Recently I’ve been falling back in love with Hyper Light Drifter. This is a game that forfeited voice overs, hecking dang and flip it even forfeited words. It did almost every piece of storytelling with beautiful visuals and well executed sound. I first started thinking about the creativity behind the sound design when I heard the noise your character makes when you click speak to an NPC you’ve already spoken to. It’s like a muffled chirp, a bitcrushed Pac-Man noise. But it kind of sounds like talking. It definitely implies it. Under other circumstances it might just sound like nothing, but they knew what it would both look and sound like. Most people will think of HLD as a masterclass in visual storytelling and visual learning (and they’d be damn right) but actually – despite its incredible visuals – the atmosphere is mostly conveyed through the sound. The sound design in this game blends in real world sounds, such as the noise the slash makes as you hear the cloth robes move off of the arm of the Drifter. Adding those real world noises – in careful moderation – adds weight and feel to an otherwise very simple 2D character. The background noise almost feels like it’s the world around you that is making it, but really it’s just ambient noises from a synthesiser. However they’re so perfectly contextualised that you genuinely feel a sense of lonely emptiness in the vast expanses of the world you inhabit. It’s not just sad music to make you feel alone, it’s sound design that conveys a range of feelings and establishes an ambience for a reason. This is a game in which muting it, where you could otherwise be listening and experiencing, would be a terrible shame.