Since becoming popular over forty years ago, video games have advanced into computer worlds beyond most early users’ imagination. Much of this can be credited to the spectacular graphics, intricate story-lines, and complex interactive controllers. Sound design, however, just like in modern-day film production, has been just as essential in bringing these games to life.
Most gamers can recall the term “8-bit” used to describe the early video games. Although the phrase was mostly use to describe the rudimentary graphics, the bit-rate was also applied to the limited spectrum of sound. Many video games nowadays are 24-bit and while it may not sound like a huge leap, the difference in sonic quality is night and day. While 8-bit sound consisted of mostly bleeps and blops, 24-bit sound can replicate specific types of explosions, weather, and even the human voice, in sparkling detail.
Thanks to the high bit rate now afforded to video games, the designers essentially have an unlimited palette from which to paint their sound. This means that a sound can morph and adapt according to the perspective of the player on screen. In older games there would be one type of sound for one object, no matter what. But with modern games, if for example, a tank rolled by the POV character on screen, the sound would change depending on the character’s proximity to the vehicle, just like in real life. The sound designer is able to achieve this effect by using variations in EQ, reverb, panning, and other effects, such as doppler.
Surround sound made its entrance into films a little before the turn of the century and became an instant hit. As well as surround works for films, it is even more powerful in video games, especially since most games allow the player to control his or her character in a 360 degree space. It allows players to react to sounds which may be coming from the side or behind. The result is a total immersion of sound and one of the key reasons for the ever-rising popularity of video games. Since surround sound systems can be expensive, there are many affordable, high-quality surround sound headphones designed specifically for gaming.
Abstract Sound Design
While it may be one of the more intangible parts of the job, abstract sound design is one of the most powerful and potentially creative ways to use audio, especially in video games. Abstract sound design refers to anything that is neither coming from an object on screen nor is part of the music. This includes whoosh sounds, drones, or anything that is used in the background specifically to illicit emotion. One could even use the term to describe the sounds heard during the title menu when toggling through the options. Although abstract design is not something most gamers notice, for many sound designers, it’s the most fun part of the job.
For those interested in pursuing a career in this field, they should consider audio courses at a sound design program, or even DJ school, where he or she can learn many of the sonic tricks that video sound designers employ every day.