Our hearing is our most powerful sense. We respond to auditory stimuli more acutely than we do to things we see or touch or taste.
Sound is crucial, then, to any experience that tries to convey a story or trigger particular emotions and actions. And while musical compositions are a key part of that, there's only so much they can do on their own.
Games need good sound design. They need sound effects, music, spoken dialogue, and other audio elements to all be well-executed, well-integrated with the mechanics and level design, and tied together both thematically and tonally with the overarching game design as well as with each other.
To that end, we sought the input of some of the top sound designers in the games industry to help highlight seven games with great sound design that every dev should study — whether they be in an audio-related discipline or not.
Wabi Sabi Sound founder and veteran audio director/sound designer Andy Lackey describes the sound design on the Battlefield games as "tasty through and through." Their excellence lies most of all in the mixing, with what Lackey says provides a "complex, dense soundscape that never seems to clutter or sound trashy."
These games use things like crossfades and loudness prioritization to clean up the mix at any one moment, so that distant and quiet sounds almost disappear under nearer and louder sounds, while nearby explosions can lead to a tinnitus effect and the dynamics of the mixes in general tend to offer great dimensionality.
TAKEAWAY: More sound is good, but only if the increased density is both thematically appropriate and balanced by a well-crafted dynamic mix that limits the number of elements competing for a player's attention at any one moment.
It's almost impossible to separate the gibberish language of characters in The Sims series from the success these games have had. It's a crucial component of The Sims experience, this nonsense dialogue that vocalizes the emotions, personalities, and intentions of each individual Sim.
The brilliance of Simlish rests on its versatility as well as its universality. By making it untranslatable, the developers ensured that players would imagine what Sims might be saying and project their own personality and cultural biases onto the raw emotions and nuances of inflection that they hear in the voices — which, through tone and tempo, cover (much of) the full range of human emotion. Where using a real language might have been limiting and ultimately repetitive, Simlish is freeing and imaginative.
TAKEAWAY: Invented, gibberish languages can convey intent and nuance without feeling dull or repetitive, and with more room for players to use their imagination to fill in the blanks, which can be a particular boon in life sims.
When I asked experienced composer and sound designer Stephan Schütze for his suggestions, he pointed me to a video he made that analyzes the use of audio in Bioshock 2's first level. Right from the first few seconds of the introductory cinematic, he explains in the video, Bioshock 2 sets its mood and pushes the player to empathize with a Big Daddy — depicted as inhuman monsters in the first game — and a Little Sister. And it does this with a combination of music, sound effects, and sparse dialogue — in particular, the Little Sister's distant scream.
Elsewhere, in the game itself, the high frequencies of running water offset the low rumbles of machinery, while also highlighting how broken down and dilapidated the buildings are. And mixed in with the fantastical, futuristic (yet decrepit) visuals, there are audio diaries, disembodied (recorded) loudspeaker voices, and overheard snippets of conversations that transport the player into the past — with accents and word choices and audio artifacts like crackling that complete this portrait of an ancient, lived-in, dying future city.
For Shütze, it's the dialogue and environmental sound effects that stand out in Bioshock 2. While he believes all of the audio is well crafted, these aspects enhance the narrative, manipulate the player's emotions, and motivate the action.
TAKEAWAY: Sound tells stories, and it can reinforce or accentuate other narrative or thematic elements to make a game feel more real.
Schütze believes that the core purpose of audio in visual media is to support — or in some instances convey — the narrative, and the Portal games do this very well. In another audio analysis video, Schütze explains that Portal 2 — which he considers to be "the benchmark for game audio" — uses recorded dialogue to convey almost all of the narrative, as well as to lighten the mood in a disastrous scenario.
Its sound effects, meanwhile, offer a tonal consistency in the game world. Schütze notes that it's almost musical the way that doors and portals open and buttons and elevators work. Many of the puzzles do the same thing, only with more layers of complexity, such as with a laser puzzle that builds up to a full song as the player completes each stage of the puzzle or with other areas where music exists within the 3D space — as a localized part of the environment.
TAKEAWAY: Well-produced audio can bright light to a dark situation, and it can personify people and places and things. It can also be the glue that unites everything in the game world.
Lackey praises Her Story for the craftsmanship and daring of its audio. There's not much room for experimentation or complexity in sound design here, but that doesn't matter — as in the writing and mechanics, it's the execution and attention to detail that makes Her Story so special. "The perspective on the voice and her performances are just real as hell," explains Lackey. "I love it. It's dead on."
"And I fully admit I'm an uber sound nerd here," he continues, "but the fracking keystroke sounds when typing in search strings are precisely panned where they are on an actual keyboard."
TAKEAWAY: Audio matters, no matter how minor it might seem to your game's overarching design, and even if most players fail to notice the finer details they'll appreciate them all the same.
That Dragon, Cancer's emotional impact relies heavily on connecting the player to its characters and empathizing with their situation. Partly that empathy is created by the minimalist melancholy and hopefulness of the game's art style and the simplicity of its mechanics, which mirror the helplessness of the Green family's four-year struggle with son Joel's cancer, but there's more to it.
"I loved the sound clips of their family," says Lackey. "Absolutely crushing. [I'm] not sure I've [ever] felt so intimately affected by a sound. Frankly the fairly primitive mechanics and look of the game contrasted by the hyper personal recordings of their family is devastating. As a dad with lil ones omg....tears."
TAKEAWAY: Sound is intimate. If your game's narrative rests on empathy or a personal connection, nothing will get you there faster than great audio — whether through dialogue and/or voiceover or music and sound effects.
Dead Space uses audio to keep the player on the edge of their seat. The lighting and level design and gruesome enemy character art matter here, too, but — just like in a great horror film — it's sound design that controls the tension. Quiet moments get broken up by the sound of clanks and rattles, usually not to forewarn of impending danger but rather to unnerve the player. To keep their stress or alarm levels high, so that danger really does seem to lurk around every corner.
A clever combining of reactive music with scary sound effects lifts the atmosphere, conjuring unseen monsters in the shadows and shrilly echoing every scream and scrape to horrify and shock.
TAKEAWAY: Our fight or flight instinct is tightly-interwoven with our hearing, which means you can use audio — and, if you so desire, audio alone — to tighten and release the tension and to shock, horrify, or frighten the player.
If you ignore or downplay the importance of sound design, you do so at your peril. Great soundscapes and soundtracks stay with players for years, and for the vision-impaired portion of your audience they can literally mean the difference between playable and unplayable. (Mortal Kombat X and Killer Instinct both have a sizable community of blind players, for instance, because they have excellent positional audio and unique sounds for every character and every move.)
Technical elements like accurate stereo panning and 3D sound localization improve quality of life for your players, who will always benefit when their hearing can guide their character's movements and attention in the same ways that it guides themselves in the real world. Meanwhile, artistic elements improve the transmission of theme and narrative while also controlling the tension and steering the player's emotion from one moment to the next.
But the biggest thing to remember when it comes to great sound design is that it should be considered right from the beginning — because how a game will sound is often just as important as (if not more so than) how it will look, and some technical decisions may impact on how effective the audio can ultimately be in improving or defining the player's experience.
Thanks to Andy Lackey and Stephan Schütze for their help putting this list together.