Why sound is more important than graphics to player experience
What makes a video game go beyond average isn’t just what you see: it’s what you hear as well. Good sound design augments a video game experience to a whole new level, from the sound cues to the battle music swelling in the air. It’s not just good graphics that make a game great: it’s the unconscious feeling you get when the victory theme plays.
There are two main categories of sound that go into video games: music and sound effects. First, I’ll dive into music. There’s a wealth of scholastic studies done on the effects of music on both memory and the brain, and to paraphrase Tiffany Jenkins from BBC, music links with emotional memory in a complex way. Generally, music can help create unconscious memories: in short, it helps makes the memories that make you say “Man, I remember my teenage years! They were great (or terrible)!” when you hear the music again. The example that Jenkins uses is the pop music of the day. Because it’s played on the radio, or over the grocery store speakers, it’s always in the background. And because it’s always in the background, it becomes unconsciously associated with that time period of your life, whether it’s “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry or “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance.
In the same way that the music on the radio creates links to those time periods of life, a good video game soundtrack is going to create long-lasting memories. For example, right at this moment I want you to hear the Super Mario Bros. theme in your mind. Even if you never played the original game, or even any game at all, there’s a pretty good chance you were able to hear it in your mind or that you would recognize it if you heard it.
The creation of these memories and the links they make to the emotions at the time can make a game amazing to play and come back to. For me, I played both “Pokémon Platinum” and “Fossil Fighters” on the DS as a kid. But I will always remember the “Pokémon” more fondly than “Fossil Fighters.” Why? Because the music was so good, so memorable and in sync with the game play that it recalls some of the happier moments of my childhood. And any game that’s able to help keep the rose-tinted glasses on, even as it ages, is one step ahead of any game that isn’t able to, and the difference is in the music.
But that’s not all. Both the music and the sound effects play into arguably the most important part to a video game: the satisfaction. Whether that’s the satisfaction of a double-barreled shotgun blast into a demon or the click of a poke-ball as the player obtains a new Pokémon, the sound effects add to the immersion of a great video game experience. Video games serve as a portal to another world, and good sound effects help immerse the player even more than the graphics will. Because even when video game graphics were 16 bit and players were playing “Sonic the Hedgehog” with “blast processing”, the ring collection sound helps immerse the player into the game world.
In a way, it’s an extension of the argument for music. Sound, in general, affects the unconscious mind, and immerses the player into the video game. There was even a study performed by Stephen Gormanley in The Computer Games Journal where most of a group of 30 students reported higher immersion into a game with the inclusion of sound effects and background music alone. The sound of a world-ending boss unleashing its attack, or even just a fish flopping on the shore completes the illusion that a video game is trying to portray. Because ultimately, it’s not just the super awesome sound effects that affect your experience: it’s the sounds that you hear the most often that keep your unconscious mind happy.
How is this so? Bjorn Jacobsen, sound designer on projects including Hitman and Cyberpunk 2077, talked about the importance of the sound effects that repeat the most in a blog post. If the sounds that crop up the most are irritating, it ruins the entire playing experience by sound alone. Everything from the sound of the protagonist’s footprints, to the opening of doors, needs to strike a perfect balance between the “boredom of monotony, and the safety of recognition.” The goal is to make all of the ambient sound effects blend in and immerse the player. Let’s say that there’s a loud running refrigerator where you’re working. Over time, you’ll probably absorb the sound and forget about it, but if it suddenly stops running, you’ll notice the lack of sound. Same deal applies to video game sounds: if it’s off, it’ll break the player’s immersion and draw attention to something that’s annoying.
And when done right, sound effects can draw a player’s attention to all of the right places instead: attack charging sounds can give important sound cues in a boss fight, and in games with the most detail, can give away enemy positions in a fight. Key game systems are built around utilizing sound to the greatest benefit; in “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” listening carefully to sound is necessary to know the enemies’ positions.
So ultimately, sound is more important to a game than its graphics are. No matter if the game is in 8-bit or the Crytek Engine, if the bike sounds in a biker game sound wrong, the whole experience is ruined. The music sets the mood for adventure, and the sound effects immerse the player, whether they’re punching a tree or blowing something up with an RPG.