The State Of Game Audio

This piece on the state of contemporary game audio was first published in Edge magazine, earlier this year. In it I talk to Marty “Halo” O’Donnell, CryTek’s Florian Füsslin, Introversion’s Chris Delay and the ledgendary George Sanger.

Game design lecturer Tom Betts is feeling pretty downbeat about the attitude of his students towards videogame audio. “I do a few lectures on this topic and unfortunately it often comes down to the fact that while you can play a game with the sound off, you can’t play a game with the screen off.” If you’re studying the things that make a videogame work, sound comes way down the list. Why should Betts’ students worry about what he has to say on the subject of audio when there are so many other things to worry about, like visual design, level design, or the nature of puzzles? “It’s been an underdog for years,” says Betts.

The attitude of his students is understandable, of course, because games have always been such a potent visual medium. Even the most successful sound designers, such as Marty O’Donnell – whose work defined the Halo series – recognise that sound takes a secondary place in our attention. “Because we get tangible information from our eyes and more intangible or visceral information from our ears, most people don’t think about what they’re hearing,” says O’Donnell. “We can gate our senses, but our ears never blink.” O’Donnell points out that even though great film directors such as Steven Spielberg put great emphasis on sound design, it generally only gets passing credit. “Perhaps it’s fair that sound takes a back seat because that’s how we’re wired, but those of us who are sound designers know how much influence we actually have.”

The truth is that sound design has become one of game development’s most sophisticated tasks. Designing music and sound effect systems for use games environments is a rather different challenge from that of simply composing music, or even making soundtracks for films or television. Games present some unusual problems, like the mix having to adjust itself to suit a situation created by the player, rather than the static vision of a single director. Game designers have to have a flexible attitude towards factors such as the amount of time spent listening to the same piece of music and the potential for sonic overload if too many game sounds are played simultaneously. Not only that but many sound designers find themselves working on tasks that are defined entirely by non-musicians and the audio-illiterate: the producers and lead game designers. It can be a serious challenge.

The Gauntlet

Audio, like so much else in a game, has to convey information to a player. CryTek’s Florian Füsslin explained that Crysis’ lavish soundscape was defined primarily by what information the player needs to hear. “We often went for the concept ‘less is more’ or let’s better say ‘important things first’. We used a pretty solid priority system which cuts quiet or unimportant sounds in an audio busy situation like combat. Together with the right mix we were able to provide a dense soundscape in all situations players might run into.” So creep through a jungle and you might be overwhelmed by the seething ambience, but enter combat and your attention is allowed to adjust instantly to the yells of enemies and the position of their gunfire.

Realism often has to take a back seat in the audio systems that games create, even a game with otherwise realistic environments, like Crysis, as Füsslin explained: “Making game audio is often a balancing act between realism and “keep it readable for the player”. For example shooting two assault rifles might sound similar in reality, but in the game the player has to know precisely which weapon has fired. In this case the readability was more important and therefore given the priority.” Games are often hugely truncated in the sensory input that they offer the player, and so audio has to function in a manner that supports what gamer’s can already seen on the screen. The clearer the message, the better.

Another famous example of sound as a “readable” gameplay cues was the audio design by Eric Brosius in the Thief games. His team put a great deal of work into things like footsteps, which enabled the player to instantly comprehend whether he was being stealthy, or noisy. Clanky metal floors and creaky floorboards were boosted up far beyond a realistic level, giving the player the aural nudge he needed to realise that his creeping was no longer going to go un-detected. Likewise the “barks” of the guards on a level had to unambiguous: it was essential that a Thief player know if suspicions had been aroused, or if he had been spotted. Bad game sound is seldom pinpointed by gamers or by critics, but there’s a good chance it could have done a great deal to make a bad game better.

Symbols for Cymbals

However, there’s another far more perplexing factor in designing game audio, and that’s the /art/ of it. It might well be 99% tech know-how and perspiration, but the 1% of artistic inspiration is often what makes game’s soundtrack a success. Just being “readable” is seldom enough. One person who knows this better than most is veteran sound designer and musician George ‘The Fatman’ Sanger, who has been working on videogame soundtracks since he first penned a ten-second ditty for the Intellivision game, Thin Ice, in 1983. “There’s a myth, a fallacy going around in game design that I think is taken as truth, and it’s that the only job of audio is support the rest of the game,” says Sanger. “It sure sounds smart, and people say it ‘I don’t need to innovate, or to write songs, or change the idea of what an orchestra is, all I have to do is support the game.’ The thing they’re getting wrong is that supporting the game is not their only job: you still have to blow someone’s brains out with joy. It takes quite a person to push that truth through the bureaucracy that believes audio is just there to support the game.”

Exemplifying this point, Marty O’Donnell describes the process he faced with the Halo games: “It’s a slow methodical process with occasional bursts of insight and creativity. For me there is a lot of time spent with the artists, designers, and programmers of the game. Eventually, after working on many presentations, trailers, and early playable versions of the game, a pallet of sounds and music emerges.” Unlike visual design, which can be appraised at a glance, audio often need to operate in conjunction with visuals to be understood. O’Donnell recalled that he had to develop his music concepts privately before they could be judged in the context of the game Bungie had created: “If I had told the guys at Bungie in 1999 I wanted to use monks singing Gregorian style plainchant to introduce Halo to the public, that music might never have seen the light of day. Instead I had the opportunity to respond musically to the moment and the drama of what Bungie had created and it just felt right.” O’Donnell, like Sanger, knew that sound design had to take risks and to pursue fresh ideas to reach its potential. He had to push through his idea so that Halo didn’t end up with just another faux-metal shooter soundtrack.

Of course it’s not about pursuing personal agendas either: sound designers have to meld their artistic inspirations into what the game’s visual designers are trying to do, and when both aspects work in unison it completes even the smallest nuances of design, as Introversion Software’s Chris Delay explained. His team found that some aspects of their game simply “felt different” when they had the right noises attached to them. “With Darwinia we noticed the bizarre fact that animations actually looked better when they had good sound effects – the audio was enough to “sell” the animation and convince the brain it was good. Visual effects that didn’t have sound effects to go with them often felt flat and lifeless.” Good sound design, it seems, is symbiotic with good game design generally.

Waveform Change

Of course game audio is not the same beast that it once was, and the technology has changed enormously in the past twenty five years. When it started out there was little more than brief sequences of tonal bleeps, and now sound designers deliver forty-piece orchestral epics to our ears. Talking about the long progress to 2008’s complex soundtracking, George Sanger recalled his early work: “At the very beginning of my career I wrote the music out a piece of paper. I was lucky enough to have a musically literate programmer, who was able to, and I’ll be the first to say this for you, turn it from musical notation into ‘beeps and boops’. Ha! The worst thing you could say about sound design is ‘it’s not just beeps and boops any more,’ at least to the eyes of a sound designer.”

The truth is that game audio wasn’t beep and boops for very long at all: game audio rapidly started to use “Musical Instrument Digital Interface” or MIDI to allow game designers to compose music for games directly, as Sanger did in his pioneering work: “I started using MIDI and people would turn around “you don’t know the first thing about writing music for games”, after I’d been doing it for almost ten years. Of course a little later on I was in the right place at the right time to start using the first MT-32 [Roland’s MIDI synthesizer] on some early games like Loom and Wing Commander.” (Both released in 1990, and both noted for their pioneering attitude towards sound and music). Using MIDI meant that game audio had, from early on it is evolution, access to the immediate profundity of musical inspiration and experimentation. Sanger continued: “When people did orchestral music of classical music, they were just typing in from the paper, because they could. I think I was the first person – well, I’d like someone to prove me wrong on this one – I think I was the first person to use the dynamics and tempo from a good performance in game, in [the case of Loom] a version of Swan Lake.”

While MIDI and sampling allowed access to high quality sound effects and musicianship, game audio was not limited to classical soundtracking the likes of which we’d seen before in film. There was another dimension which game designers had to take into account – the activities of the player and the changes they cause in a game world. The most important element to consider in game audio is the one that dominates the entire medium: interactivity.

Points In Time

The key tool in making audio interactive has been 3D audio rendering. This is the realistic environmental and spatial audio that we now routinely encounter in 3D games, the array of effects that allow helicopters to buzz overhead, or ambient sounds to be tied to particular areas. George Sanger explained a little of how this works, and how its nature limits what sound designers are able to do: “Interactive audio ties sounds to objects. A missile can come buzzing at you, or a looping waterfall sound is tied to a waterfall. At the simplest level it allows you to play music in one location, and another location, and set the volume for each, and determine if they’re going to cross-fade. I can’t do that myself. I can only write it in an email and send it to the programmer, and he rolls his eyes and says ‘why is he doing that’ and so it gets lost. It’s not the programmer’s fault, but when the tool doesn’t exist it’s hard. At the very least there needs to be support for a text file that a sound designer can edit to load into the game and that the sound engine can see to know what to play, how loud, and how often. The sound designer can then load up the game and instantly change how loud the birds are singing.” The lack of such tools is the biggest single stumbling block for sound designers working in the industry today.

That’s not say that there aren’t already some tools that help designers out in creating interesting environmental audio, as Peter Harrison, Creative Labs’ European Digital Media and Relations Manager, explained when he enthused about the technology that makes 3D audio a possibility. “When we released the EAX 2 functionality we made a big leap,” says Harrison, talking about the 3D audio standards that came along with the early SoundBlaster Live sound cards. “The idea of design tools was to showcase this technology by developing for it, but if the technology is going to be successful then you want your ideas to be adopted into the developers’ own tool chain and asset management. Developers do things their own way, and we’re not trying to boss people around, or make money from design tools. A successful tool made by us will make itself redundant.” And this one did.

Harrison explained that Creative had authored a tool called Eagle in 2001, which allowed users to import a map design geometry and then add sound simply by placing boxes round areas and rooms – the zones for environmental audio. All the audio effects and filters that players experienced (such as a noise being in the next room, or acoustically altered by being in a corridor or wide-open space) were placed at the finger tips of level designers. “These could have reverb settings attached, occlusion settings attached, and all the source positions for rendering the listener position,” says Harrison. “The success of Eagle was huge, but that success made it redundant, because now, having been inspired by what we did with Eagle, most developers have integrated this kind of tool into their editors and engines. An Unreal licensee or consumer using UnrealEd will have that kind of functionality in there and be able to use it right away.” Getting new effects to the designers is, Harrison explained, the true frontier of where sound design has to go in the future.

Game audio remains a enticing frontier for George Sanger too. He now runs an interactive audio think-tank called Project BAR-B-Q, which is attended by sound designers as well as the software and hardware fraternity that supplies their tools. Sanger believes that there’s still a long way to go before sound designers actually get what they need from gaming audio technology, and his think-tank is designed to help that along. “There’s a lack of consciousness and there’s a lack of tools. This is because there’s no equivalent of General MIDI for interactive audio.” Sanger hopes that tools such as IXMF, a standardised, open-source, container file-format penned in part by his wife and other Project Bar-B-Q attendees, will unlock the potential for game audio in the future. “That would take out the whole, primitive low end of audio,” says Sanger. It would, in short, start to provide more of the kind of tools that visual artists have access to for quite some time.

Up Tempo

If there’s one thing that’s clear from a survey of of current-gen game development it’s that while we’re currently bathing in the glow of next generation visuals, we still haven’t quite benefited from next-generation audio. Small advancements are being made all the time – such as the HRTF systems that mimic surround-sound effects on headphones – but there are still some big steps to come.

Harrison was keen to point out that companies like Creative are leading charge into next generation of audio, and that once their innovations are widely adopted they’ll have ramifications for the game audio we experience on a day-to-day basis. “There are a number of real-time effects that are becoming particularly important,” says Harrison. “If we look at all the reverb and filtering effects they’re what we call ‘time domain effects’. To explain this: if you look at a wave editor you see a 2D graph, with time and volume, and the time domain effects effect changes in these two dimensions. But then there’s a third dimension to sound (rather than space) which is frequency, and we can have our sound data in three dimensions, which is the amount of sound energy in different frequencies. Once you have sound data in this domain there’s a lot more you can do with it.” Harrison cites “Rockerfeller Skank” by Fatboy Slim as an example of these kinds of effects in action. “That bit where vocals are stretched out? That’s it.”

Frequency domain processing will give sound designers far greater flexibility and control over the processes that they can drop into audio in real-time: “Once you have sound mapped to time, volume and frequencies many more effects and processes become available, especially with stretching and distorting sounds. You can analyse dialogue samples and change the way people’s voices sound, and so on. This is starting to be used in games already.” When companies like Creative fully get to grips with frequency domain processing in game audio we’ll see some big changes in what sound designers are able to do.

But perhaps the most vital part of any next-generation audio will be aesthetic sensibility and artistic innovation. “I think creative use of silence can be important,” says Harrison. “If you look at Ico on the PS2 there’s a lot of space in the soundtrack and a lot of quiet, ambient sounds. There was often not a great deal going on, and as a gamer I really appreciated that experience. I think there should be a little more consideration for these kinds of approaches in game soundtracks.”

Harrison is not the only one who sees scope for greater creativity in game audio. “No one has conquered game audio,” says Sanger. “The greatest of them all, for a while there, was Michael Land. He created the music for The Dig, which is on a record label for a reason: it’s good. But it’s a linear piece that got a record deal with Angel or whatever… Afterwards he came to me with his big beard and he said “ I don’t think interactive audio will ever really be possible, it’ll never be great art.” This is one of the greats saying this… and this is because one of the most important aspects of music is /timing/. You need to know what’s going to happen and when. Composing interactive music for games is like, well, rather than making a painting, you’re mailing colours and a list of directions to some kid who wants to look at the painting and getting him to put it together. That’s the massive, impossible goal. And the remarkable thing? We’re getting close. Every week I hear about some idea, or some young guy comes along with a new angle. It’s tantalising. I think there’s going to be an explosion of interactive audio art, and it’s going to happen because of games.”

Returning to game design lecturer Tom Betts in his Huddersfield studio we begin find that there are a number of reasons to think that game audio’s evolution still has much to do. “The problem with game audio, particularly music, is often how quickly it can adapt,” Betts explains. “Say in Tomb Raider audio might be triggered by location, so I can step into a giant vista and soaring symphonics star up. Then I turn right around and hide in the murky brick tunnel I came from… the audio doesn’t react fast enough, so I get a symphonic brick tunnel.” There is a solution to this kind of adaptive audio, says Betts, and it might well hold the key to the future of both art and technology. “Generative audio can potentially produce tracks down to a more granular level,” says Betts. “So, for example, the drum track of a piece playing could have extra hits added while you are in combat as you actually hit, like in Rez. It could also change other elements of the audio as it’s running by altering parameters on the fly. This only works if the audio is being semi-composed in real time… of course it’s hard to do, and really processor intensive, so people don’t do it.” It seems that the solutions to creating a new path in game audio are already there, but it’s a hard road to take.

Sanger offers a similar diagnosis: “Game audio is getting one little aspect improved here, one little aspect there, but there is no example of the thing that’s as different as Katamari, as fun as Guitar Hero, as interactive as Monkey Island, and still uses its instrumentation in a way that is thoroughly musical. We run from this, and I don’t like it. We start talking about business, about how it’s possible to do a 40-piece orchestra.” The only solution, Sanger suggests, is for a Miyamoto of game audio to step up and shake the entire industry’s foundations. Only by fighting the corner for sound design, and moving the bureaucratic mountains that get in the way, is anything going to get done. “It is rough, and the stories [about sound design troubles] are daunting,” says Sanger. “But those stories, those experiences, are the only thing that will take a newbie and turn him into a bad ass legend.”


  1. Jonas says:

    Pscht, ignoring sound is not understandable, even if it’s tertiary to visuals and gameplay, it’s still damn important. You have to think about the whole package, at least if you’re in any sort of lead position, and in terms of making the player feel present in the game world, music and sound effects is extremely important. Not to forget dialogue audio as a device for storytelling and empathy.

    Audio is one of the first things you remember when you come back to an old game. Just hearing the ambient music from Deus Ex, for example, conjures up a whole set of memories, and the HEV sound effects from Half-Life or the creature sounds from Warcraft 3 are never forgotten. Playing a game with the sound off is an incredibly flat experience, and in some games it’s damn near impossible – noteably, try playing Thief without sound. It’s terrible.

  2. Ian says:

    I’m not really in the “Only notice when it’s really good” or “Only notice when it’s really bad” camp when it comes to sound in games. Sometimes I notice, sometimes I don’t. Largely because it’s not something I pay enough attention to.

    I know what I like, though. And what I like is the work of Jesper Kyd.

  3. davidalpha says:

    I recently discovered EVE has sounds, and then I turned them off again. I do have the Zelda: The Wind Waker album though.

  4. Bobsy says:

    A decent soundtrack can make a game. I get angry every time I think of the way in which music was treated in Oblivion. In a game where average play time is about 100 hours, it shipped with an hour and a half’s worth of music. And it was god-awful derivitive shit, too. But 90 minutes of music in Oblivion is insulting to the game as a whole.

  5. Alex says:

    I find sound design extremely important in the games I play. When I played the budget-title Chrome for the first time, which has you out and about on other planets in pretty big forests, one of the first things you’ll notice is the absence of enviromental sounds, only made worse by the occasional bursts of birdsong suddenly errupting and quickly dying away again.

    On the other hand, one of the things that first really made the world of BioShock work for me was the beautiful sound design, it made the whole experience of playing the game close to being cinematic.

    As has already been mentioned, the Thief games are ofcourse great examples, but Eric Brosius deserves extra praise for the actual music he created for those games – the Thief games have some of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard, strange electronic, atmospheric tracks that completely bypass all the usual videogame music clichés (which generally are action movie soundtrack clichés).

    Another game that has extraordinary sound design is STALKER, that had some exceptional moments – one specific example being..

    – possible spoiler coming up –

    .. the whole episode around Red Forest (if I remember correctly), when you’re getting closer to the Brain Scorcher, the world drains of colour and starts to become sepia-coloured – the soundtrack becomes hypnotic in itself, it’s terribly effective in underlining a general sense of wrongness, filling the player with a real sense of dread. Absolutely fantastic!

  6. Brian says:

    If you enjoy reading about this topic I very highly recommend George Sanger’s book, The Fat Man on Game Audio – Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness. It’s ridiculously expensive (about $50 for paperback) but is one of the most enjoyable, personable books I’ve ever read with tons of insight about the milestones and big names of video game history on all platforms (but mostly PC).

    Also, check out 1UP’s Retronauts podcast episode 9 for a very intelligent and enthusiastic discussion of the history of (console) game music.

  7. Fumarole says:

    Pity the poor fool who played through Portal without sound.

  8. Nitre says:

    The audio in games is probably one of the most important things for me, if not for others, but generally i pay more attention to the sound after i’ve already played the game once. For example, the music from the more prominent Half-Life scenes i really enjoy, and my most played songs on my media player are Half-Life ones.

    I didn’t particularly enjoy Oblivion in the first place, but the fact that the music was lacking in quality just made it even worse.

  9. Valentin Galea says:

    “How much is that doooggy in the window?…”

  10. Theory says:

    I’ve always paid close attention to sound when I’m making a game, though I must admit it’s almost always purely in support of what’s happening on-screen (one exception to that I’m proud of: noise from the ‘real’ game world penetrating a character’s dream).

    Even then, the difference once you get things up and running is remarkable.

  11. Johnathon says:

    Positive Internet Test

  12. Heliocentric says:

    so often i just turn the music off. Especially anything multiplayer. But good sound design is god. In ten years i’ll laugh at graphics but the hardware to get sound right exists now.

  13. Saflo says:

    Game music makes all the difference in the world. I’m pretty sure I defend Halo as often as I do because they got the music so right. As outstanding as Half-Life 2 is on every other level, I don’t think it would have been so profoundly effective had the music not been perfect. Which it is. (As well as the sound effects – Tom Francis noted this well on his blog). The Hitman series has grown progressively more excellent with each new game, but this is also tied into Jesper Kyd’s scores doing the same. I’ve burned the SimCity 4 soundtrack to a CD and made my friend listen to it. I can’t think of Tropico without getting one of its many songs stuck in my head. Wait, wait, let me ramble on a little longer.

  14. Flubb says:

    Sound is vital in a game, music not so much. I like much of the music I’ve heard (excepting the 16-guitars-on-overdrive-distortion soundtracks) but in almost every game I’ve come across, it covers up audio cues (play Unreal Tournament with and without music to hear a vital difference!), or it rolls over speech. I know there’s a volume button, but I normally end up turning it off by default after 5 minutes which is a shame.

    More articles like this though please :) Especially on the nitty gritty of writing music/ making noises.

  15. tom says:

    yay I’m famous!

  16. malkav11 says:

    There are games where I feel comfortable turning off the sound after some time playing, like WoW or LOTRO or Baldur’s Gate (in multiplayer, without NPCs) and then adding my own soundtrack. But yes, a good sound setup really improves some games. Particularly survival horror. The Silent Hill series are still the best in genre for me, in substantial part because of their sound design. Yeah, the visuals are creepy, but the visuals in all of those games are creepy. It’s Silent Hill that really nails the ambience through things like the staticky radio that wakes up when creatures are around, and the siren that blows when things are about to go dark. Plus of course some of the best soundtracks ever put to game. (I was thrilled to see that SH3 came with its soundtrack. The PS2 version, at any rate.)

  17. terry says:

    More or less completely offtopic but I found my cds of the 7th guest unpacking boxes and its still a damn spooky experience (moreso without the hilarious FMV sequences). I didn’t know The Fatman was George Sanger, but I have yet to forget that handle/nick.

    Incidentally, great article :O

  18. Neb says:

    I’m afraid to admit it, but I love to play Half-Life just to abuse those health units.

    Oh, the thrills I get from tapping them. HHHuuu-Kssssss, HHHuuu-Kssssss.

    This article was fantastic to read and deserves its length.

  19. Fat Zombie says:

    Also possibly off-topic, but I usually find that in the multiplayer component of games, I’ll turn off the in-game music and supplant my own. In the single-player, the soundtrack is of definite importance, in warning or alerting the player, or just providing some awesome music to save/destroy/rule the world to.

    But in MP, usually the feel of the game is made much different, which usually makes the music slightly redundant. So, for example, in Call of Duty 4, TF2, or Tribes Vengeance (to name but a few) I will usually have my playlist gurgling along in the background. It usually lends a totally different air to the game, as well as occasionally improving it; I have never felt more awesome in a game than that time I captured a flag in T:V by the skin of my teeth, whilst the Indiana Jones theme pounded in my ears.

    (Or when the pyro update was released for TF2, and I added some apt tracks to my playlist. Capping points and burninating people to Disco Inferno – The Trammps is up there in the “ridiculously awesome” stakes)

  20. Alex says:

    I’m afraid to admit it, but I love to play Half-Life just to abuse those health units.

    Oh, the thrills I get from tapping them. HHHuuu-Kssssss, HHHuuu-Kssssss.

    I always enjoy listening to the HEV suit warble. “Warning.. user death imminent..”.

    And who doesn’t feel instantly better when hear a warm, female voice saying: “..morphine administered..”.

    The HEV suit only comes second to the Overwatch in HL2 (also voiced by GLADoS’ Ellen McLain).

  21. Fat Zombie says:

    I actually have a Combine overwatch soldier vox-pop as my text sound on my mobile. “Requesting secondary eviscerator”, I believe it says.

  22. Crispy says:

    Anyone who’s been to Video Games Live will hopefully have had one of their old favourites delivered in vivo, perhaps plucking lovingly on their heartstrings in moments.

    I also vividly remember one of the biggest things to stand out about the FireArms mod for Half-Life: the ambient sound of war. Never before can I remember a game having echoing, approaching gunfire and muffled thuds of bombs falling in the distance. Day of Defeat did the same thing but I don’t remember it being as vivid at the time I heard it in FA. Everything I’d played up until then suddenly felt empty and vacant. Like it was happening on a soundstage and not in the real theatre of war.

    Sound makes a difference, and I can’t wait to see the future of things to come.

  23. JonFitt says:

    I remember being impressed when those situational audio effects came in. I think I first noticed it in Half-Life 1. Everything took on a metallic echo when in a tunnel for example. That was cool.

    The quality score really helped make Halo the game it is. You’d come across a scene while zooming around in a Warthog and the score would let you know that the scripted fight between the Wraiths and a few marines was way more important and dramatic than it would have otherwise looked.

    The original Homeworld soundtrack was good too. It really conveyed a sense of aeon spanning drama, and extreme loneliness and isolation.

  24. Powerhaus says:

    I hate playing without sound. Its almost like playing without the screen for me, even if the game doesn’t rely on sound to convey information. Exception: wc3

  25. Matthew Florianz says:

    It’s always nice to see assumptions confirmed;. Mr. O’Donnell being just about the only one who skips the Tech-talk and dives straight into a much more interesting read about interpretations, choice and what eventually lead to a design. He obviously has a decent amount of imagination.

    Did you notice (in Halo) that “snoring” sound in what later turns out to be birthing chambers; that’s great sound design…no: that’s rare and imaginative design design. I absolutely adore his work in the first one and for me the game still feels like it’s outside time, not ageing, for that reason alone. Though visually the majestic looking Control Room exterior is a great set piece to this day still.

    I would disagree with Alex about BioShock (sorry!) because as beautiful the choice for music was (both periodic and the 70’s avant garde influenced score by Garry Schyman) I found the whole sound design never to sound “under-water” and quite empty. Technically it certainly had the clang of “old stuff” but the occasions you could hear more than what you could see where seldom. You’re underwater, make me feel the pressure. The only exception (perhaps intentionally so) where the whaling moans and groans of the big daddies. A case of taste probably and having seen Thunderball one time to many, but that’s because I like it when sound contrasts a bit with what I see.

    What sound in games can do (Alex, I’m with you on the other examples) is create the “feeling” of a world beyond what you see. Very few sound designers yet speak “the language of games”, much like games are still developing a language of their own overall. Games often rely on the conventions developed in film language. To clarify ( I hope) look at an equally narrative/visual medium such as comic books which have developed a language that is not quite book, not quite painting and not quite movie, but recognisable as the language and conventions of a comic.

    Games have perhaps not yet been around long enough to develop such a narrative (which in my opinion would be much more reliant on level design for instance) but there are some interesting developments in for example The Darkness or Half Life 2. However I think games have not yet produced the equivalent of sound designers such as Alan Splet, Ben Burtt or Gary Rydstrom.

    People like Mr. O’Donnell, who are not distracted by those tech-sirens that are ever present still in game development are the ones that are busy defining the new language by playing, letting their imagination run loose and (dare I use the word) experimenting.
    And I love it, even if I still don’t understand that Indian singing.

  26. Shadowmancer says:

    Hell March from the command and conquer red alert series is very good some good remixes, dark matter from half life 2 is also good.

  27. JonFitt says:

    Wing Commander 3, or Warcraft 3?
    If Warcraft, I presume because of repetitive unit speech?

  28. Corbeaubm says:

    Really good to see a piece like this. I’ve always wondered why sound and music don’t get more attention.

    Music has an almost supernatural ability to stir emotion, and can thus make or break story based games (RPGs in particular). Bungie certainly has tried to use distinctive game music ever since Myth: The Fallen Lords, and it shows. Another company that does this is Bioware; I haven’t played Mass Effect, but Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic both had very effective music tracks for generating the appropriate emotional cues.

  29. JonFitt says:

    Speaking of tech-sirens, has anyone else noticed that the door-opening, and spawning sounds from Doom 2 turn up in a lot of sci-fi movies/tv-shows?

    I don’t know if iD took sounds from a catalogue, or people reuse Doom sounds, but I used to hear them really frequently.

  30. Nick says:

    I’m guessing it’s one of those mass sound library/catalogue things, yeah, there were a lot of ones in Magic Carpet that have popped up in films and even other games too (particularly the haste spell sound). Like Daggerfall used stock horse sounds that you’ll hear in pretty much every film with a horse in it too.

  31. JonFitt says:

    Ooh yeah, Magic Carpet too. I’ve definitely noticed those.

  32. Jake Poz says:

    I always remembered the game Planetside as having great sound effects. The ambient sounds never got in the way, but always reminded you where you were. The ambient sounds were fairly low volume compared to the combat, etc, but there were short zone specific sounds that played every few minutes at a high level. Also, you could always tell exactly how fast your plane/tank was moving based on the sound it was making.

  33. Ben Abraham says:


    Thanks immensely for this reprint Jim. This issue always gets me both very frustrated and very excited. I’m writing a thesis on music in videogames that’s (probably too ambitiously) trying to address some of the issues raised in this article.

  34. Thiefsie says:

    Viet Cong still probably holds out as my most impressive audio experience in a game, closely followed by Thief 2 and System Shock 2.

    Purely Amazing. HL2 was too buggy and not powerful enough at the time of release…the weapons have no real oomph.

    MoH will always be held dearly for the M1 as well. KaChing.

  35. Saflo says:

    HL2 has one of the best shotguns in any FPS. Just turn the volume up.

  36. RichPowers says:


    SimCity has always had amazing music. The jazzy stuff in 3k and 4 remain some of my favorite in that genre of music.

    The Transport Tycoon theme is all catchy as hell, and totally in your face, as if you need reminding that you’re playing TT.

  37. roryok says:

    I loved the music in Fable – I even have the soundtrack in my music collection, and I listen to it fairly regularly. There’s just something really magical about it that added to the immersion of the game for me.

    I liked halo, that climbing da da da DAAAAA…. da da da DAAAAAA… is just cool.

    But the all time best game soundtrack for me is Interstate 76. I keep the game CD in my car so I can listen to it while I drive and pretend I’m an auto-vigilante

  38. maxmcg says:

    @ Alex

    I couldn’t agree with you more about Eric Brosius’ contribution to the Thief games. He made the atmosphere in those games. I remember playing those games just sitting back sometimes, listening to his music and taking in the atmosphere. Great stuff.

  39. Yargh says:

    I’d hope the comedic value alone of the Tomb Raider example could encourage a game designer to implement it.

    I’m imagining the effect on the player of the soaring orchestral music coming to a crashing, discordant stop as he turns back from the valley to go and get that health pack he forgot…

  40. phuzz says:

    I used to really enjoy the make-your-own soundtrack option in GTA:Vice City, although I often totally ballsed up a mission by driving far too fast when a pumping track came on and either totalling the car or getting busted. (I never play the same tunes in my real car for the same reason). But when it all came together and (eg) Voodoo People turned up in the playlist as I’m escaping from the police…
    just perfect.

  41. Rob W says:

    Why am I seeing screenshots in a post entirely about audio?
    I want audioclips… please?

  42. roryok says:


    Yeah Voodoo People is such a driving song! why is that? Another good (but dangerous) one is Jesus Built My Hotrod by Ministry

  43. Kommissar Nicko says:

    When I saw this quote:
    “The sound designer can then load up the game and instantly change how loud the birds are singing.”
    I realized that for some reason, birdsong has always been off in games. In particular, I can recall two painful memories:
    1) Yoot Saito’s Sim Tower. In the morning phases, just to make sure you were bloody aware it was morning, there was this horrible bird-chirping that felt like someone raking out the inside of your skull with a chunk of steel wool. Unfortunately, I liked the rest of the sound in the game, so I could never bring myself to turn it off.
    2) In the first Age of Empires, there was this really goofy-sounding bird-call that sounded like something between a whippoorwill and someone being violated.

    Sound has always done a lot for me though. What Heliocentric said is important: even though the graphics for a game will suck in 10 years, the sound is still good. I can barely look at Final Fantasy VII, or maybe Sim City 2000, or the original Homeworld, but I can fire up the music from those games if I’m feeling nostalgic and it’s just as good.

  44. Kenny says:

    Jim – you consistently mis-used the term ‘sound design’ throughout your piece. Interestingly, you misused it in a way I haven’t seen or heard before.

    The most common mis-use of the term is to use it as a synonym for ‘sound effects editing’ which primarily comes about through the assumption that it is concerned with ‘designing sounds’. This is reinforced by the misunderstanding that well known sound designers, such as Ben Burtt of Star Wars and Wall.E fame, are called sound designers because they ‘design sounds’ (and indeed they do, but that’s not why they’re called sound designers, as one can see from the mix of sound designers and sound effects editors in the credits of the projects they’ve worked on) which is rather hard to escape from when all you can hear when Burtt’s name is mentioned is the sound of light sabres. This is confounded by the fact that there are actually so-called “Sound Designers” for hire who specialise in recording and creating unique sounds.

    You’ve used the term in a holistic way, which is a lot closer to the truth (you clearly ‘get it’), but you’ve used it to encapsulate sound and music which isn’t right. You could argue that sound is a good umbrella term what with music being a special subcategory of sound, but then you’re left with no word to describe those sounds that aren’t music. The convention is to take the term ‘audio’ and use it as an umbrella term for sound and music. So, in the main your piece should be full of talk of “audio design” not “sound design”.

    What you’ve written is akin to using ‘composition’ to encapsulate ‘sound design’ and ‘scoring with music’ – it’s a nice interpretation but incorrect none the less. Apologies for being anal :)

  45. Jim Rossignol says:

    Kenny – you are right, of course. I’m not sure that the distinction would be particularly useful for the general audience this piece is intended for, however. The distinction here is more about how, as an area of design, there are distinct problems apart from mechanical game design, and visual design.

  46. monkeymonster says:

    The female voice in TF2 as she manically screams your final points is about to be captured – Priceless. The recent updates to make both the normal flame and backburner sound different and immediately recognisable, along with sasha and natasha. Never would I have thought to select a gun purely for the noise its makes but natasha’s low level buzz/hum/growl is a joy to the aural senses.

    Playing HL2 again atm, the music is so immersive and while many games do the whole – change beat, volume etc when you encounter new/dangerous scenario’s valve have hit this so perfectly in the hl2 games its uncanny.

  47. roryok says:

    gun noises are very important in any gun based game. I can remember being hugely disappointed at the SNES port of jungle strike because they changed the chain gun noise from the bowel shattering low thunk-thunk-thunk to the original desert strike effect that sounded like someone spitting into a tin can.

  48. Kenny says:

    I know, I know. Just grumbling.

    I’d rather people thought of sound design as an area of design rather than as a purely technical persuit, and in that regard what you’ve written is a breath of fresh air.

  49. Crispy says:

    Rob W makes a very valid point.

    Even if this piece was first written for print, it only makes sense to support it with some audio now it has a new home on the internet.

  50. Vizeroth says:

    I think that PC game sound has really been held back by the stranglehold Creative has maintained on the sound card market. Certainly the on-board sound chips have gotten better without much interference, but the loss of the Aureal sound chips and A3D sound has been really detrimental to the soundscape of modern PC games. Half-Life on Aureal gave you nearly perfect audio cues for directional sound, while Creative’s EAX just made everything sound like a smear. Creative’s SoundBlaster cards have gotten better, but not at a significant pace. The basic technology of in-game audio hasn’t seen any real breakthroughs in almost 10 years, while the rest of the PC platform has rocketed ahead and brought us more of everything in 3D graphics.

    On the other hand, there isn’t a lot of demand out there, either, as most people use poor speakers on their PCs and turn off audio features because so many sound cards rely on the CPU to do the heavy lifting for them. Game developers often leave the soundscape of their games to a small team (of 1 in many cases) that isn’t given much consideration when the fundamental technologies are chosen for the game, binding their hands in terms of what they can do.