Crafting: The Importance of Sound Design in Games & the Emotional Depth it Creates

Child of Eden - Pheonix BossSound. From the tenuous pings and pangs of Silent Hill to the heroic crescendos of The Old Republic it is something that many gamers take for granted; only to miss it when it is gone. However, there is a power to quality sound design in games that is unmatched by any other aspect of the medium. If visuals are the body of a game and play is the heart, then sound is the soul, providing gamers with an emotional memory that remains with them, even subconsciously, long after a game has finished.

In the past, we have talked about design concepts such as atmosphere, especially in regards to survival horror games, but to fully understand the importance of quality sound design, one must first understand why the choices in sound are made in the first place. Generally speaking, before any artistic elements hit the computer screen, there are visual decisions made to determine the overall tone that a game will encompass. Often referred to as “tone words” these adjectives (usually limited to three or so) represent a game’s look and mood. Powerful words such as claustrophobic, anxious, heroic, primal, and so on create an image within one’s head and from that distinctive image, the aesthetic of a game is born. Nevertheless, while much of this tone is accomplished by what can be seen, the essence of it all must be felt. This can be referred to as “emotional depth.”

On the more basic level, sound design consists of things like sound effects and voiceovers. Now, to be fair, such is obviously important as not pairing up the right effect with the right visual tends to be… awkward, at best, when a game is played. That said, unless the game being played is of a rhythmic style (i.e. Child of Eden), the effects do not carry the emotional weight of ambient and soundtrack design.

Without going into a psychological study (though an older presentation from Julian Treasure sums up the power of sound rather nicely in this video) of how sound affects human beings physiologically, the general idea is that people have a tendency to associate sound – especially music – with certain concepts. On an even more basic level, if sound is pleasant we gravitate towards it, and if not, we leave. It is these ideas that create the catalyst for emotional depth in games, dramatically affecting how something is experienced.


Listen to the above soundtrack. Even without looking at the title most readers will likely remember its origination – Halo 3, This is The Hour – The Storm – and with it a flood (no pun intended) of nostalgia likely associated with plowing down hostiles in an armored warthog. Because of this music, the pacing of its associated sequences is increased as players are presented with feelings of heroism and urgency. Without it, the play of Halo 3 is still fun, but the experience is lessened. What is even more supportive of the power of sound is that merely listening from seconds 0:27 to 0:28 is enough to trigger those feelings and memories.

Devil May Cry 3 - JackpotPart of the reason sound works so well though is from the association of sound and music as it applies to the natural world and human history. Large drums are indicative of tribal power, wind instruments and strings are often tied to serenades and sonatas of love, electric guitars and bass are often associated with anxiousness and energy, while screeches and pitchy noises may find themselves pertaining to danger.

For anyone that doubts such, try playing games like Resident Evil or Devil May Cry with a muted television. Sure, the games might still be fun, but the feelings are completely lost. Survival horror games (or even movies for that matter) just aren’t terribly frightening without the tension created by otherworldly ambience, nor does Dante feel nearly as impressive (and by extension, the player) without the energy that emanates from the hardcore, electric rock that ensues whenever enemy creatures spawn.

Despite the power of sound design though, it, historically, is often one of the last aspects of a game’s development to be worked on and because of such can often be overshadowed by what appears to be more important. Granted, in some situations this is the case, but the presentation of a game is about the overall package and while weaker sound can bring a good game down, it can just as easily make a good game great. It is to that effect that an acronym dubbed “L.A.S.T.” exists. It is a gentle reminder that late audio sounds terrible. While this may not be universally true for all game makers, waiting until the end to cultivate such emotion will almost always sell the overall experience short.


Posted on November 1, 2012, in Casual Games, Core Games, Crafting, Design and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.