what secrets are hidden behind the sounds of great video games

Donkey kong (1981) is remembered, among other things, for its sound section. Mario’s steps, jumping over a barrel, the moment he took the hammer… These are melodies that have become part of a popular culture that lasts years later. “Although it was only a beep, sound is important in games. You need sound to confirm actions, or else you would not know what you are doing,” explains Hirokazu Tanaka, head of audio for this game and other illustrious titles of Nintendo like Metroid (1986), Super mario land (1989) or Tetris (1989), in the Netflix documentary High Score.

'The Last of Us II', the meticulous design of its scenarios and the complaints of labor exploitation

‘The Last of Us II’, the meticulous design of its scenarios and the complaints of labor exploitation

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Tanaka had to design those “beeps” with the effects produced on the motherboard of the machine with all the difficulties that this entailed, but his work was key so that Donkey kong raised 280 million dollars in its first years of life: its characteristic sound caused that the game did not go unnoticed in arcades.

Since then the audio in video games has evolved and it is no longer strange to see among the credits of major productions names of composers or engineers common in Hollywood. Because, although sometimes it goes unnoticed, his work is key to creating an immersive gaming experience in line with the narrative of the play. And not only in relation to the soundtrack or the work of the voice actors, but to everything that surrounds that production: from the melody of the pause menu (if there is one) to the effect of brandishing a sword.

For example, Beau Anthony Jimenez, sound designer for The Last Of Us: Part II, believe a thread on Twitter shortly after the release of the game in which he explained some auditory ins and outs behind elements such as the screams of the zombies (called Infected in the game). “It is a scream of agony; a sharp hiss of pain. It is a human who barely clings to what makes them human, with enough moral cognition to feel pain and sadness, but without sufficient conscience to avoid his desire to kill,” he says. the technician about some of the keys that served as a reference.

To achieve this, as the sound engineer reveals in other tweets, in addition to the performance of voice actors, it was necessary to record sounds at different frequencies and combine them into a single track. Thus he achieved effects such as the explosion of a Wobbler (a grotesque infected and covered in fungi). “I took a bellows, filled it with oatmeal with milk and blew it. As the air came out, it created an unpleasant and explosive sound true to the aesthetics of the character,” says Anthony.

It is not the only curious detail. In another twitter thread From the same specialist, it is detailed how the breathing of Ellie, one of the protagonists, changes according to the action she is taking and her interaction with the environment. “There are hundreds of breathing resources (individual sound files, from an exhale to an inhale) that are transformed based on variables such as tension, player health, enemy awareness, heart rate value or vertigo to the heights ”, enumerates the worker of Naughty Dog.

In other titles, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild, there is also that level of attention to detail. Hajime Wakai, your sound director, explains in a making of who paid “special attention to the sound of the footsteps” of the main character. This is a work of adventure, of exploring in search of treasures between mountains or caves, and hence the importance of evoking different sensations when the player walks through grass or climb a rock. In the report they also comment on other aspects, such as that each object has a different sound when falling according to its weight or that the clink of weapons on the back depends on the objects that are equipped. The work is full of what the developers call it “invisible design”: subliminal details that give the player clues as to what is on the screen.

Instead of having an omnipresent soundtrack, Nintendo chose to give prominence to effects such as the sound of owls entering a forest or the wind swaying the leaves. And the music that is heard, as detailed by Wakai, are often piano versions of other well-known songs from the saga that, curiously, change the rhythm of their chords depending on whether it is night or day. In this sense, Breath of the wild it is to the video game what the lo-fi genre is to music: an invitation to relax and abandon stress by embracing notes that evoke the past.

However, chords are not always there to be polite. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a game based on Norse mythology starring a young girl suffering from schizophrenia with all that this implies: hallucinations, disorganized thinking or voices in the head. To recreate the latter, the creators used so-called binaural sound: audio recorded with two microphones that mimic the way a human head listens. The result? A sensation of 3D sound that travels everywhere. “One of the important things in the sound design of Hellblade is to transform what you see into what Senua sees [la protagonista] and create a very particular universe. It is not what you are expected to hear, but what she hears ”, observes David García, audio director of Ninja Theory, in a documentary published by the developers themselves.

But developing music for video games has its peculiarities. It is not like in the cinema, where you work with pieces with which the viewer generally does not interact. Here the consumption of culture is active: many times the players determine what happens on the screen and the sound, therefore, must follow the rhythm. It is what in the industry is called adaptive music. “It is the music that is divided into tracks that are triggered according to what is happening in the game to be able to adapt to it”, defined Paula Ruíz, composer of Gods Will Be Watching and of The Red Strings Club, in a report from El País.

It remains, however, that video games include enough options for people with disabilities to enjoy this content. Even if The Last Of Us: Part II marked the path to follow in this regard, with more than 60 settings ranging from sound aids to a high contrast mode, in the rest of the productions it remains a pending subject. As researcher Carme Mangiron observes in the manual of Good accessibility practices in video games published by the Government of Spain, “there are still few games in which ambient sounds are subtitled, despite the fact that these are crucial for some genres.” Because progress in the video game industry does not only involve using a technology more advanced, also by making them more accessible.


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