EVIL ROBOT AUDIO: A BRIEF HISTORY OF VIDEO GAME SOUND

D. Jacob Swigert; Musician, game sound designer, game history nerd, and dad. He makes his home in Marysville, OH with his wife and three children. Designing sound for video games is a passion and he is on a journey to share his talent and amaze anyone and everyone with incredible sound.

What is the first thing you notice when you start playing a new game? The graphics? Gameplay? What about the character design? Maybe you consider what the story may be about? All of these things are integral to the overall experience of a video game. But one thing may often be overlooked by a casual gamer; the sound.

What about the sound?

From the quick jumps and dashes of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog to the firing of an MP7 in Activision’s Call of Duty, the right sound at the right time can make or break a video game.

Some of the earliest video games had no sound at all. Titles such as Spacewar! (1962) and Galaxy Game (1971) were completely bereft of sound aside from the whining of the machines used to run them. While this was acceptable for games at the time it wasn’t long before everything was taken to the next level. Enter Computer Space (1971) and more notably PONG (1972), two games that would bring video game audio to the masses.

In 1971 Computer Space was brought to arcades around the country. While the game was a commercial success it failed to take in the numbers expected by manufacturer, Nutting Associates. The perceived lack was attributed to the steep learning curve and this seemed to drive away players. While the game seemed to flourish in areas near universities, it did not fare well in the average working-class bar. Shortly after Computer Space’s release, members from Nutting branched off and founded Atari in 1972 and in November of that year PONG took the world by storm.

A virtual version of table tennis, we all recognize the loud beeps and buzzing of Atari’s PONG. The game itself was incredibly simple. What wasn’t simple was the games implementation of its sounds. Several months into its development computer scientist and electrical engineer Alan Alcorn was tasked with creating realistic sound effects such as a roaring crowd, “boos” and “hiss’” when players lost a round. Unsure how to create sounds with a digital circuit, Alcorn discovered that the sync generator, a device used to provide timing for the video game, could generate different tones which he then used for the games sound effects. And with the game completed, PONG was released to bars and arcades around the country and around the world by 1973.

With PONG’s success in the arcade market, it was decided that a version should be brought to home televisions to compete with the Magnavox Odyssey. Released in 1975, HOME PONG brought arcade gaming into the homes of over 150,000 that holiday season. Equipped with engaging gameplay, stunning graphics, and, unlike its competitor, immersive sound, HOME PONG brought families a complete home gaming experience for the first time and helped thrust video games into the future.

IMPACTS OF SOUND

In 2020 it’s almost impossible to imagine a video game without some sort of sound effect. Be it a groaning monster, a sword being unsheathed, down to something as minuscule as a footstep. Sound is integral to creating a captivating video game world. And some of these sounds have become so ingrained into our culture that they’re completely unforgettable. Who could forget the ‘Ring Ding’ from Sonic The Hedgehog, or Pac-Man’s classic ‘Waka Waka’ as he navigates mazes eating pac-pellets? Maybe you remember the Sega Genesis startup, ‘SEGA’. These are sounds that become part of us, things that we remember for ages. Some that help us to identify an entire brand. But what would a modern game be without audio?

In modern times sound is even more detrimental than ever before with games like Guitar Hero and Sing Star, Dance Dance Revolution, and rhythm games like Crypt of the NecroDancer, a RPG that’s entire navigation is based around rhythm and music. These, of course, are obvious example of audio at work. Let’s try something a little less obvious, Dead Space.

Dead Space is a space survival horror title developed by EA Red Shores in 2008. It is without a doubt one of the finest examples of sound design to perfectly match its environment. The game uses audio to keep the player constantly vigilant and on their guard. While typically very quiet and suspenseful, the use of distant clanking keeps the player unnerved and on high alert to make it really feel that horrors lurk around every corner.

A more recent example of exquisite sound design is with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Coming from a personal stand-point there were points in this game where I had to stop and walk away for a while. Hellblade manages to use its audio to drive the entire game forward and create a sense of complete dread. The story focuses on Senua, a Pictish warrior who, suffering great loss, must venture through Hel to find her lost love, all the while battling not just the creatures she finds there, but her mind and the monsters therein.

Hellblade uses voices to help guide the player through the game. Some voices are encouraging while others are demeaning. They will either be whispering in your ear or shouting from a distance. Often all of the voices are shouting at once making it not only terrifying, but at several points caused me to panic while playing. All of the voices react to your movements and the environment itself making each one crucial to help guide you to the next objective.

While not every video game has as complex of a soundscape, without sound a modern video game may fall flat completely. Sound is integral to modern gaming. Be it a soft breeze, the rustling of trees, the running of water, or some simple footsteps. Proper sound adds depth and feeling to complete the gaming experience.

THE FUTURE OF SOUNDSo that leaves us here and into the future. How will sound affect video games going forward? As we’ve seen, games like Dead Space and Hellblade have taken sound and made it a key element in their gameplay. With consoles and computers only becoming more powerful, it’s possible we may begin to see far more immersive soundscapes. Perhaps we might have the ability to hone in on individual voices in a crowd of people, hear the roar of a creature from across a mountain range, or perhaps hear the sounds of raindrops hitting the different landscapes around us.

Virtual Reality systems such as the Oculus Rift, VIVE, and the PlayStation VR are helping to bring the future closer and closer. Using binaural or 3D audio they are able to bring our games closer to the real world and some new technology has even allowed for 3D audio without the need for a dedicated headset. But, like anything, only time will tell. Our desire for more immersive experiences continue to grow and we are on the front lines of sound design going forward. The future is bright.

The Future Is Loud.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Ninja Theory’s Binaural Audio

Written by D. Jacob Swigert

SOURCES

Salomons, Nina. Noveto Enhances Virtual Reality Without Headphones. VRFocus, 19 Jan. 2018, www.vrfocus.com/2018/01/noveto-enhances-virtual-reality-without-headphones/.

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Locke, Charley. The Beeping, Gargling History of Gaming’s Most Iconic Sounds. Wired, Conde Nast, 12 June 2017, www.wired.com/story/psychology-iconic-video-game-sounds/.

Jones, Alyx. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – Setting the Gold Standard for Audio. The Sound Architect, 12 Aug. 2017, www.thesoundarchitect.co.uk/hellblade-senuas-sacrifice-setting- the-gold-standard-for-audio/.

10 Oldest Video Games in the World.Oldest.org, 31 Aug. 2018, www.oldest.org/entertainment/ video-games/.

Bellis, Mary. Spacewar: The First Computer Game. ThoughtCo, 2019, www.thoughtco.com/ history-of-spacewar-1992412.

Moss, Richard. 7 Games Worth Studying for Their Excellent Sound Design. Gamasutra, 2018, www.gamasutra.com/view/news/ 318157/7_games_worth_studying_for_their_excellent_sound_design.php.

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