Thursday, April 21, 2011

Silence Is Golden

Video gaming is a hobby that relies heavily on a combination of a number of key factors to produce a holistic experience that few other hobbies can match. In the modern era we have the visual graphics, the music, dialog and sound effects for our ears and even the tactile response of rumbling controllers in our hands. All these together pull us into the world that has been built within the game.

In the past, I've considered that a game should only be played when all those factors are present, with the possible exception of the force-feedback controllers. Image and sound go together to produce a complete package, and even as far back as Space Invaders and Pac-Man, the music and effects were important to the final product.

My gaming history has moved from the basic stereo sounds of a television set to a simple 2.1 sound system with an impressive bass speaker to a full 5.1 surround sound system that allows me to pinpoint the location of enemies breathing from anywhere in the room! Sound has been vital to my own personal experiences. I love the music of games, but even more so, I love the sound effects produced to compliment my actions.

The roar of an engine as your muscle car sprints off the mark. The crunch of leaves and twigs underfoot as you explore the ruined temple. The deep, throbbing hum of an enormous city-sized starship blasting through the void. The gentle whistle of air rushing by as you glide through the skies. And there are few things more gratifying in a computer game than revving a chainsaw and running screaming at an alien enemy, sawing him in half as blade meets muscle and bone, squealing and spluttering.

So when I first got the Xbox set up here in Vancouver, you can understand how anxious I was about playing it at first before I managed to organize a working sound system. As I had brought my VGA cable with me, I was able to plug the machine into Claires shiny PC monitor. Unfortunately, unlike TVs which have built-in sound systems, the monitor was silent. Claire had gotten a simple sound system for her PC, but the jack was incompatible with the current wiring connected to the Xbox.

Regardless, I still wanted to play my beloved games. I yearned to get all stabby-stabby in Assassins Creed: Brotherhood. I wanted to kick tiny villagers in World of Keflings. I wanted to play the latest tracks that I liked in Rock Band. How bad could it be. I'd give it a go.

And you know what, they weren't bad. I had played Brotherhood a lot at home, and I was only playing the multiplayer anyway, which doesn't have exposition dialog or anything. All the sound effects I needed were of the gurgling last rasps of your character as someone shoves a hidden blade through your spleen, and I could mimic them myself pretty well. The Keflings got kicked in silence. Rock Band wasn't attempted. That would just have been ridiculous, and I wasn't that desperate. Really. Honestly...

On the other hand, I had bought Bulletstorm shortly after arriving in Vancouver to guarantee my access into the Gears of War 3 Beta, so I thought I'd give it a go. I lasted all of one chapter in the first Act, and even then it was a struggle. The game is a first person shooter that relies heavily on dialog and sound effects to build the atmosphere of the setting, and I was missing all of that. It just wasn't fun.

All of this brings me to one last game, Split/Second: Velocity, a racing game from Disney. Its gimmick is that, along with racing, you can cause massive explosions that destroy the tack and wreck the opposition in your quest for victory. When it comes to cars and fast driving, they kind of all sound the same. I was able to hear the growl of the engine and the squeal of tires in my own head, and an explosion is an explosion, so I could imagine the booming chaos whenever I triggered a Course Change. It was great! The game was fun and the sound effects I imagined suited the onscreen carnage. Super.

Eventually, I did get sound. I kicked Keflings, and heard the little chirps of surprise. I fired up Rock Band and had some friends over for my first Plastic Instruments Appreciation session in Vancouver. I went back and played BulletStorm, a much more enjoyable experience with the added sound. I tried out Split/Second for the first time with the games original effects playing in my ears...

And I was disappointed. The explosions weren't as loud, or as meaty as I had imagined them. The cars didn't growl the way they did in my head. The commentator between seasons was annoying. I played a few tracks and put it to one side. I'm not sure if I'll go back.

Or, if I do, maybe I'll leave the sound off next time.

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