Sound Design & Soundtracks in Games

The improvements in technology over the last forty years of video game development have mostly pivoted around the visual presentation of the game itself; the rapid leaps forward in horsepower and perspective evolving to today's gaming environment, where the complexities and intricacies of the game's graphics are forever polished and finessed.
One area of progression that has improved dramatically since the dawn of interactive media is the realm of audio. Since the primitive bleeps and bloops of early game design, the soundscape of gaming has evolved to almost its logical conclusion. From sweeping non-diegetic musical scores to incidental but brutally accurate aural indicators of damage dealt and received, modern computer games now exhibit such an awesome and detailed range of audio that we decided to describe a few of our favorites.


Joel Windels - Dead Space

The quality of Dead Space's audio is so great that the game would be a gigantic critical flop with even a mediocre soundscape in its place. Unlike so many other games noted for their sound such as Halo or Battlefield, in which the excellent musical scores are at times the showpiece of a scene, Dead Space's quality is in its subtlety. It is rare that you will even notice the presence of the atmospheric music as you play, with the spookily accurate foley sound effects stealing the limelight.
Indeed, much of the game mechanic is designed around the sound effects, with most of the emotion-driven game beats stemming from well-placed audio cues. From the curious and spooky distant broken door at the start, to the specific cries and scuttles emitted from the screaming and scurrying of the different enemy types, Dead Space conditions the player into learning the meaning of each sound and then invokes fear by delaying and toying with these established sounds - playing with the player's expectations and the existing genre conventions to create a bone-chilling audio experience.

Bryan Roush - Mass Effect

The most immediate impact that the Mass Effect series has upon players is its incredible atmosphere, a tone that is largely created by the majestic but forceful score. Usually when video games utilize a huge orchestral arrangement it inevitably results in tongue in cheek silliness or sets an altogether sombre and too serious tone. However, Mass Effect is unique with its focus upon characters and filmic narrative techniques, which developed throughout Shepard's adventures, which gave credence to the setting and added significant weight to the story (Wrex anyone?). This movie-like approach is perfectly suited to such an orchestral score, and the dramatic impact in Mass Effect is enhanced a great deal by its non-diegetic music.

The breadth and scope of the score didn't hit me full force until I played the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2. Having the Normandy-SR2 assault the Collector station was one of the most memorable moments I’ve ever ha in a game, because the epic symphony that accompanied my descent towards the behemoth enemy installation was truly empowering. I hadn't seen the final level, but I knew just by the colossal sound the game was pumping out that I was going to need every upgrade I could possibly afford. That moment stuck with me to the point that I didn't hesitate to play the marvellous and lengthy tale again on hard after I had finished it. The Mass Effect score deserves much recognition for the emotional potency it invokes.

Brad Hilderbrand - Fallout 3

Often lost in the discussion of the technical and gameplay achievements of Fallout 3 is the game's absolutely amazing soundtrack. The generally peppy, upbeat big band classics are such a perfect counterpoint to the bleak and desolate Wasteland that it almost feels as though the game's setting and sound design perfectly balance one another on a giant cosmic scale. Wandering out of Vault 101 and into the sun-scorched desert that was once Washington, DC while the Ink Spots' "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" wafts quietly out of the Pip-Boy is one of those gaming moments that almost no one can forget.
At the other extreme the game's ambient sounds are also amazing when the radio is switched off. The dead silence of the unpopulated stretches of land coveys just the right amount of hopelessness and despair, and wandering through a darkened Vault or abandoned city is made doubly creepy with the various ambient noises which are often nothing, but sometimes turn out to be the only warning against a Super Mutant or Deathclaw. Fallout 3 is one of those games which proves the elegance of simplicity.

Matt Green - Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time

The Ratchet & Clank games have always sported magnificent soundtracks, but A Crack In Time outdoes them all with the inclusion of the various radio stations that Ratchet enjoys while cruising the galaxy in his spacecraft. From the thumping Deep Space Jams to the techno House of Synth, jamming one's way across small planetoids on collection side-quests hasn't been this musically enjoyable in years. Special praise has to go to the Pirate Radio station, in which Captain Slag and his trusty first mate Rusty Pete play DJs and spin some classic rock that is perfect for long periods of exploration mixed with a little combat. The Pirate Radio tunes all have a familiar slant to them, as if they're copying real rock songs from the 1970s and 1980s with their distinctive instrument mixes and melodic structures, yet they are all totally original and manage to invoke familiar phrasing without actually being derivative. While playing A Crack In Time I found myself spending extra time just drifting through space in order to hear more Pirate Radio and Slag/Pete banter. What can I say? I'm a fan.

Eric Frederiksen - Silent Hill 2

This is easy: Silent Hill 2. Firstly, I adore the soundtrack. I listen to it regularly and have done so since it came out in 2001. It's a great collection of guitar music by Silent Hill composer and director Akira Yamaoka. When Christophe Gans made the Silent Hill movie, being a fan of the games himself, he used the soundtrack for the film as well. I think that is testament to its quality that it can still be just as powerful across different media like that.
The sound design in Silent Hill as a series is awesome, too. Every little thing adds to that feeling of dread that permeates the entire world: the sound effects of Pyramid Head's shuffling feet or that dragging knife screeching against steel. I used to live in an apartment near train tracks, and when a train would screech to a stop outside I'd wake up to that sound in a cold sweat. Even if Pyramid Head wasn't coming to get me, it's still a downright terrifying sound.

Lucas DeWoody - Super Mario Galaxy

Super Mario Galaxy is the best soundtrack to emerge from a video game this generation. From the moment you hear that triumphant opening title fanfare you instantly realize that Galaxy is determined to stand in contrast to everything around it.
Soundtracks of the modern era strive to create a mood, much like a Hollywood score, but in the drive to match Hollywood's level of complexity and scope, we've lost that ability to create a simple little melody that anybody can hum along with as they play.
Galaxy features the best of both worlds. Initially there is a symphonic space opera played by a full, live orchestra comprising of everything from a full string section to a Theremin. In juxtaposition to this, each and every one of the songs has a relatively simple melody that you can hum along to. Sure, Galaxy lacks full voice work, and the sound effects are stock Mario, but those sounds are as much a part of the world of Mario as smiley faces in the clouds. The music is what carries the game's sound design from start to finish. I want something that I can listen to outside the game - a soundtrack that can take me to a far away place, even when the game is not there. There hasn't been a lot this generation that holds that kind of credibility. Melody is the most important thing in my mind, and for that, Super Mario Galaxy is unparalleled this generation in audio terms.

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