Sunday, February 5, 2012

How Sound Makes Me Feel

This post relates to a lot of the concepts in my Sound and Audio class, but I believe that it also ties in nicely to Game Design, so here it is.

Game Design and Production - INFR 2330

So I went back home yesterday. I like going back home since school food isn't that great, and Chinese food is the best. When I got home, I noticed that I had a package waiting for me as well. I had ordered the Final Fantasy XIII-2 Collector's Edition online back in December and since the game came out on Jan 31, it was already delivered and waiting for me

I got the collector's edition because I like collector's editions. I normally don't buy them too often, but I bought this one because it was relatively cheap for collector's edition (Only $15 more) and it came with a four disc soundtrack, an art book and a sexy box and case.

The box actually feels so nice.

The art book was smaller than I thought it would be, and the box actually looked and felt really nice. I was pretty interested in the sound track though, Square Enix often makes some pretty good music for their games. I would say that their graphics and audio are pretty top tier; all of their games have looked incredibly pretty and sounded awesome since the beginning.

So I popped each of the four CDs into my laptop and started to import them into iTunes. When I was done I saw that there was 5 hours of content and that for some reason most of the tracks were labelled in Japanese. Which I thought was weird because I got the English version. And you know, most English speaking people don't know Japanese.

When so much of my music is in Asian, it annoys me to no end when iTunes decides to replace Asian characters with boxes.

I started listening to each song one at a time. I haven't even played the game at this point yet, but I just wanted to listen to the sound track while doing some work. I ended up writing yesterday's blog post, did some programming and did some research online while listening to that soundtrack.

Also a bit of an aside before I go on, the stuff on this soundtrack is not what I listen to on a regular basis. I listen to a lot of European and Asian rock music that for a lack of a better term is more awesome than stuff like radio music. Here's a song for comparison.

I had this go off in my Sound and Audio lab by accident on Thursday, how embarrassing.

So what I'm trying to say is that this soundtrack isn't really appealing to my regular tastes in music. There's a lot more orchestral pieces and soft vocals in it that I normally would never listen to. However, I have to say that it sounds really good.

One thing that really strikes me is that in a lot of video game soundtracks, there aren't really that many games that have songs with vocals in them. This soundtrack on the other hand has a lot of them. A significant number of the songs have vocals on them, which I thought was kind of weird at first since if it's supposed to be background music, wouldn't something other than ambient noise be distracting?

Well, yesterday night I played the game for about an hour and a half, and I encountered certain areas where the background music had vocals in them. It was pretty cool since the vocals were not too terribly in your face and instead melded into the instrumentals and just sounded really good. It didn't really distract me from the gameplay but rather I felt it augmented the instruments in the song really well.

The only exception.

So how does this relate to Game Design? Well, sound and audio are really important in games. They add a new dimension of immersion and feel to the game that can only be accomplished by appealing to our sense of hearing. Just having really pretty graphics and fun gameplay is nice and all, but without the proper sound to accompany it, it just doesn't feel the same.

For example, there was this one song on the sound track that when I listened to it, I closed my eyes and just asked myself what I felt. It was a pretty soothing song and it conjured up imagery in my mind of a sunny beach with calm waves gently lapping at the shore. And honestly, I'm pretty sure that's where that song is used. As background music on a beach.

The monsters are slightly off-camera.

You know the music is done well when you can listen to it and can figure out where it  might go in a game and how it might be used to convey the tone and atmosphere of that level or event. It got me thinking to other games and how they used sound as well.

One of the first examples that popped into my mind was another Square game, Chrono Trigger. Back in the SNES days, the technology just didn't exist to make photo-realistic graphics or full orchestra sound tracks. However Square still managed to create music for the game that was memorable and full of energy and emotion. Chrono Trigger is often remembered as one of the best RPGs of all time and it definitely has one of the best sound tracks too.

I love this song.

Games like Chrono Trigger would've still been a great game even if it had no sound. It has an epic story with fun gameplay elements and I honestly still enjoy it today. Sometimes I plug in my SNES to my HD TV and just play games on it. The graphics look ridiculous since they get blown up so much due to the size of the TV, but it still is incredibly fun. The soundtrack just makes it even better.

A good soundtrack just adds so much depth to a game that it can make a game better, but at the same time an annoying soundtrack could take away from a game as well. As designers, we have to make sure the sound we have in our game helps strengthens and augments our game's feel, rather than detract from it. Last semester when my GDW group made SHFT, we literally added in background music and sound effects the night before it was due.

I put that on the TV too. In 3D.

SHFT was already pretty good, but adding in sound effects made it feel a lot more polished and complete. Having sound effects attached to actions made the game just feel more real. The background music we had didn't really fit with the snow theme we had though. The background music sounds like it would fit more a jungle theme, and a lot of people were pointing that out actually.

Our background music didn't fit with our theme, so it just felt weird sometimes if you payed attention to the background music. I mean it wasn't bad, but parts of it just felt off. Just goes to show how sound can make a game feel better, but at the same time if done incorrectly can also take away from the game too.

Also, even if you don't plan on playing FFXIII-2, I highly recommend you check out the soundtrack anyways. You can find a lot of them on Youtube already.

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