Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

James Leach re­alises faux sound ef­fects are bet­ter than real ones

EDGE - - SECTIONS - James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio


Now I’ve been work­ing on videogames since the early ’90s, and reg­u­larly col­lab­o­rate with teams who’ve been do­ing so for longer than that. We’ve seen the in­dus­try grow from flick­er­ing, buzzing blobs to worlds so re­al­is­tic and im­mer­sive that peo­ple for­get to eat while they’re play­ing them. Or worse – they graze on junk food while play­ing them and poo un­heed­ingly in their chairs. The ad­vance­ments have been, it’s fair to say, ex­tremely rapid, if oc­ca­sion­ally smelly.

Thirty years of se­ri­ous game de­vel­op­ment does mean, how­ever, that there are hordes of us wandering around con­ven­tions and ex­pos, be­ing re­ferred to as ‘veter­ans’. It’s not a ti­tle I have ever felt com­fort­able with, but it’s hard to ar­gue against it when many of those who use the word weren’t even born when I was fin­ish­ing Dun­geon Keeper. And some of the peo­ple say­ing it are CEOs of their own out­fits.

The long his­tory and great ma­tu­rity of the de­vel­op­ment world has also led to an in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non; as a vet­eran, it’s pos­si­ble to say to teams work­ing on new prod­ucts, “But this is how we’ve al­ways done it.” It’s not a com­mon­place phrase or say­ing, granted, be­cause de­vel­oper types are usu­ally fairly ag­ile of mind and are happy to learn and eval­u­ate and see things, well, dif­fer­ently. But hit mid­dle age and it does get harder to learn new pro­cesses and take on board fresh ap­proaches, es­pe­cially when they’re com­plex and be­ing ex­plained by young­sters typ­ing so fast that your bi­fo­cals lag.

Not long ago I spent a lovely day in a wood with a few guys my age. Al­though that in it­self is an­other sign of mid­dle age in a cer­tain sort of man, this was ac­tu­ally for work. We were record­ing a page of cru­cial lines for a game, which were to be de­liv­ered in a for­est. We had the voice ac­tors, the wind was rustling re­al­is­ti­cally be­cause, to be hon­est, we were gen­uinely there and it was real. It went smoothly and all was well.

I men­tioned the ar­bo­real record­ing ses­sion to an en­tirely dif­fer­ent au­dio en­gi­neer in a stu­dio a few weeks later, think­ing he’d be rather im­pressed at our at­ten­tion to ve­rac­ity. He was about 11 years old and was shocked that we’d both­ered. It wasn’t that chil­dren like him hate go­ing to woods and greatly pre­fer clack­ing around mo­rosely on their skate­boards in Ar­gos car parks. He was firmly of the opin­ion that adding am­bi­ent for­est sounds to clearly de­liv­ered lines done prop­erly was not only clearer, but sounded more like peo­ple in a for­est. I dis­agreed to the point where I felt like tak­ing away his hoodie and graf­fiti pens, but I now think he was right. Not only has the tech­nol­ogy moved on to the point where it’s quick and ef­fec­tive to add such things later, but be­cause every­one else is do­ing it. In games, it’s how di­a­logue in wood­land sounds. Do­ing it old-school sounds, at best, old-school and at worst, not very good.

Take ex­plo­sions. Games, film and TV have con­di­tioned us to ex­pect the sound of a blast to oc­cur at pre­cisely the same time as the blast it­self, no mat­ter how far away we are from it. Clearly that doesn’t hap­pen in real life, but games have been do­ing things like this for­ever, and also do­ing things like sound ef­fects in new, bet­ter ways for long enough that th­ese them­selves are part of the genre. We’ve gone from rub­bish to quite good and now they’ve gone from quite good to amaz­ing. Peo­ple are now used to amaz­ing, so quite good looks rub­bish.

As the sheer power of gam­ing plat­forms has risen, an­other el­e­ment wise old an­cients have to take on board is the – yep, I’m us­ing the word – holis­tic side. A gor­geously ren­dered world has to sound per­fect, with dy­namic stereo ev­ery­where, and wood­land sounds like ev­ery game now ex­hibits, or it lets the side down. Com­bat and weapon choices have to be huge be­cause no­body wants to dive for hours into a world where their char­ac­ter has one sim­ple at­tack elicited by re­peat­edly mash­ing one but­ton or key. Or, if you can strive and grind for mil­lions in gold, you’ll need mil­lions of things to spend it on.

All of the above re­ally mat­ters when we’re talk­ing about huge games made by bus­loads of team mem­bers. The smaller games still get­ting built by two- or three-per­son bands are luck­ily ex­empt from such wor­ries. Short­cuts and di­ver­sions away from the sump­tu­ous are still la­belled as quirky or charm­ing, es­pe­cially if there’s a know­ing nod to the fact that this is the case. The gam­ing com­mu­nity, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, de­mands mas­sive, seam­less faux per­fec­tion from its worlds, but it’s more than ca­pa­ble of fall­ing in love with the smaller, odder of­fer­ings. As long as they don’t cost the same. Th­ese peo­ple aren’t fall­ing for that one.

We’ve seen the in­dus­try grow from flick­er­ing, buzzing blobs to worlds so im­mer­sive peo­ple for­get to eat while play­ing

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