Postcards From The Clipping Plane
James Leach realises faux sound effects are better than real ones
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