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Video game audio

Playing video game

Video game audio has come a long way since Pac-Man and Super Mario Brothers, yet the sounds created by those games have become iconic. Video games are now a multi-billion pound industry and as video game graphics are getting more realistic, the audio for video games is also advancing. Players are expecting sounds that make them believe they are in the middle of the action.

Not like a day at the movies

Movies have a set plot that the composer and sound effects engineers work hard to enhance. They want you to be interested in the story and feel empathy with the characters you see on the screen. Whilst video games also have plotlines and characters, the creators don't want you to be merely empathetic, they want you to experience the game as though you were part of the story.

Movies are something you just watch, but video games are interactive. That means that the sequence of sounds the player hears in the game depends on what the player does and can't be controlled by the game developers. You can watch your favourite DVD over and over and it will be the same every time, but game creators want you to have a new experience each time you play their game. They don't want you to be bored, after all!

Start your engines

Unlike movies, games constantly need new sound effects that respond to what the player does. One example of a sound heard constantly throughout a video game is the sound of the car engine in a racing game. The player needs to be able to hear the engine revs and gear changes. You can also play racing games from the viewpoint of sitting inside the car or alternatively be racing whilst outside and above the car. The audio needs to reflect these changes in the environment and the engine.

A recording engineer might record the sounds of a car engine at different RPMs from idle to full throttle, accelerating and decelerating. The engine might also be recorded from different angles, perhaps in front, at the sides, from the back of the car and from the driver's seat. The audio programmer for a game then instructs the gaming console how and when to play the recorded samples according to what the player is doing in the game.

Alternatively, a common trick to reduce the number of sound recordings, or samples, needed is to modify the ones you have during gameplay, so that the same recording can be used to generate a range of different sounds. The samples can be changed with filters to modify the frequency content and then can be mixed together in varying combinations to create an array of sounds.

An alternative to storing a sound recording is to use a computer to synthesise sounds. Instead of recording a car engine, a computer uses maths to model what it sounds like at different speeds. This saves on computer memory, which is important, as gaming consoles have limited space to store sound recordings. Using this computer simulation trick also allows a lot more flexibility, as the sounds aren't limited to what was recorded. They have the disadvantage though of requiring a faster processor, to do all the extra computation. That trade-off often happens in computing – to use less memory, you need more speed and vice versa.

Games of the future

So the next time you play your favourite video game, try turning the sound off and listening to the difference it makes. The gaming experience is much more than just the graphics. If programmed well, the sound effects and music make the adventure more immersive and believable. So believable in fact that if done well you'll stop listening and just be sucked into the game.