Monday 12 January 2009

The superfluity of sound in Gears of War 2

One of the things we like to do here at SLRC is play games: specifically, videogames. But we also like to listen to things that stimulate our aural senses in a pleasurable way and to have a bit of a think about how videogames do this. I was playing Gears of War 2 the other day and, I’ll be honest, enjoying more the conversations I was having over MSN and twitter. I also found myself getting more and more irritated and distracted by the sound and music of the game, so I did the sensible thing and turned it off.

Two things happened: firstly, Gears of War 2 metamorphosed into an ironic, satirical comedy game and secondly I realised how superfluous most of the sound was. Lets start with a review of the sound design aesthetic present in Gears of War 2.

Like so many other aspects, the sound design in Gears of War 2 is loud and proud. There’s nothing wrong with “loud”, and in fact many contemporary pop music albums stretch the limits of volume through the application of what is known as “compression”. A compressor acts a bit like a big squeeze on the music, making the quiets louder and the stopping the loud parts from going quite so high and including unwanted distortion. Don’t worry too much about that how it does it, just know that the effect is that the song or album becomes very loud, often so that it stands out from the crowd. The downside of compression and the inexorable drive to make pop music ‘loud’ however is the loss of dynamics, because the quiet parts are made as loud as the loud parts. According to the internet, Claude Debussy said famously that “Music is the space between the notes”. Gears of War 2 is all notes.

Secondly, the sound design in Gears of War is a product of the design imperative that hungers for photorealism. Despite the fact that the humans look like gorillas and that the enemy locust look like nightmarish demons, the game attempts to make both images and sounds that, with an acceptance of the fiction of the story, appear to behave in a realistic manner. An article from the now sadly defunct 1UP said of the original Gears sound design that,

Almost all the sounds in Gears of War are organic and not synthesized. There was a pretty strict "no lasers" policy…

Comments made by CliffyB in a video on the sound design of the game lead me to believe that this policy was retained for the sequel, with him specifically mentioning that it’s “one of the reasons Gears feels so good, feels real and tangible”.

I can’t claim to know the production process back to front for certain, however I am making an informed guesstimate when I assume that what has most likely happened in the production of a sound is that it has been recorded, processed to get it sounding right and then finally it will probably be compressed extremely harshly so that it is as crisp, clear and loud as it can be. From Marty O’Donnell I’ve learned first hand however that good source material by itself does not make for great game audio! At the run-time stage, when the player is actually playing the game, all the sounds are thrown together and the mix of the sounds becomes incredibly important.

The ‘realism’ aesthetic, present in the sound material as mentioned above, is also applied to the ‘sound philosophy’ of the game. If an action would ‘naturally’ make a sound in Gears of War, like a boot stomp or a gunshot, then the sound engine wants you to hear it. And in an action packed videogame like Gears, there is a very good chance that you will not be hearing the sound by itself or in isolation and so the mix becomes very important. In the case of Gears of War, (to mix a metaphor) it goes for the auditory jugular and tries to get everything as loud as possible at the mix stage. The problem then is that there is no prioritisation of sounds as it becomes one big (exciting) jumble of “bangs”, “booms”, “kakakakas” and “ka-chunks”. The audio director on Crysis, Florian Füsslin, has said

Making game audio is often a balancing act between realism and “keep it readable for the player”. For example shooting two assault rifles might sound similar in reality, but in the game the player has to know precisely which weapon has fired. In this case the readability was more important and therefore given the priority.

And here’s the crux of the matter – the end result of the audio in Gears of War 2 does exactly what Cliff Bleszinski wanted from his sound: it is loud and exciting and visceral and ‘grounds’ the action. However what it has also done is made the sound superfluous. The sound, by being always on, and always punching you in the ear means that that is all it does – fulfil an aesthetic role. And if the aesthetic of GoW2 is already grating on your nerves, there’s no reason not to turn it off. Coming back to the inspiration for this short summary series, I turned the sound off for the last two-thirds of the game and didn’t notice any difference in how well I played. I put on some Metronomy, and the often absurd aspects of the game, as well as some serious camp undertones, in the game came to the fore.

In a future post, I hope to examine in a bit of the same detail the musical scoring done for Gears of War. Stick around, and until then tell me what music you like to play Gears2 with.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that the cacophony of sound in the large scales battles is near unbearable, especially on a high end system. Though if you're just watching it, you can concentrate and pick out the sounds. However, Gears 2 really shines in its quieter moments.