Features - Audio

Musical Techniques for Interactivity
By Donald S. Griffin
May 1, 1998
Vol. 2: Issue 18

Musical Techniques for Interactivity
Making the Game Better

A World of Uncertainty

Requires A Different Approach

That May Be More Complex

But Need Not Be More Difficult

Just Different

A Few Specifics

A Tip About Tips

Making the Game Better

When I started composing music for computer games we composers would argue that the game needed music to stand out from the crowd or just so the game would make some sort of sound or because it made the game better. Later we started to argue that music would enhance the sense of realism in the game environment that was starting to become important due to the proliferation of VGA and later 16 bit video cards and because it made the game better. As wave table synthesizers became more common on sound cards we argued that we could make music that was actually worth listening to. Since everybody else was producing products with some kind of music and sound effects then they had to just to keep up with the Jones' and because it made the game better. More recently we have been able to make products that have either Red Book CD audio or high-resolution sound files played through a DAC. We have been able to justify the use of music because it is capable of sounding as good or even better than what their audience is used to hearing on TV. Few people would choose a fifty dollar game over a fifteen dollar CD by their favorite music group if all they wanted to do was listen to music though so we also had to tell them that it would make the game better. Today we are witnessing the birth of several tools for interactive audio for both music and sound effects. For the first time we will be able to say "it will make the game better" and really mean it!

Real interactive audio can do as much for a game as a good frame rate or a 3D-video processor. With this new crop of tools we can make the sound as fully interactive as any other aspect of the game. Just as a control panel or the view out the cockpit tells the player what is happening so too can a good interactive soundscape tell them what is happening. Just as good graphics can help them to suspend disbelief, a good soundscape can do so even better. This is partly because computer graphics are not yet capable of the realism that is already possible in the sound department. Making the sound fully interactive is the long awaited key.

Just as many clueless multimedia companies went the way of the dinosaur because they did not understand interactivity, so might many sound designers and composers who dare to delve into interactive audio without understanding its potential role in enhancing an interactive product. Just as you are putting the finishing touches on your tune with a few forks for decision points and a spiffy techno beat your competitor has just released a 3D experience that surrounds the player with the sound of his buddies as they chatter over by the pool table. The warning claxon comes from the speaker on the opposite side of the room. He hears his footsteps and the changing echo as he passes from the wooden floor of the ready room onto the hard tarmac outside on the flight line. He hears his faster breathing as he runs to his fighter. He hears voices of his ground crew up ahead. As he enters his cockpit he can hear the wingman has already begun the engine start sequence. After taking off he knows his wingman is just behind and to his right because he is using the new experimental system that places radio chatter in his headphones according to its location on the radar. A missile whizzes past along his left side then explodes and he can hear that his engine has been damaged by the clatter and he can feel the sub bass vibration of turbines out of balance. The wind sounds different because of the disturbed flow over the airframe since he has lost his left wing tip and warning tones fill his ears. After the sudden noise of ejection the abrupt silence is only disturbed by the distant whine of turbines and an occasional explosion as his wingman extracts his revenge.

Please do not analyze my prose or check my story for authenticity. That is not the point. Did you hear it? Did your heart beat faster? Were you drawn in even a little bit? If you saw through me then were you already thinking about how you would make all these sounds happen? If so I have already made my point and started you thinking about how you can use interactive audio to "make the game better." I did not throw in the sound track because I am sure you already have your own in mind. Suffice it to say that it should be just as flexible and pertinent as the sound effects.

Desire and a creative mind certainly help but just as interactive audio has lot to offer it can take a lot of thought and experimentation. In this article I hope to take you on a tour of a few of the critical issues and offer a few specific suggestions to help you on your way to designing bigger and better interactive soundscapes.

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