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The Top 10 Examples of Good Sound Design

The Top 10 Examples of Good Sound Design

I recently wrote a list entitled “The Top 10 Surprisingly Good Soundtracks”, in which I sung the praises (pun intentional) of game music and its importance. It was only after the list was posted that it occurred to me that most of what I had said applied to sound effects, and the design that goes into creating and applying them, as well.

Sound design is probably the most underappreciated aspect of game development and criticism. Most of its implementation has been focused on the emulation of real-world noises. And there’s nothing wrong with that, particularly for a game with a grounding in realism. But audio can be so much more than just a branch of gaming’s never-ending path toward perfectly realistic entertainment. Even the most realistic game in the world is going to require a menu selection or an objective cue, and unless you want these actions to be accompanied by complete silence, you’re going to need some decent sound design.

Ever play a game and notice that some actions are especially satisfying thanks to their associated sound effect? That’s intentional — or at least, it should be — and any moment where it does or doesn’t happen can usually be attributed to a success or failure on the sound designer’s part. But just as entertainment is only one type of experience a game can offer, satisfaction is only one type of reaction a sound effect can engender. The following ten games make exemplary use of sound design to advance the emotions of their gameplay, whether those emotions are satisfaction, fear, or…well, you’ll see.

 

#10: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Reqiuem (GC)

If you know anything about Eternal Darkness, it’s probably that the game features a sanity meter that drains as you encounter enemies, and that at low levels, it starts to have various surreal effects on the interface, environment, and controls. And if you know anything specific about that feature, it’s probably the infamous moments in which the game pretends to erase your data instead of saving, or the healing item that instead causes your torso to explode.

But while the setpiece hallucinations are startling and, in hindsight, hilarious, it’s the subtle ones that make the game one of the most genuine horror experiences of its generation. And as you’ve probably guessed, the auditory hallucinations are simultaneously the subtlest and most unnerving of all the tools in the game’s arsenal. The semi-scripted ones in the game’s hub level (footsteps and knocks in what should be an empty house) are creepy, but also unsurprising after the first few occurrences. Instead, their presence is engineered for misdirection. Once you’ve heard what an auditory hallucination sounds like, you expect to hear them again when delving into the self-contained gameplay chapters. Or at least, you expect something equally obvious.

What you don’t expect is a wall of voices, distorted and backmasked into an inhuman state, all crying, shaking, or screaming, beginning with near-silence virtually indistinguishable from the game’s existing ambiance, rising up to a background whisper, and finally to an undeniable cacophony. The crescendo is so gradual (as is my other favourite subtle sanity effect, the skewed camera angles) that you likely won’t even notice it until two-thirds of the way through a chapter. But the moment you do is one of gaming’s great “holy shit” moments — the moment where you realize just how mentally destitute your character is becoming.

 

#9: Yoshi’s Story (N64)

Yoshi's StoryOn the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have Yoshi’s Story, one of the lightest, softest, and most inviting games ever made. Alongside some classic Mario series sound effects, sound design in Yoshi’s Story is primarily a collection of bubbly squeaks and pops — pleasant, but nothing special. So what makes the game worthy of a spot on this list? Well, it’s right there in the title: Yoshi.

You know that instantly recognizable voice that Yoshi has in pretty much every game he’s been in for the past fifteen years? That debuted here, and for good reason. While Yoshi was a wonderful addition to the gameplay of Super Mario World 1 & 2 (the latter of which deserves special mention on a sound design list for making a character intentionally annoying because test players weren’t prioritizing him enough), he still wasn’t much of a character on his own — even his colour palette was designed to complement Mario’s. He needed something to make him stand out, and with gameplay eliminated by Yoshi’s Story‘s status as an introductory platformer, that something was his voice.

Thanks to this decision, Yoshi is possibly the most expressive character Nintendo has ever created. He audibly enjoys the action in his own game, but he also panics when he falls from a decent height, and groans as he struggles with his trademark flutter jump. And most memorably of all, his entire tribe sings in celebration at the end of a completed level. And just in case my observation is way off the mark, and this iconic characterization through sound was unintentional, Yoshi’s voice still deserves some praise for having the highest amount of concentrated cuteness ever poured into a series of .wav files.

 

#8: Pikmin (GC)

PikminSimilar to Yoshi’s Story, a big part of Pikmin‘s design document was likely focused on making the titular creatures as immediately endearing as possible. One can see this in their simple design, utter helplessness without the player’s guidance, diminutive size (even relative to the game’s pint-sized world), and of course, ridiculously adorable voices. If, for some reason, the game doesn’t squeeze a smile out of you with the Pikmin’s lovably dumb facial expressions and childlike behaviour, their squeaky greetings upon being pulled from the ground will. Failing that, they also cheer upon completion of a task, sing when bored, and let out the most pitifully defeated cry when they’re almost inevitably killed.

Admittedly, the large number of Pikmin under your control at any given time (compared to the handful of protagonists in Yoshi’s Story) does eventually wear down the charm of their repeated peeps and squeals, but they still accomplish their early-game goal of making you care for the little carrot-men remarkably well. So why does Pikmin get ranked ahead of Yoshi’s Story, if the effect of its sound design eventually wears off? Because unlike Yoshi, the Pikmin’s myriad chirps and cries have a secondary purpose: they instantly let you know what the creatures are doing.

Pikmin is a surprisingly complex game — it involves more micromanagement and multitasking than any other real-time console game that isn’t a PC port. There’s usually so much going on that the usual technique of having objects convey their state visually wasn’t enough. So additionally, the Pikmin outright tell you what they’re doing, without actually popping up an intrusive message saying, “We’re in trouble!” Instead, they wail and splash when beginning to drown, they have work songs and battle cries when lifting or attacking, and they actively call to you when they haven’t been assigned a task. It may not sound like much, but against Pikmin‘s infamously aggressive time limit, it’s one of the best counters you have.

 

#7: LIMBO (X360)

LIMBOLIMBO is the perfect example of how sound design is not just a matter of re-creating the sounds we hear in the real world, and how, even in realistic games, the important thing is how the audio is used, not how accurate it sounds. LIMBO is a realistic game, for sound design purposes — the only thing cartoonish about it is its silhouette art style, and there are very few fictional elements to it apart from its setting. In other words, there’s almost nothing in LIMBO that you can’t hear in real life.

But LIMBO is also a game about death — the suddenness with which death can arrive, the unsettling unknown that awaits beyond death, and the distinct possibility that your death will be completely insignificant in the grand scheme of things. To that end, much of the game’s environment, especially early on, is almost oppressively silent and hollow…but things that can kill you sound as harsh and dramatic as possible. The swift crunch of a bear trap or saw blade as it eviscerates your character’s fragile body is one of the most wince-inducing sounds you’ll ever hear, and thanks to the lethality of LIMBO‘s world, you’ll be hearing it a lot…but, crucially, not enough that it stops being effective. Pacing was an important part of the LIMBO experience, after all, and I’m inclined to believe that its three-hour length was intentional for this reason.

Elsewhere, the most descriptive word you could use for LIMBO‘s sound design is “decaying”. The game has an impressively organic quality to it, which, combined with the theme of death, creates a beautiful world…that constantly seems to be falling apart. Rock pillars crack and crumble beneath your feet, adding an extra layer of urgency to your movement, while the surreal machinery you encounter feels like it barely works, thanks to the disjointed creaking and clanking it all releases upon activation. Even the rare instances of “music” (the game kind of blurs the line between music and sound effects) tend to sound distant and grainy, as if whatever’s making them isn’t in the greatest state of repair.

 

#6: Super Mario Bros. (NES)

Super Mario Bros.Often cited as one of, if not the most revolutionary game of all-time, Super Mario Bros. is usually revered for one of three innovations: the introduction of the modern scrolling platformer, the use of flexible movement controls rather than binary “on/off” input, and the use of strong, persistent background music. Its contributions to video game sound design, on the other hand, usually go unrecognized. While it’s obviously since been outclassed by other games with more modern design and technology, Super Mario Bros. easily deserves a spot on this list for how brilliant it was at the time.

For example, while it’s common knowledge these days that collecting 100 coins will yield you an extra life, this concept would be completely alien to a new gamer playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time. And since the usefulness of coins was not immediately evident, the player needed some incentive to collect them. And that something was an inherently satisfying “ba-ding!” sound effect. Super Mario Bros. was also a surprisingly proficient attempt at injecting some personality into a game via audio; actions that should logically be silent (entering pipes, jumping) were instead given expressive sound effects that alleviated the “emptiness” often found in early arcade and NES games, with their cold, black backgrounds and primitive audio.

When you remember that in 1985, commonly accepted rules of game and sound design did not exist, the genius of Super Mario Bros.‘ developers becomes truly apparent. Before then, video game sound effects ranged from toneless beeps and irritating wails to instantly dated attempts at reality despite technical limitations. You have to admit, as classic as Pac-Man or Donkey Kong are, their sound effects are annoying as fuck. But Super Mario Bros. sidestepped all that with a timeless stylization that, in one of Nintendo’s most forward-thinking decisions ever, has kept them perfectly listenable for decades to come. There’s a reason the classic Koopa Shell and Super Mushroom sound effects are still in use by the series today, and it’s not just because Nintendo is kind of in love with itself.

 

#5: Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

Shadow of the ColossusShadow of the Colossus always felt like a test to see how many concepts its developers could wordlessly convey in one game. But one theme, fittingly enough, dwarfs all the others: scale. Specifically, the recognition of just how small you are relative to the world and its problems. In Shadow of the Colossus, everything around the player is designed to feel incomprehensibly huge, both on a physical and psychological level. If you’ve ever played a bad open-world game, you know that the gap between something being big and something feeling big is surprisingly difficult to bridge. Fortunately, Team ICO has the solution: lumbering, imprecise animation, and perfectly crafted sound design.

Because of this, the colossi that form the game’s core are the most genuinely…ahem…colossal creatures ever compiled into 3D models. You don’t just hear their footsteps thud; you hear them quake the Goddamn earth. A sweep of a colossus limb is accompanied not with a weightless rush of wind, but with a monstrous groan that lingers in the air for half a dozen seconds before finally tapering off. Similarly, once you’ve begun ascending one of the beasts, the creak of its muscles becomes almost incessant, and when you eventually bring one down, a titanic crash erupts, as its untold tons of rock and flesh fall with it. It all combines to create the singular and arguably correct impression that the colossi are literally mountains with legs.

Additionally, the sound design of the colossi teams up with their visual design and behaviour to deliver an impressive amount of wordless exposition. For example, the unearthly roars they’re capable of help to announce that the creatures are unnatural in origin. And while their aggravated cries of pain initially only serve to gratify players who deal them damage, as the story progresses, and the morality of the protagonist is called into question, their dying groans help transition their portrayal into that of an innocent victim. And when you can make a 100-foot-tall rock monster sympathetic, you know you’ve done something right.

 

#4: System Shock 2 (PC)

System Shock 2System Shock 2 is almost universally considered one of the most frightening games of all time, and sound design is a big part of that achievement. In particular, the game allows you to hear the various mutated abominations, homicidal robots, and psychic monkeys that stalk the halls of the starship setting from an oddly large distance away. This would feel out of place in most games, but it complements System Shock 2‘s game design exceptionally well.

Specifically, the game is notoriously complex and difficult; it’s the kind of PC exclusive where if you don’t know what you’re doing, you may as well map quicksaving to the right mouse button. So it’s in the player’s best interest to advance cautiously, in case there’s something capable of ripping your face off and grinding it into a fine powder around the next corner. So how do you force a player to advance cautiously without tangibly obstructing them? By letting them hear every enemy in the area, making them think there’s something that can rip their face off and grind it into a fine powder around every corner, that’s how. This also hopefully prepares you for the most ingenious and cruel of the game’s tricks: spawning enemies behind you.

But System Shock 2‘s audio isn’t just complementary to its gameplay; it’s also a huge component of its atmosphere. Like LIMBOSystem Shock 2‘s setting is decidedly derelict, and while there are immediate threats to your survival, the antagonists’ non-corporeal nature suggests that the real danger is larger and more abstract. To this end, the world around you is full of sputtering electronics, clanking machinery, and disgusting organic squelches, ensuring that despite the early 3D graphics and intrusive interface, you’re as immersed in (and afraid of) the game’s world as possible.

Finally, special mention needs to go to the haunting effects used to distort some of the game’s voice acting. While SHODAN’s voice is the most iconic, the simultaneously seductive and repulsive tones of The Many can send shudders down even the hardiest of players’ spines, and the background whispers of the ghosts you encounter aren’t exactly sweet dream fuel.

 

#3: Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (PC)

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (US)I debated for quite a while about whether it was System Shock 2 or Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs that deserved this spot, because they both use practically identical sound design techniques for similar goals. However, using voice acting as a tiebreaker, I eventually conceded the #3 place to A Machine for Pigs quite easily, because its voice acting is some of the most consistently excellent in gaming, while System Shock 2‘s is just kind of embarrassing whenever SHODAN and The Many aren’t involved.

As for the identical techniques, sound design in A Machine for Pigs is once again focused on making the game’s very setting an antagonist. This time, however, the portrayal is extremely explicit, with the titular machine outright opposing the protagonist even as it houses him. Making an enormous machine into a sort of artificial Lovecraftian god, with churning gears, wheezing pipes, and creaking conveyor belts for innards, was the greatest narrative trick of A Machine for Pigs. The near-constant mechanical cacophony supplies the game with the most immersive steampunk feel I’ve ever experienced, and the rumbles and groans that exude from all areas and distances make the machine an oppressive presence, and an amazing asset for the game’s brand of psychological horror.

On the subject, A Machine for Pigs is much more interested in getting in the player’s head than threatening them with death. You’re actually not in danger very often as you scour the game’s corridors. But the game sure as hell makes you think you’re in danger, as it constantly taunts you with growls and shuffling footsteps from adjacent rooms. Where System Shock 2 used its enemy sounds to enforce caution and minimize surprise player murder, A Machine for Pigs uses them to build an indescribable tension that’s just waiting for a moment of terrifying release…which, with few exceptions, never arrives, leaving the player on edge for the entire game. Lastly, A Machine for Pigs is notably conservative regarding sound effect reuse, ensuring that you rarely hear the same noise twice, eliminating any possible feeling of familiarity in the player.

 

#2: Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee (PS)

Oddworld: Abe's OddyseeOddworld: Abe’s Oddysee is renowned for its ability to flawlessly draw players into its alien world — a trait that’s made even more impressive by its complete lack of familiar, human elements, even in its protagonist. The greatest achievement of the game in terms of sound design is the way the audio helps to establish the game’s wildlife as stylized yet believable animals with virtually no real-world parallel. These creatures, which often blur the lines between reptile, insect, mammal, and amphibian, will hiss, screech, and growl without once betraying the existing animal noises their voices are likely based on.

Like all good sound design, the audio conveys significant meaning for the gameplay, as well. For example, wild animals announce changes in their AI state with specific audio cues — a feature which might have detracted from the atmosphere if they didn’t also emit smaller, insignificant grunts every now and then. Furthermore, the mechanized steps of your cyborg enemies give you time to run or hide before the creature itself appears and guns you down. There’s even a game mechanic where you communicate with other members of your species using simple commands. That the commands themselves are conveyed with small sound bites is mostly inconsequential; the important thing is that the recipients’ reactions do so as well, effectively telling the player what happened…without actually telling the player what happened.

The game also masterfully uses its sound effects to add substantial personality to its experience (take note, game designers: “personality” doesn’t necessarily mean “weirdness”). Abe’s dim-witted “Hello” on the title screen is instantly endearing, and it’s impossible to find someone who didn’t immediately start fiddling with the “GameSpeak” buttons because of their dumb charm. Additionally, the cyborg enemies speak with a grating mechanically augmented snarl, and in my favourite example of a completely unnecessary but nonetheless enjoyable feature, Abe will get visibly and audibly angry at players who run him into walls.

Abe’s Oddysee literally does everything related to sound design perfectly, and the only reason it’s not #1 on this list is because the actual #1 game reaches the same status while also having superior technical ability due to being released seven years later. And that game is…

 

#1: Half-Life 2 (PC)

Half-Life 2I’ll be honest; Half-Life 2 is my favourite game in existence, and I’ve been dying for a top 10 idea that would let me showcase its qualities. I did not have it in mind when I first considered this list, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it had everything I was looking for. Valve has a history of marrying the gameplay, story, and aesthetics of its products as much as possible, and removing anything that doesn’t quite mesh with the whole. And nowhere is this design philosophy more evident than in Half-Life 2‘s sound design.

Every single piece of audio in this game is given a higher purpose as part of the full experience. For example, when a Combine soldier is killed, a static-filled death cry can be heard, followed by a subtle flatline effect, and rapid monotone orders from the remaining soldiers’ Overwatch handler. In gameplay terms, the first two of these sounds are immensely satisfying acknowledgements that you have successfully defeated an enemy, while the third signals that there are still remaining enemies in the vicinity. For narrative purposes, the third segment is a subtle reminder that the Combine is a massive conglomerate of which you are merely chipping away at a single branch. And finally, the whole clip is simply an incredibly recognizable sound that gives the game the kind of identity that other first-person shooters — especially modern ones built on the Halo and Call of Duty template — wish they could display.

And that’s only scratching the surface. The Striders’ harshly distorted warble is the perfect aural shorthand for both “This thing is half-organic and half-mechanical” and “Get the fuck to cover”. Every enemy type can be instantly identified by their associated noises, allowing players to prioritize targets and equip suitable weapons before they even see their foes (and, in the case of the poison headcrab, freeze with terror before they even see their tormentors). The playful, Combine-crushing robot lovingly named Dog can oscillate between violent sirens, and what can only be described as a mechanical whimper. Even the zombies — the most tired of all video game enemies — are made indescribably horrifying by their raspy shrieks of pain, which not only let you know that they’re nearby, but also that their formerly human host is still very much alive and aware within.

The quality of Half-Life 2 has always been defined by its subtleties. A casual observer might look at some screenshots and think it’s just a first-person shooter, but playing it reveals it to be a masterpiece of intangible elements like pacing, characterization, and of course, sound design. And as sound design is one of the subtlest fields of game development, it seems only fitting that this game claim the top spot on this list.

 

Conclusion

By now, I hope this list has shone some light on some of the unrecognized ways games can use audio to engage us, besides capturing that perfect gunshot sound. I know you’re probably all tired of reading the word “sound” and its synonyms, but allow me to repeat myself a few more times for the honourable mentions:

Serious Sam: The First Encounter: A game with mostly straightforward audio, elevated above its peers by smartly associating every enemy with a recognizable sound effect — including the iconic kamikaze soldiers, who constantly scream “AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH”.

Portal 2: An unusual example that took sound effect association in a new direction by pairing puzzle elements with sounds, creating a nice sense of progress as you…er…progress. Didn’t make the list because the sound effects didn’t do much otherwise besides sound neat.

Don’t Starve: Incorporated a sanity mechanic akin to Eternal Darkness, complete with the audio tricks mentioned in that game’s write-up, minus the misdirection. Also tried to substitute character voices with musical instruments, which was an interesting idea that didn’t sound that great in practice.

Chibi-Robo!: A bizarre game made even more bizarre by having every possible action accompanied by eccentric musical notes. Lots of personality ensued. Also lots of annoying sound effects.

Like my previous list, this list probably isn’t remotely definitive. Sound design is something that must be played to be experienced, and my limited free time ensures there will always be some worthy contenders that I missed. So come recommend some games to myself and the good people on the GameFAQs Top 10 Lists board. And be sure to listen to games’ sound effects more closely from now on. They’re probably trying to tell you something.

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