More Than Just Noise: Boom Headshot!

[For her Monthly Musing, Elsa has chosen to talk about sound effects instead of music. As Elsa points out, sound effects can not only be entertaining — listening for them can be crucial to playing well! Want to write your own Musing? Click here and start writing! — JRo]

I’ll admit I rarely notice music in games and I tend to go to the menu and turn the ingame music down when I have that option, but I turn the “sound effects” option up – way up, to maximum uppness! For a points wh0re such as myself, there is nothing quite like the wonderful “pathunk” sound effect you hear when you’ve made a headshot in MAG, or better yet, the “headshot” voice of the announcer in UT3 that always makes me think I’m at a monster truck rally.

The ingame sounds that I generate through an action are of far more interest to me than background music. The sounds of the various guns give a sense of weight or power. When I wield the heavy machine gun in MAG, the low rumble makes me feel like a tank mowing down hapless soldiers in my sights. When I wield the small machine gun as a side arm, it has a high fire rate with a small clip… and it’s speed makes me feel like I’m zipping around the battlefield because of it’s light sound (even if I’m wearing heavy armour and actually moving slower). The “sound” of the guns actually makes me play differently. Shotguns! Ah, the shotgun. Such a satisfying sound, though maybe only secondary to the boom of a high powered sniper rifle as it hits it’s far away target… only to produce that wonderful headshot sound effect!

The ingame sounds not only let me know how I’m doing, but they also give a sense of enemy movements… the swish of a missed knife swipe can allow me time to dance away and defend myself with a return “swish”. Even the sound of footsteps in some games can alert me to the presence of the less-than-stealthy player running up behind me. In games like Warhawk, the low rumble of an overhead dropship means driving my tank to safety under cover, without even looking around for the dropship. The “tzzzzz” sound of the green beam of the binoculars usually gives me time to kiss my ass goodbye and think of where I want to respawn.

Every game has these sounds, not just shooter games. In RPG games there is often a unique sound associated with picking up loot – it gives audio feedback that you picked the item up and didn’t accidently run past it and leave that +2 Charisma robe lying on the ground. For other games, the sound of opening a treasure chest gives an almost pavlovian response of “what will I get?”. In fighting games there are effects when you land a hit, and when you miss. In RPG’s there is often that wonderful sound of a weapon being unsheathed when an enemy is nearby and you go automatically into “fight mode”. Every game has these sounds that are heard and reacted to on an almost subliminal level.

What fascinates me about these sound effects is not just their relation to an action I perform or another player performs, but also their relation to the environment. With surround sound, footsteps actually sound like they are on your right, or behind you. As you turn, the sound changes directionality. Reloading your gun in an open field often sounds entirely different from reloading your gun when running down a cement hallway. The programming involved in creating sound relative to the player in the game must be an amazing feat, but when done in multiplayer and the sounds are all relational and co-related to other players… it really is incredible! The layering of sounds – tossing a grenade and hearing it’s distant boom while reloading your gun and hearing a sniper shot whizzing by your ear. To become really good at a game, particularly in multiplayer, you have to play the game with both your eyes… and your ears. Then again, I’m old enough that I still remember a time when “stereophonic” sound on the TV meant turning the TV sound off and playing an accompanying FM radio station that carried the corresponding stereo music for the show, and a later time when specific TV shows had the note “”In stereo (where available)”. Sound engineering has come a very long way in a short time.

These ingame sounds lurk in our subconscious and their power becomes evident at odd moments in everyday life. I’ll be walking through a parking lot and hear the backup “beep beep beep” of a vehicle… and I’ll feel my heart accelerate as I automatically slow down and start looking around for Warhawk land mines. For me, these ingame sound effects are more than just noise, they are the “music” that I remember from games, especially the glorious sound of a headshot!

… and I leave you with the unique and adorable headshot chirp from Killzone 2, it’s a tiny, barely noticeable sound… but your face is smiling when your brain hears it:

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