Video Game Audio 101. Fiction or Interface. An Introduction.

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In a series of articles, I’ll explore the history of video game audio, its functions as both video game fiction and game interface, and what tools we can use to understand this better.

This is part one of those articles.

These articles are inspired by a thesis I wrote since I’ve had a lifelong fascination with video games and video game audio, and my later work as a lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, where I taught this topic.

So apologies in advance if these essays get a tad academic at times. I’ll try to keep them short and fun to read for those who share the same fascination with this topic as me.

Part II: Video Game Audio 102. The Analog Arcade.

Part III: Video Game Audio 103. The First Beeps & Music.

Part IV: Video Game Audio 104. Arcade Sounds Of The 1980s.

Part V: Video Game Audio 105. Gaming at Home in the 1980s.

Part VI: Video Game Audio 106. The Rise of 8-Bit Nintendo NES.

Part VII: Video Game Audio 107. Home Computers of the 1980s.

Part VIII: Video Game Audio 108. Rise of 16-bit machines in the 1990s.

Part IX: Theoretical Framework part 1: Narratology vs. Ludology.

Part X: Theoretical Framework 2. Video Games As Fiction, Rules & Media

Appendix 1: Defining Gameplay in Video Games.

Appendix 2: Understanding Bits, Samples, and Sound in Video Games.

“Battlecruiser operational”

Gamers familiar with one of the biggest real-time strategy video games of all time will be familiar with this phrase. I’m talking about StarCraft from 1998, of course.

The line is said (with a thick Russian accent) by the captain of the powerful Battlecruiser when it leaves the hangar for the first time after being built.

But who is the captain talking to?

On the one hand, his voice sounds from the game’s fictional world. He is a battlecruiser captain in a perilous galaxy, after all.

It’s as if he is communicating with the rest of the army – as well as you as the commander of that army.

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We can even see a small animation of him on-screen as he’s standing on the bridge. It is as if we had a direct video hotline available with him at all times.

On the other hand, all battle cruiser captains sound and look the same.

They all say “Battlecruiser operational” when their ship is born from the shipbuilding yard for the first time. And they all say stuff like “Set a course” and “engage!” with the same voice and thick Russian accent.

Are the battle cruiser captains an army of clones, like the Storm Troopers in Star Wars?

They might be!

But I’d argue there is also something else going on here.

You can enjoy a remastered version of more of his lines here:

And here he is in an older and more battle-worn version from StarCraft 2 (2010):

Game audio has many roles to play

The Battlecruiser captains have a dual role: they are fictional entities in a fictional game world. But they are also pawns in a (video) game governed by rules.

The battlecruiser and its charismatic captain need to be easily identifiable but also have rules that separate them from the rest of the pieces in the game.

The battle cruiser looks and acts differently (fx has its own weapons and armor), which is different from all other units in StarCraft.

This is similar to how the rook looks and moves differently from the bishop on a chessboard.

The line “Battlecruiser operational” tells the player about a specific and important time in the real-time evolving game state (the biggest baddest spaceship is ready for battle!).

As such, these words from a fictional character carry important information to the player and is part of the game’s interface.

In other words, “Battlecruiser operational” simultaneously carries a fictional and interface-related message to the player about the current game state.

If a tree falls in StarCraft, does it make a sound?

Video games’ sound effects and music are part of a fictitious audio-visual world, which can somewhat be compared to the soundscape in film.

When we seek to analyze, understand, and describe sound in video games, we can benefit from some of the tools already academically established, fx the concept of diegesis, which I’ll get back to in a later article.

But on the other hand, sound in video games is very different from the sound in movies because video games let the player reach into and manipulate the fictitious game world.

Sound help the player navigate the fictitious game world governed by rules.

But not only that.

Because sound consists of waves traveling through the air of the room the player is in, it expands the on-screen game world into the player’s space.

In that sense, video game sound expands the game world so that this world takes on the 3D space of the player’s world. It doesn’t matter if the player is enjoying the game on headphones, laptop speakers, or an expensive surround system. Sound needs air to travel.

In other words, the game world on the 2D surface of the screen takes on the third dimension of the player because sound needs air to travel in and ears to pick it up.

If not, sound is just audio files in a computer.

In closing

This was just a quick introduction to some concepts and thoughts about video game audio and sound.

In the following articles, I’ll explore these further.

I’ll introduce some theories by leading researchers within video game audio and draw on established practices within fields such as ludology, narratology, musicology, and film theory to suggest a combined framework that can be used to understand video game sound.

I’ll also revisit some of my favorite video games and soundtracks from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras of the 1980s and 1990s.

And I’m going to write about some modern video games where sound plays a major role.

I’ll hope you’ll tag along for the ride. It’s gonna be heaps of fun and probably very geeky!


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jan has played video games since the early 1980s. He loves getting immersed in video games as a way to take his mind off stuff when the outside world gets too scary. A lifelong gamer, the big interest led to a job as a lecturer on game sound at the University of Copenhagen and several written articles on video games for magazines.

Read more on the About Page.