The Sound of Immersion

Immersion is what makes a video game great. It is usually behind the feeling of being at one with the game world, the one-more-turn syndrome that makes you forget reality, the jump scares when something attacks your character… Efficient immersion can be achieved though many tools, but let’s focus on one today: sound.

Immersion’s latin etymology is “immergere”, to dip into. In games, it can be described as follows: “Sometimes people find the game so engaging that they do not notice things around them, such as the amount of time that has passed, or another person calling their name. At such moments, almost all of their attention is focused on the game, even to the extent that some people describe themselves as being β€œin the game.”(Jennett et al., 2008). How can sound help achieve this?

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Sweeping soundtrack not pictured

As Schell (2008) notes, “audio feedback is much more visceral than visual feedback“. This can be observed in Fist Person Shooters, where gunshots make the player’s adrenaline spike, and cause an immediate reaction such as seeking cover, crouching or running (in-game, of course!). In these cases, the immersive power is such that the player feels directly threatened. On a different note, music can serve to compliment a beautiful setting, and reinforce the presence of an in-game area or its charm. The Witcher 3 uses sweeping soundtracks when the main character travels through the roads and wilderness, allowing the player to enjoy the scenery with their ears, so to speak. Ambient sounds can also be used to make a setting more alive.

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Did you hear that?!

However, a case can also be made for the lack of sound, specifically the lack of musical score. Several games have shown this to terrifying effect, including the pioneering horror/survival game Silent Hill. The player finds themselves lost in fog in a disturbing, hostile world. Where a tactful score could have represented a lifeline to humanity and civilisation, the designers opted to let the player to their own devices. No music can be heard, only strange sounds, distant footsteps making you second guess every movement, and distant screeches. Brrr!

My conclusion? Sound matters more than you may initially think. Use it wisely!


References

Jennett, C., Cox, A., Cairns, P., Dhoparee, S., Epps, A., Tijs, T. and Walton, A. (2008). Measuring and defining the experience of immersion in games. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 66(9), pp.641-661. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1071581908000499 (Accessed 22 Nov. 2016)

Milner, J. (2015). A Sound Argument – Is Sound Important in Games? | SA Gamer. Sagamer.co.za. Available at: http://sagamer.co.za/2015/03/18/a-sound-argument-is-sound-important-in-games (Accessed 22 Nov. 2016)

Schell, J. (2008). The art of game design. 1st ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann, p.390.

Silent Hill (no date) [image]. Available at: http://silent-hill.1408-000.net/index.php?go=35 (Accessed 22 November 2016)

The Witcher, (2015) [image]. Available at: http://static3.gamespot.com/uploads/original/1365/13658182/2624268-the_witcher_3_wild_hunt-crossroads_1407869449.jpg (Accessed 22 November 2016)

Featured Image:

Immersion (no date) [image]. Available at: http://silent-hill.1408-000.net/index.php?go=35 (Accessed 22 November 2016)

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