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The Sounds of Digital Silence

David Chandler | 5 Dec 2013 12:00
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Even a game like Shadow of the Colossus minimizes auditory effects to heighten the sounds of gameplay (the stamp of a horse's hooves, the clash of a sword against stone, the swish of a bow loosing an arrow), reminding the player that he/she is an invader to an otherwise peaceful world. This notion becomes even clearer when a quiet, contemplative journey across the environment culminates in a bombastic battle with one of the colossi.

Noise defines the environments.

While open-world games tend to use sparse environmental soundscapes to heighten the impact of gameplay, other games, specifically those in the stealth genre, task the player to embody digital silence directly. In these games noise defines the environments, giving the player information about guard locations or alerting the player when he/she has created too much noise. In such a game, silence is an active mechanic that the player employs to navigate through a cacophonous world.

Few games actively engage with the mechanics of silence quite like the Thief franchise. Billing itself as a "first-person sneaker," Thief: The Dark Project was the first game of its type to use a complex sound design that propagated virtual sound waves across digital space, and this realistic approach to sound design yields a complex stealth mechanic that prioritizes silence just as much as shadow. The game teaches the player to remain in hushed corners of the environment, only making noise if absolutely necessary to move or to provide distractions. Remaining quiet allows the player to eavesdrop on NPC conversations that give contextual clues for the whereabouts of important mission items, guard patrols, or unwatched passages. Since footfalls can alert enemies of the player's presence, carpeted or mossy floors become the safest way to traverse the environment.

Every action that breaks the game's stillness - even something as quiet as drawing an arrow - is rendered with audible consequences, threatening the player with discovery. All of these elements crystalize in a cohesive system of stealth gameplay that emphasizes a tangible presence of silence.

Such techniques have now become hallmarks of the stealth genre, from the Metal Gear Solid franchise to last year's Dishonored, each approaching the mechanics of sound in as meaningful a way.

The most recent example of a complex system of sound feedback comes from Naughty Dog's The Last of Us. Like most other stealth games, The Last of Us prioritizes quiet movement, and its stripped-down sound design keeps music and background noise at a minimum. The protagonist's ability to focus his hearing allows Joel to "see" the location of patrolling enemies or shambling infected (the latest stages of which can only detect Joel's location through sound,) turning audio cues into visual ones. The game shines, too, when stealth sequences explode in a flurry of noise and frenetic action if the player is discovered. The Last of Us also contains moments of genuine stillness that punctuate these sections of silent intensity, giving the player time to probe the highly-detailed places where society has crumbled. The Last of Us, then, juxtaposes two different approaches to silence in digital games: one that uses silence as a mechanic integral to progress and one that uses silence to open up the world to exploration.

Videogames speak through the language of play, and when sound recedes into the background, gameplay starts to find a clearer voice.

These few examples hardly offer an encyclopedic understanding of the complex and varied ways games make an understated concept like silence an integral part of experiencing the medium. Videogames speak through the language of play, and when sound recedes into the background, gameplay starts to find a clearer voice. We recognize the impact of our actions when they resonate through a quiet environment. We feel the weight of our presence when we shuffle unnoticed through raucous streets and corridors. We hear more clearly the whir of the console systems, the click of a mouse, the movement of an analog stick-even if we've trained ourselves not to-when the soundscape of a game becomes muted.

When we overlook how games force us to confront silence, we miss those opportunities to relish gameplay without sonic distractions, to become more absorbed in the digital worlds we briefly inhabit. Playing the quiet moments makes gameplay more meaningful because we become more aware of our roles as chaotic disturbers of the peace, as wanderers in the digital wastes, or as survivors quietly scrambling in the dark. In such times, I like to incline my ear to the noiselessness of the game-and it's deafening.

David Chandler working on his PhD in English Literature, and when he's not working on his dissertation, he writes for the gaming website AWESOMEOUTof10.com. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter for scholarly discussion and really bad puns.

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