Games that make audio the star of the show

Simon Mgwaza was talking in the workshop last night about how audio often feels like it's added right at the end (for better or worse).

For audio folks, are there games you've played that really made audio the star of the show? What power do you wish you'd have if your programmers made you a priority?


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    I feel like audio and music is universally overlooked in both game development and in film. *EDIT (I mean this in a South African context, but have heard very similar feelings from audio people all over the world, most recently from Australia)

    Developers often don't have the time or budget to pay composers and audio people (and often we have to focus on being great at both in order to be competitive). They often rely on library music - which is not explicitly made for whatever game they made and often lacks the depth that separates it from games that does emanate that passion and character.

    When I work with video games I often try and make every single aspect of the narrative and interface burst with character (granted it fits the concept) and think deeply about each character I have to write for and how their stories might sound. A good example of a composer who writes like this and who I see as a role model is Yoko Shimomura. Each aspect of her composition would be very well thought out - sometimes a thematic idea could be seconds long but be super impactful with what she is trying to communicate to the player. Knowing how to make something sound "conflicted" or "regal" or "disingenuous", for instance, really helps aid the narrative or atmosphere of games or films.
    Not the best example, but she explains some of her process in this video:

    I had a free run once (where the other crew members gave me a lot of freedom) during the GGJ at Bandwith Barn in 2017 and had so much fun. We won best audio and music for the event but knowing that creative freedom and spontaneity paid off like that meant a lot to me. We recorded the microwave they had there (and incorperated it into the theme song) and can still be heard in the game:♣êxquiitémïcrôwáve»17

    To me it really does make sense to involve designers and audio people from the start, as they can give you creative perspectives that you wouldn't all think of, or think is possible for that matter.

    I am a big fan of Metroidvania bullet hell type games, and I think it is because music really gets to be fleshed out with different levels, characters and gameplay (audio queues from enemy attacks being important as they aid in knowing how to react).

    Good examples include:
    Using composition styles popularised by ragtime composers from the 1930's and orchestration, not to mention how well the audio queues help with gameplay (to indicate phase changes or attacks about to happen). All the voice recordings sound like they are straight from the 20's, for instance.

    Celeste (albeit more platformy) is another great example of how music can aid very well in setting a perfectly thought out thematic idea. Lena Raine (best modern video game composer imo) is an absolute gem in this regard, perfectly encapsulating a "sinister yet exciting theme":

    Hollow Knight uses the music to actually tell story by using age old techniques, like leit-motifs and so on:

    I'd like to expand more but I feel like this is a lot to read already.
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  • Do... Music games count? Beat Saber, DDR, etc? That feels too easy and a cheat.

    Do games with really good music/sound design count? Almost all the Final Fantasies have left me with the soundtracks in my head. To The Moon had a track that carried the story and mood well. Was it particularly reactive? I dunno, I wouldn't say so. Hyperlight Drifter's music and audio felt like it fit the world super well. Nier's (the original one, I haven't played Automata) music was incredible and definitely a major part of the mood and experience. Do these count?

    If I had to really point at a games that had music as a central experience, I guess Flower counts? I would say Journey too except I don't quite remember its music at all. Music and sound design, that is.

    I made Beat Attack ages ago where the experience of the game is tightly coupled to the music, so much so that I couldn't just slap in an MP3 for the music and had to write a sequencing thing and the music had to be composed completely in its own way:

    Does that count?

    It seems like a complicated and multi-faceted question :)
    Thanked by 2Wolfbeard Elyaradine
  • Oh, oh, oh how can I forget Outer Wilds??? Music and sounds are integral to the game, and yes was definitely one of the stars of the game. Not showing any videos or whatever because spoilers, so just go play it if you haven't yet ♥️
    Thanked by 2Wolfbeard BenJets
  • Thank you for your examples! I'll slowly work my way through the video essays. :P

    I should probably do a better job of explaining my intentions, as I wasn't that clear before. I'm not talking about some composer or sound designer who's just incredibly skilled -- obviously there are amazingly skilled people who are simply really good at their medium.

    What I'm thinking about is how, a lot of the time, sound is added at the end of a jam. Part of this is that sound designers are generally not also programmers, so that unless they learn some extra skills they tend to be reliant on a programmer to trigger their sounds. And programmers are often also implementing gameplay of some kind, or hooking up UI, or doing any number of other things, so that in their minds they also tend to de-prioritize audio. Even though we know audio is incredibly powerful for setting the mood and affecting emotions, often these are deemed as less important to mechanics or things "working".

    So I've been wondering what kind of games there might be where audio is such an integral part of the game that the programmer has to prioritize more time into working with the sound designer, so that the sound designer can feel a greater sense of ownership and participation, instead of feeling like they're "just playing support".

    Music games very much do fall into this category! My experience with music games, however, is that either the audio is pre-composed and therefore not particularly interactive (you're performing actions to some kind of beat-matching), or the audio is very much procedural, and ends up sounding quite random/mathematical. What other creative ways are there of using music? Are there other examples of games that are built around sound?

    I'd like to jam something along these lines in the near future, is why I'm asking. :D
  • I don't know if you know Crypt of the Necrodancer? It's a 2D rogue like, but the twist is you've got to try and time your movement with the rhythm of the music which helps your character and I think impairs you if you're off time. I haven't played it myself but I guess that's a good example of a game where one of the main mechanics is focused around the music. It looks really cool though and I've only heard good things about it, you should check it out!

    I think it would be super helpful if audio designers/composer were part of the conversation from the get go when making a game so that new or interesting ideas for audio features of frameworks could be communicated to programmers early on in the process to allow for more creative use of audio in the game. Rather than the usual kind of just fill in the sound effects thing, if that makes sense? Like music is usually triggered by entering a specific zone, but what if there were lots of layers of a certain theme tune that all fit together, but are not all neccesarily played, rather certain parts are only triggered by certain events in the game. Like a specific melody or synth or something is triggered when your health is at a certain point in battle to make the overall theme sound more desperate, or a specific layer of the theme is triggered when you're down to the last enemy, but it could happen in a number of combinations depending what happens when you play. This would make the sound track kind of unique to your playthrough!
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    Luftrauser has a 3 part soundtrack that sounds different depending on different parts that you put on your plane. It's a cool idea and the execution is cool, it doesn't make the music the star of the show, and it kinda still could be considered an afterthought, but it's more interesting than the average implementation.

    And one of the most memorable things for me from early games I've played was in Syndicate - when enemies were around the music picks up and becomes tense, and drops back down when you're out of danger. I can still literally dun dun dun the music right now from memory, it has become so indelible in my mind :)
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  • @KRYSH I have played Crypt of the Necrodancer -- both on a keyboard and on a dance mat (the latter with which my brain and feet really struggle!). While I really like the soundtrack, the game from an audio point of view is very much about beat-matching. I don't know how satisfying that kind of gameplay is to a sound designer, given that it's not really dynamic?

    Something memorable to me was Bioshock Infinite, where the combat music was filled with discordant cords and had an irregular beat/time signature. The game would tell you that you'd killed someone by playing another discordant cord, and the way that it matched the music meant that it still fit, no matter the timing. It sort of made your confirming kills become part of the music.

    Maybe something that would be interesting is allowing players to create music together. Sea of Thieves allows players to play different instruments together, and the game just syncs up the timing so that it always fits. This isn't very interactive though, in that you're just holding the "play music" button, but perhaps if it were expanded on enough it could be its own game, if that's something a sound designer would find interesting. I wonder how one could set the rules so that people who didn't come from a musical background could both feel agency in creating music and having self-expression, while also preventing them from making "bad" musical decisions.
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  • I've played Crypt of the Necrodancer a fair bit, and I must say I enjoyed it the most when I unlocked the mode where I don't have to match beats anymore, so yeah, that was ironic :p

    I never noticed that when I played Bioshck Infinite, I wonder if I felt it rather than noticed it. I can't say I remember it much.

    There are some games that intrinsically matched your actions to the music - I believe it's called quantising. Tetris Effect does this and does it very well to create a really holistic effect that felt as if your gameplay contributed to the music without it being as 1:1 as playing an instrument (which you would have sucked at lol)

    I'm actually playing with a concept of a VR instrument that let you both play it as a game and as an instrument. I haven't quite built it out yet, but it's a thing I've been throwing around in my head for a while now. Prototyping is going slow :p
    Thanked by 2KRYSH Elyaradine
  • Yeah I guess beat matching is not the most interesting use of music as a mechanic.

    I also don't remember that from Bioshock Infinite, I played it ages ago, but that actually sounds really cool. That's kind of thing I was trying to get at with my previous comment. I need to go back and check that out.

    As for a game revolving around players making music together. That could be quite challenging, but there are ways it could work. For instance, there's a feature in some music making software that allows for your keyboard to be restricted to producing only the notes of a specific scale and key, so you're never playing out of key. As for rhythm, like @Tuism was saying, there's quantising, which aligns your notes/drum hits to a predetermined tempo and time signature. So even if you aren't playing in time so well, it will align it for you to where the the notes or drum hits should be. So I guess the key, scale and tempo could be picked at the beginning of the session and everyone's virtual instruments could be locked into it so that a bunch of players could jam but easily avoid making "bad" musical decisions.
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  • I just went to look up some Bioshock Infinite combat videos, and I can't find what I was thinking of. :( (But then, I guess, that's opportunity to innovate a bit, so yay!)
    Thanked by 1KRYSH
  • I don't know if you know of the blind gamer Brandon Cole, who writes a blog talking about games he plays (or tries to) and what the audio design is like - whether there are nuances that make it possible for him to do things that one would assume only a person with sight would be able to do or whether the games are impossible to play because sound design, for accessibility purposes anyway, was an afterthought. His article on Animal Crossing is particularly interesting.
    Thanked by 2KRYSH Elyaradine
  • BPM:Bullets Per Minute just launched. Crypt of the Necrodancer, but a FPS.
    Firing, reloading, dashing and even enemy attack patterns happen to the beat of the music.

    BPM:Bullets Per Minute on Steam
  • I thought that Receiver 2 did a remarkable job with sound.

    The primary sound-linked mechanic that made me mention this is the "tape songs". For more context ... the game is about moving through a generated environment and collecting audio tapes. These tapes are placed in not-completely-obvious spots so one needs to hunt a little for them. Most game designs I've encounted will somehow visually guide players towards finding a tape. Receiver does this with audio. Tapes play a subtle singing/chanting loop that is spacially linked to the tape. So you'll be wondering along then suddenly catch an audio queue from a tape and navigate towards it using the audio.

    Other things I noticed that made me feel like audio was very intentional in this game:
    • Movement is generally quite slow and measured. All surfaces have distinct footstep sounds. Other games do this but in Receiver it's most distinct and really helped ground the player in the bizzare world.
    • I personally found the content in the audio tapes quite profound. This is obviously very subjective but I've rarely had my perspective on life changed in a game. Receiver did this multiple times for me. Purely with audio.
    • There are about 7-10 areas in this game with some variations. There's a lot of asset resuse (which makes sense for a smaller indie team). However, in one section, in one corner there is one gong. Just one. If you fire a bullet at this gong there is a sound that is unlike anything else in the game and is rather harrowing. The fact that this almost seemingly insignificant item had obvious audio effort screams intentionality to me.
    • Enemies give player cues about their state with light colours in Receiver. But after playing for a while, you start to realise that enemies also give audio cues ... that the audio cues actually happen before the visual ones are visible.
    The points above made me realise a few times in game that I'm often playing this game with my ears more than my eyes. That was a first for me.

    Another one worth mentioning is Papa Sangre. I think the trailer gives a good idea of how sound is a core part of the experience...

    I think this was relatively successful when it launched on iOS and won an award from Apple IIRC.
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