Sparsity blues: An ode to peace and quiet in video games

Laced With Wax Sparsity blues: An ode to peace and quiet in video games

Video games tend to be noisy. But there are some wonderful examples of when a bit of restraint goes a long way when it comes to a game’s sound and music.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

The old proverb goes: “Silence is golden.”

Claude Debussy said: “Music is the space between the notes.”

Miles Davis said: "It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play."

Someone at some point probably said: “Always start an article with profound sayings.”

The combined audio elements that make up a video game’s soundtrack help us to be immersed and instruct us on how we should be feeling as players and consumers of an audio-visual spectacle. But games are often very noisy, if not downright cacophonous. Everything explodes, soldiers bark, monsters roar and the whole thing is often slathered with blaring brass and thumping percussion.

Here’s an example from 2016’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. It’s easy for me to pick on the big, obvious blockbuster target for the sake of an argument, and the audio work on show here is undoubtedly industry-leading, but it’s pretty taxing on the ears (video starts at 21:14):

The sensual onslaught of games can often be thrilling, but it can also be wearisome and there are plenty of examples of situations in games and game music where a bit of peace and quiet benefits the experience greatly.

The sound of silence

Games are very rarely completely silent, for the obvious reason that the designers don’t want you to lose your sense of connection to their game worlds (or to think that your TV is broken). But game worlds can be designed so that they feel more or less silent and peaceful.

Jonathan Blow’s puzzle opus The Witness features almost no music whatsoever outside of a few scenarios extraneous to the main thread of the game. Blow himself explains:

“The Witness is a game about being perceptive... If we slather on a layer of music that is just arbitrarily playing, and not really coming from the world, then we're adding a layer of stuff that works against the game... like a layer of insulation that you have to hear through in order to be more present in the world.”

The game features some very tasteful sound effects (and sound-based puzzles), audio logs, film clips and an in-game music box — but its sense of stillness can teeter between Zen mindfulness and oppressive loneliness (video starts at 6:14):

Blow’s rationale echoes that given by Dark Souls II Co-director Yui Tanimura in a 2013 interview with Destructoid, for why the ‘Souls-borne’ series in general eschews music outside of very specific scenarios:

"Because this game involves paying so much attention to your environment... not just visually, but with sound, we felt that... music outside of the boss battles would get in the way of the actual strategizing throughout the game..."

Now, Souls games are generally not very quiet, moment-to-moment. Echoing footsteps, crackling torches, rusty contraptions, whooshing magic spells and the rest all combine to make them quite noisy, yet vibrant-sounding games in many respects. Some of the original Dark Souls’ best moments occur in those very few situations (outside of the bombastic boss encounters) where the music-starved player is rewarded with a mournful, ethereal piece (by Motoi Sakuraba), such as when they stumble upon the secret, completely optional area of Ash Lake (video starts at 15:00):

Breathe in, breathe out

I’m not aware if there is a technical term for a piece of music that swells before disappearing to almost nothing, but two of my favourite such pieces come from video games: the beloved Firelink Shrine cue from Dark Souls, which shrinks almost to silence a few times (the first at around 1:17)…

...and Anxious Heart from Final Fantasy VII by Nobuo Uematsu:

Both evoke Samuel Barber’s heartrending Adagio For Strings (1936), which has become the go-to piece for conjuring a sense of deep mourning. A choral version turns up on the soundtrack to 1999 space strategy game, Homeworld:

Ambience is everything

The first time I played Core Design’s Tomb Raider back in the late 90’s, I couldn’t get my PC sound card to work properly so I experienced the game with no reactive sound effects, for example footsteps, gunshots or animal sounds. The game-world felt pretty peculiar as a result, but it did make me appreciate composer and sound designer Nathan McCree’s ambient sound effects work (looped tracks that play constantly during levels, streamed from the CD), like this brilliantly atmospheric track from the opening level:

The sound design of video games has advanced incredibly since 1996, of course. Skilled sound designers enjoy incredibly clever, reactive audio engines into which they can plug hundreds of subtle layers of effects and music (both ambient and more prominent).

As with most aspects of game world design, the masters at Rockstar set the audio bar impossibly high with Grand Theft Auto V, creating a world so convincing — both urban and natural — that people have created 6-hour long YouTube videos celebrating the ambient noise of different spots around Los Santos. I’m pretty sure that a helicopter flying past is the most exciting thing to happen in this one (video starts at 21:20):

Don’t be afraid to hit mute

I remember being surprised that one of the tips in Kirk Hamilton’s Kotaku piece “Tips For Playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” was to “Turn The Music Off, At Least Sometimes”:

“The soundtrack in Wild Hunt is often cloying and overwhelming… when I explored the open world I sometimes wanted the damned cello solos and wailing combat-vocals-lady to chill the hell out. Try going into the menu and turning down the music entirely. The game feels different; there’s more space as you explore.”

I love the music in The Witcher 3, but I also enjoyed the different vibe of the game world with it turned off. There is something beautifully solemn about listening to the trees rustle in the wind as clouds sweep across the storm-bruised sky.

Hamilton’s suggestion to turn off a game’s music every so often also reminded me of the time I spent five minutes buying and selling goods with a shopkeeper in Whiterun in Skyrim. It was in a fairly uninteresting room indoors and I was only flitting through menus, but the music cycled through some grand, sweeping orchestral cues that just didn’t fit the moment and felt somewhat absurd — the curse of open world game audio design.

A game of contrasts

Some of the most memorable quiet moments in games occur immediately after a pitched battle.

Because of the control Naughty Dog has over its linear action games like Uncharted and The Last of Us (in contrast to less predictable open world game environments), coupled with the developer’s impeccable audio design, mean that it can treat the player to an aural out-breath whenever things die down.

In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (among other games), the music reacts to how the player is doing during the battle, sounding more or less intense as musical layers are added and taken away. But when the last enemy is defeated, a specific cue lets the player know that the fight is over, and that they can enjoy a quiet moment of reflection to collect themselves (and ammo) (video starts at 7:30):

A load of old…

I would hazard a guess that most of us tolerate loading screens in games and don’t think too hard about them — after all, it’s difficult to have strong feelings about these periods of gaming limbo (unless you’ve played the unpatched Bloodborne). Over the years there have been some flashes of innovation and creativity in occupying us as the loading bar fills up, but I would argue that these spells of time can sometimes serve as periods of peaceful reflection. They also serve as opportunities to foreground a piece of music.

The people working on the music for BioShock Infinite definitely had their ‘inspired thinking’ caps on during development — almost everything is pitch-perfect, from the ear-catchingly violent string quartet pieces composed by Garry Schyman, the anachronistic barber shop songs that feed into the game’s story and — my favourite — the eery use of Scott Joplin’s Solace during the loading screens. Protagonist Booker DeWitt engages in bloody battle after bloody battle and the player has to keep their head amidst the attendant audio tumult. But every time a new location filled with noisy murder needs to be loaded, we’re treated to a old-timey slice of piano ragtime, made to sound like it’s being played on a scratchy old gramophone — the hallmark BioShock sound. It almost made me look forward to the loading screen.

Fade out...

These are just a few scenarios drawn from personal experience. There are many genres of games I haven’t touched on and, I’m sure, hundreds of games that deserve a shout out for their sensitive use of audio.

And I’m by no means the first to put forward the argument. At various points over the last few years, Jessica Curry, composer and co-studio head at The Chinese Room, has complained about the game industry’s addiction to constant, cacophonous in-game sound and music as well as the patronising emotional manipulation of players through excessive audio. To close, here’s some of Curry’s and The Chinese Room’s work from Dear Esther (2008) (video starts at 27:40):

If you can think of any other great examples, let us know: