The Power of Sound Effects

As someone who is a big fan of Subnautica, I often keep up with updates to the game, usually via various Youtubers who cover the game extensively.  Without spoiling too much, a huge portion of the end game is in development right now (when this article was written anyway).  Since it’s a key story point, it’s being tweaked to be as impactful as possible.  Animations, voice acting, textures, and tons of other aspects keep being overhauled to present the most satisfying moment that could be achieved.  However, in some of the more recent updates, one additive that added a ton of impact caught my eye: the sound effects.

Sound effects are one of those aspects of creative media that often get overlooked.  Whether the sound effects are audio or implied to with words, they make a huge difference despite being minor additives.  Unfortunately, in numerous indie industries, they can often be underused.  While certainly you run the risk of oversaturating a piece with sound effects, they are still an essential that should never be neglected.  To hammer in this point, let us examine why the sound effects make a difference in two industries: gaming and comics.

 

In the case of gaming, it is a very audio-centric media in most cases.  Though one could play games in complete silence, most people would concede the sounds make a difference.  Yet, as much as a background soundtrack adds to a game, so does the sound effects.  Take any game which involves swords or guns that you use to attack people.  Now, if you can, imagine if there were no sound effects.  No swosh or chink for those swords, no popping bullets, no anything; just imagine if you only had the animation, even if there’s a nice accompanying soundtrack.

Now ideally, if you can picture it, you’d realize how odd that’d be.  There would be a sense of emptiness to each attack.  Since in real life objects like this have sound effects, it is also something that would break immersion; the game is giving no feedback to the attack, so it feels unreal.

This being the key concept: sound effects in games provide feedback.

Let’s take a look for the moment at Dragon Age: Inquisition.  One key mechanic to the game is its search function.  Essentially, when a player presses a hotkey, a little circle fans out from the inquisitor and detects objects, whether it be resources, loot chests, or something hidden.  It is a pretty vital component if one wants to find the collectibles in the game as certain ones can only be found via this mechanic.  Now, of course, there are visual cues via the object highlighting, the mini map, and more.  Thus, one can still use the mechanic on visuals alone.  However, the sound effects for the mechanic make a big difference.  There are different sounds for finding nothing, finding a resource, or detecting a hidden object.  By consequence, one can put their eyes to more important things on the screen and let the sounds guide them.  Not only does this provide great feedback, but it streamlines the process of navigating.  In otherwords, one can run and scan rather than take those few moments to check if they found anything every moment.

There are a plethora of other ways sound effects play a role, whether it’s feedback from opening chests in The Legend of Zelda series or through loud thunderous sounds of dragons flying overhead in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The sounds give a true sense of presence and aid in immersing someone into the world.  Like in real life, one expects sounds when objects interact, so providing them in key moments makes a huge difference.

 

Nevertheless, games are not the only medium in which sound effects make a difference.  Let’s now turn to comics, which out of the gate obviously lack the same audio component games do.  For comics, the sound effects are part of the visuals and come in varying styles.  Whether they say “Pow,” “Kablam,” or anything else, they are generally something present in a lot of comics.  That being said, some people may question whether they’re important, since these “sound” effects are visual instead audio.  Yet, much like games, they provide important feedback.

In a similar function to the last exercise, let’s put our imaginations to work.  Imagine any two characters you want in a fight, and one panel features one of the characters dramatically slapping the other.  Now, because imaginations are pretty robust, you surely imagined the slap sound that would occur in the moment.  For comics, the way this is conveyed is with the sound effect text, which depending on how its styled can have a different effect.  Instead, though, try to picture the image without that text.  All you have is a slap making contact, but no feedback on whether it hit.

In the end, the effect that occurred for games occurred here as well: without the sound effect, the moment felt empty and lacking impact.

Even when the sound effects are visually very small, they play a role in conveying the world and making it feel real.  Speaking personally, I barely even ever read what the sound effects say; at the same time, when they aren’t present, I take extreme notice of how silent a comic’s world consequently feels.  As a result I feel confident saying that even their presence alone is enough to convey that there is noise in the world, which makes a world of difference.

Of course, sound effects can be used to aid the story too in this case.  For instance, when the story wishes to have an eating scene, it’s not uncommon to have a panel where a characters stomach growls.  This is shown not only by a close up of the stomach, but through sound effects to emphasize the growling sound.  The reader is left with no confusion about what’s going on, so even without dialogue the visual and sound effect convey the character’s need.  This, in turn, helps immerse one more into the moment; like in real life, the visual clues and sound are all that’s needed to convey the unspoken message.  There are numerous other ways the visuals and “sound” effects in comics can be utilized in a more poignant matter, so they are not something to be discounted.

 

Hopefully, at this point, I have conveyed why sound effects play a vital role.  With them, you can make something more immersive and impactful in both small and big ways.  Without them, you risk turning the consumer away from the product due to the world feeling empty and hollow.  In the end, even if it is a tedious aspect to consider, one should always try to include sound effects.  They can make or break a project sometimes, so to neglect them is to do your project a disservice.  The internet offers tons of sound effect resources, so there’s really no excuse not to use them.  So, go forth, and remember like the world, your work should have sounds.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition is © to Bioward, EA, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Link opening a chest from ZeldaDungeon.net.

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