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.

Side Quests: Interesting vs. Boring

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age II and Kingdom Hearts.

 

Anyone who has played any sort of mission/quest based game is familiar with side quests.  They’re those pesky optional quests that the player can choose to complete or not.  Some are simple, such as delivering a package to the NPC in the next town.  Some are challenging, like cave diving for a treasure.  Then there’s also the invariably hard and cruel ones that have you defeat some optional boss that takes every ounce of your being to defeat.  In either case, side quests come in a variety of flavors and vastly help to buffer the gameplay time.

However, not all side quests were created equal.  In fact, some can be outright snore fests.  Take, for instance, pretty much any optional quest in an MMORPG.  In general, these fall into one of a few categories: kill a certain number of creatures, collect certain ingredients/items, or deliver something to an NPC.  MMORPGs are very formulaic when it comes to this matter.  While these side quests do earn you experience points (exp) and virtual money, they have little else to offer the player.  They are, essentially, what makes a lot of MMORPGs grind-fests as it were.  Single player games can often be guilty of the same thing, especially for the RPG genre in general.

That being said, it is quite possible to make interesting side quests.  There are a variety of routes to go with this, but let’s examine three types of side quests that can actually be interesting.  These are namely side quests that add to the story, side quests that offer worthwhile loot, and side quests that offer an enormous challenge to test the player’s skill.  As a last note before we begin, for the purposes of this article we are defining side quests as any sort of optional task or fight that can be completed.

In regards to the first one, and personally my favorite, are the side quests that add to the story.  To example this, let us examine Dragon Age II.  Quests in this game are divided into several categories, namely “Main Plot,” “Secondary,” “Side Quests,” and “Companion.”  Despite the titles, the latter three can all be considered side quests for our purposes, since no quest in them absolutely needs to be done.  “Side Quests” in Dragon Age II offer the generic set of fetch quests, though they are useful for gold in Act 1 of the game.  However, “Secondary” and “Companion” quests are more than that; rather, they are sequences that add to the story.  For example, each party character has a personal story arc, such as Isabela’s attempts to find a relic she lost at the beginning of the game.  At the end of Act 2 when tensions are hitting their climax, the player receives the option to do a personal quest for her to retrieve the relic.  During this quest, the player learns that this so-called relic is the sacred Tome of Koslun, the entire cause for why the Qunari are in Kirkwall causing trouble.  Whether or not the player does this quest largely influences the main quest.  If the player chose to help Isabela and has a strong relationship with her, she will return with the tome, giving the player a different way to solve the main questline.  If not, the player is stuck with only two real options, both which involve a difficult fight.

As you can see in this example, the side quest can vastly affect the outcome in the story.  That being the case, the side quest becomes worthwhile, whether you do it or not in this case.  Particularly for story heavy RPGs, any quest that can tie into the story, even it’s just about developing the player’s relationship with a character, can increase their emotional involvement in the story.  This makes the game far more compelling to play, even to the point that sometimes you can overlook poorly implemented mechanics to continue the story.  Thus, the quest is interesting, because it can have tangible effects and doesn’t just fade into memory.

Another sort of interesting side quest is one that has worthwhile loot.  In this case, we will look again at Dragon Age II.  During Act 3, the player has the option to slay a High Dragon.  Though I wouldn’t personally say it’s the most difficult fight in the game, it is one that is a challenge and requires quite a bit of micro-managing to succeed.  However, what makes this fight worthwhile to do is that the dragon drops one of the main components for the “Mantle of the Champion” armor set.  Not only is this set extremely good as far as stats, but it’s also probably the most badass looking armor in the game.  Frankly, I could not imagine completing the end game without wearing that armor.  It would just feel too odd and make the end game even more difficult.

Regardless, it is the loot in this example that offers the interesting facet.  In more boring side quests, though the player may get money or loot, it is generally not anything game changing.  In this example, however, the game adds value to the player’s time spent doing the quest.  The rewards, despite the pains in doing the battle, are worthwhile and give the player a greater edge during the last parts of the game.  In that case, then, though the quest itself is straight-forward, the reward creates a side quest that is compelling for the player to complete.

HighDragonDAII

Lastly, let us discuss the final type: side quests that offer the player a challenge for their skills.  In this case, I’m going to switch series and look at something more classic.  Namely, we’re going to examine the optional boss fight with Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts.  For those not familiar with this fight, let me start off by saying the following: Sephiroth can one-shot you right at the start of the battle.  This fact alone should give you a hint at how hard this boss fight is.  Not only are Sephiroth’s attacks powerful, but his long sword gives him an immense range.  Even if you spend the hours it takes to create the best Keyblade, the fight is still extremely difficult.  One must have honed their skills and strategy in the game for several hours to even dream of taking Sephiroth on, and even then the fight would still be a challenge.

However, that is what makes that “quest” interesting.  The difficulty of the battle is like nothing else offered in the game.  It taxes the player’s time, skills, and reflexes and may even require training to complete.  The consequence, though, is that being able to defeat Sephiroth offers a sense of pride that other fights do not.  The player knows that it is because of their skill that they were able to beat this boss, so they can take satisfaction in that.  In a sense, what makes this type of side quest compelling is the potential bragging rights.  By doing this quest, you join a special club of people (metaphorically) who were actually able to complete it.  All in all, it is these factors that make the optional quest captivating to complete, despite the huge spike in difficulty.

In summary, there are a variety of ways you can make a side quest interesting.  Whether it’s by story, loot, or challenge, each of the mentioned examples above adds value to the player’s time.  In a sense, these quests feel like they have purpose in the game, more than just making the player feel like the game is longer than it is.  They offer compelling experiences that serve to immerse players more, rather than remind them that they are playing a game.  Though fetch quests and other similar low maintenance side quests have their place, one must not forget these should not be the sole form of optional quests.  Players are devoting their time to the game, so one should respect that time given.  Though no simple task design wise to be sure, it is something I hope aspiring developers will consider when developing their games.

 

Dragon Age II is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Kingdom Hearts is © Square Enix, Disney Interactive Studios, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age II screenshot of the High Dragon.  Obtained from the Dragon Age Wiki.

Minimalism vs. Transparency in GUIs

First and foremost, let me make something very clear: I’m pretty critical of graphical user-interfaces (GUIs).  There’s a fine line for me between having an aesthetically pleasing interface, and having an interface that is functional.  In all honesty, this can make or break whether I want to even use a program, since GUIs are the main way users interact with a program’s functions.  Unfortunately, I find more often than not programs and/or games prioritize one or the other instead of achieving a balance.  While this presents a whole slew of issues for software, it is for games where I begin to actively notice it.

From my experience, modern games have begun to favor a rather minimalist approach to games.  Aesthetically, these are usually very pleasing to the eye; not only are they sleek, but they generally offer a maximized view of the main game screen.  Sadly, though, their presence usually comes at the cost of transparency.  By transparency, I mean how clear the game delivers information about its mechanics.  Rather than plain numbers, a game can choose to display that information in a number of ways, such as the red bar commonly seen for HP.  Unfortunately, the use of such graphical cues begins to make the math behind the mechanics hazier.  In turn, it makes it more difficult for a player to strategize, whether it be because they can’t tell which attack is stronger or because they don’t understand how resources are being allocated.

To demonstrate this, let us turn to a survival game I’ve spoken of before: Subnautica.

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In the screenshot above, you can see the interface as it’s been for quite some time.  Of note, I want to focus on the bottom left.  Here we see information displayed about four essential survival components in Subnautica: Oxygen, Health, Food, and Water.  It is through these bars and numbers that one keeps track of the state of their character.  Food and Water slowly decay over time, indicating the need to eat or drink.  Oxygen decays while underwater, and health varies depending on injury, food level, and other factors.  In summary, these bars are extremely important in determining how “well” you are surviving.  Thankfully, while the GUI has some graphical value to it, the numbers also help indicate how nutritious or not a food is.  This is extremely useful for resource management and determining when exactly you should eat.

At current, due to decisions in development, the team is now working on a new interface design.  This design, pictured below, adheres more to the minimalist aesthetic that modern games prefer.

newsubnauticadesign

Arguably, this new interface is far more pleasing to the eye and fits with the general aesthetic style of the game.  That being said, one thing is clearly obvious: Food, Health, and Water no longer have number values visible.  While, of course, there are bars there to indicate the various values of each, the lack of numbers suddenly erases some of the certainty on how effective every resource is.  Does this fruit heal 50% of Food or is it less?  What about this water?  Unfortunately, in a survival game, being able to process this sort of information is important.  Resources in survival games tend to be limited, so suddenly taking away one of the information cues makes resource management all the more difficult.

Although I wish I could say Subnautica was the only game to ever do this, this is sadly not the case.  There are rather a slew of modern games that choose to take away information in favor of aesthetics.  As someone who appreciates and writes about art quite often, I can understand why they would make this choice.  However, as someone who also understands the value of clear information, it is disheartening.  Not only is the trend set to confuse players who prefer to play a game as efficiently as possible, it can make games potentially frustrating when trying to understand how something works.  Understanding the mechanics is a key component to being able to play a game.  Interacting with the mechanics is something one can only do through the GUI, and if the GUI is not clear, the mechanics become unclear.  Inevitably, you can see how this suddenly becomes detrimental to the experience.

All that being said, my purpose in this article is merely to point out a troubling trend.  If you are an aspiring developer, please keep in mind beautiful GUIs should not be the final stopping point.  Rather, one should aim for the ideal of having both information and aesthetics.  GUIs should look nice, but should also enhance the game rather than be an unclear information pit.  While this is by no means an easy feat to achieve, it is the goal that will leave users of a wide variety happy and able to play the game.

 

Subnautica is © to Unknown Worlds all affiliated parties.

Image 1: Screenshot from Subnautica during one of my playthroughs.

Image 2: Screenshot from the Subnautica Trello board.

Those Small Game Details Pt. 3

Thank you for joining me for Part 3~!  If you missed Part 1 and Part 2, please be sure to check those out.  In those, I analyzed Dragon Age: Origins and The Sims 3 and discussed how their small details gave a richer and fuller gaming experience.

demo1

For the last game, I would to take a brief look at a game I talked about recently, Pokémon Sun/MoonNow my grievances about catching Pokémon aside, there is a small change in the game’s mechanics that did impress me.  Unlike past games in the series where one had to painstakingly go into the bag to select a Pokéball to throw, this game gives you a button shortcut.  This small change in itself is fantastic, since it streamlines the process of catching (in theory).  However, an even smaller detail is that the icon on this button is always the last Pokéball type you threw.  Namely, if you threw a regular Pokéball it will show that, if you threw a Great Ball it will show that, etc..  While it is a subtle detail, it is one I can appreciate.  For example, if you failed to catch a Pokémon with the first ball, you now have a subtle reminder about what you last threw.  This subtle reminder allows you to think strategically about which ball should be the next choice to throw.  Though the smallest of the details I will bring up, it does make a difference in helping the player keep their head in the game.  The interface reflects the players’ choices well, so in turn the players are never un-immersed from the game trying to remember what they were doing.  The detail feeds crucial information, while virtually being unnoticeable (which is rather genius).  In the end, it just helps one embrace the moment in full since it never breaks the feeling of being a Pokémon trainer in the game.

Through my examples from all three posts, I hope I’ve demonstrated at least one thing: small details can make a big difference.  Even if it’s subtle, their presence helps immerse players in the world, whether it’s the simulation experience of The Sims or the epic story world of Dragon Age.  They create nuances to make playthroughs individualistic and more worthwhile to complete.  Even subtle details, like the one mentioned in Pokémon Sun/Moon, help players stay within the game, making it so momentary distractions do not detract from jumping right back into playing.  Overall, these small choices enhance a players feelings that their choices are important, and that they are an active participator in a game.  This is an ideal feeling to achieve, since it just all around increases the entertainment and interactivity value.

As an amateur game developer, I take this analysis to heart.  I feel small details can make a huge difference when added, whether it’s via reflecting choices or simply giving an environment a truly realistic feel.  I recognize its replay value as well, since numerous gamers will consider how replay-able a game is before purchasing it.  It’s definitely something I love to see developers consider.  On the whole most people will never notice, but it will affect their experience of the product none-the-less.

 

So, next time you’re playing a game, be on the lookout for the small details, because you may be surprised at what you find and what changes how you perceive the game.

 

Pokémon is © to GAME FREAK, The Pokémon Company, Nintendo, and all other affiliated parties.

Images: Screenshot- From the pre-release marketing.

 

Those Small Game Details Pt. 1

In the recent days, I started a new character in Dragon Age: Origins.  For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s a Western RPG that is focused on your choices altering the epic story that is present.  Its particular highlight is its origin stories, where you can play through one background story depending on the race and class you pick.  This is probably going to be the 5th or 6th time I’ve played through the game, so this certainly isn’t my virgin experience with it.  My first play-through back in 2009 was a Human Mage, which I chose because, frankly, mages are my favorite class.  That being said, I did want to experience the other origins/character background stories, so subsequent characters had to be warriors or rogues to fulfill that end.

This time, for my new character, I was struck with the desire to create an Elven Mage.  As mentioned, this is not my first ride, so going through the game I know what to expect generally speaking.  Once I got to the sequence where you must climb the Tower of Ishal, however, I was struck by a sudden and surprising detail.  Once you arrive at the tower, the game provides you with two NPCs so you have a full, four person party to deal with the combat.  With my warriors and rogues, these NPCs have always been one mage and one warrior/rogue.  With this play-through, I was taken aback by the fact both NPCs were warriors/rogues.  Yet, it makes perfect sense!  The mage NPC is there to balance out the team more.  Since I am the one who is a mage this play-through, there isn’t a need to throw one my way for the balance.  It was a small detail, but one that really left me in awe since I did not know it was a possible permutation.

This anecdote of mine leads me to my topic at last: small game details and how they enhance games.  Usually when people are talking about choices that affect gameplay and/or story, they are speaking on a macro level.  Did you choose a class that is going to have a huge disadvantage in a later fight but receives better rewards?  Did you kill some character who would’ve become a powerful boss fight later on?  These are easy to recognize cause and effects that can, of course, make the experience of multiple playthroughs worthwhile.  Nevertheless, for me personally, it is the smaller details that leave me astounded.  Did the game recognize I made a certain dialogue choice that, while inconsequential, seemed relevant enough to be mentioned later?  Does the story reflect that my character is a bit of a jerk by giving them a tone that matches?  I feel these small details are often ignored.  Yet, I think they play a large role in enhancing the experience of a game, particularly when speaking of immersion.

So, with the inevitable eyebrow raises that must be present, let me explain my logic.

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Visiting my above anecdote again, this change in NPC, while seemingly minor in the larger scheme of things, definitely did affect my experience.  For one thing, as I mentioned, the point of making sure a mage in the party is for the sake of balance.  Having two mages, while perfect for some, may not be ideal for the Tower of Ishal sequence, given how it is designed with one mage in mind.  That being the case, this minor change that reflects your character’s status as a mage makes sure the player is optimized for the sequence.  On a story level, I felt this change actually made the game more immersive.  Rather than just feeling like one of my old characters, this character suddenly felt like their own person; the game made sure I had this little personal touch that reflected some of my base choices.  In so doing, the story, while not changed on a larger scale, felt nuanced in a way that was different from my old characters.  Dragon Age: Origins generally does a good job in doing this with smaller details, which allows each character to have their own story.  Even if the plot points are the same and you make similar choices, the varying differences in dialogue concerning your race and class can give nuances to each character.  Thus, it gives each playthrough its own hint of originality.

 

Please tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of this three part analysis.  In the next segment, I will analyze details of a game in a different genre.

 

Dragon Age: Origins is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Screenshot- From the Dragon Age Keep with a screen head-shot of my Elven Mage.