Suspending disbelief: ambient sound and foley in video games

The success of a game hinges on its ability to absorb you into its world. Hollywood has been doing this for generations – creating audio and visual experiences that create maximum engagement and a complete suspension of disbelief.

In the world of gaming, this is arguably even more important. Why? Because the player is part of the action. The narrative of a game drives the player, but unlike a movie, the player isn’t passively absorbing. They have to believe that they are in mortal danger, driving a supercar at the maximum possible speed, playing in a World Cup final in front of a packed stadium and more.

Therefore, game developers must tap into the senses to make fantastical scenarios feel real. With audio playback devices becoming ever more powerful, ambient sound and foley has never played such an important role in creating the most immersive experience possible. Ambient sound

We all have our favourite video game soundtracks, but the design of ambient sound and foley is becoming more and more crucial to the overall gaming experience.

The classics

The ambient sound world of video games has grown commensurately with our experience of games as entertainment. Think about it: did Pong even need a hyper-realistic, multi-sampled sound of a tennis racket thwacking a tennis ball? Of course not. Not only were the microchips of Pong‘s era not up to the task, it would sound ridiculous. The 8-bit squeak of the of pixel on rectangular racket was enough: nobody was actually believing that Pong was replicating an actual tennis game.

Fast forward to the classic platformers. The gameplay was no doubt more immersive and entertaining, but the suspension of disbelief still had not entered the gamer’s mind. Though digital technology had come on in leaps and bounds by the late ’80s, the player didn’t need a realistic response to Mario’s experience of blasting bricks or consuming mushrooms: it was obviously a fantasy. There were responsive sounds in this period, but it was more of the ‘Mickey-Mousing’ (a musical obvious cue synchronised to an action) variety.

As combat started to creep into the gaming world, however, the need to create realism in audio to match the on-screen experience became more important. Even though it might have been decades since your first encounter with Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat, it’s not hard to recall the visceral grunts that you heard when the punches and kicks landed. Gaming started to hurt.

Open worlds

The riches that have poured into this massive entertainment industry has fuelled research and development into consoles and computing power. Every generation of console has become stronger and more capable of producing sounds of the highest resolution. First-person shooters (FPS) and role-playing games (RPG) has taken over the gaming landscape too, with games from the DOOM, Halo and Call of Duty series ensuring that we can always save the world from annihilation.

For games with concepts like these, Mickey-Mousing ain’t gonna cut it. Instead, the ambient sound and foley needs to relay the importance of life and death. The breathing, the slicing through flesh, the death-blows have to be rendered with exacting detail. The open-world environment of the games also depicts characters moving in a variety of different environments and interacting with a host of materials.

Foley, by its traditional definition, is performed along with the action on-screen (if you haven’t seen it before, it really is something). In the game world, the sounds might be recorded in the time-honoured way, but they’re implemented differently, with the use of middlewares (so-called because they are implemented within game engines to perform specific tasks).

The middleware can be used to assign a certain sound to a particular action. For example, if the _footstompingonmetal_.wav file is assigned to a character’s foot stomping on metal, the middleware can handle that for you. Depending on what you’re using as a platform (a couple of industry leaders include Wwise and FMOD) you can also randomise parameters to inject real-life variations.

Designers can also utilise adaptive audio to create authentic variables in ambient sound. In real life, when we walk from room to room, there is an appreciable difference in acoustics. In the game world, you could have a character emerging from a metal-lined industrial zone, into a forest, then disappearing into a cave – all of which require a different acoustic experience.

Adaptive sound designs means that different parameters of the ambient sound can be altered to suit a character’s physical environment. If you’re in a steel cage, a close-reflection reverb might surround you, but in an empty forest, it could just be the wind and the distant echo of the mountain. Tools for crafting these sonic spaces – and the transitions between them – exist in game engine middlewares.

The creation of ambient sound worlds that use foley and other techniques is crucial to the modern gaming experience – immersion is key. And though a game’s music soundtrack might be more memorable – sound design plays an equally important role in suspending the player’s disbelief.