Sound Design: The True Achievement of Modern Gaming, Part 1

By Justin Hutchison

November 20, 2011

[Part 2 can be found here.]

Sound has always been important for producing rich imagery, in almost every medium, outside of the printed word (with the exception of poetry), especially in gaming. Many gamers today are wooed by graphics rather than sound, and that’s, honestly, a shame. They don’t realize the importance of it to the medium, how much it does to enhance tone and immerse the player within a narrative or a world. Every genre of game, from action to RPG, benefits from good sound design, be it from a rich score or just from a gun that sound realistic.

It’s been this way since the medium’s inception, but it was never truly apparent until around the third generation of consoles. Up until that point, the sound cards used by systems like the early Atari consoles, Intellivision, and early personal computers weren’t suited to much more than the occasional (horrifying) bleep and bloop. (And later, when they tried having actual music, it just got worse.)

The third generation introduced systems such as the NES, Sega Master System, and Atari 7800, most of which had vastly better sound cards being put to use by people who actually knew how to compose music. (Well, excluding the 7800; that one still sounded like crap.) So, with this new generation, we saw some of the first truly effective use of sound in games, mostly through soundtracks.

Action-platformer games like Mega Man, Castlevania, and Ninja Gaiden came along, with appropriately high-energy soundtracks to match the action in-game. More light-hearted games like Super Mario Bros. 2 owed a lot of their playful atmosphere to their soundtracks. Early RPGs also benefited from this improvement in technology, lending much to the tones of Mother 1, The Legend of Zelda, Megami Tensei, and Phantasy Star.

In this early era of gaming, without graphics or heavy amounts of narrative to set a tone, music was extremely important. Without it, the games wouldn’t have evolved past the old Atari days, back when everything was just pixels on a screen, with no real development or highly distinguishing qualities. Without it, the medium’s potential to immerse players and tell deep stories would be greatly lessened without any effective manner of establishing that tone.

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As the technology developed, so did the games, with narratives, art, and soundtracks improving alongside the development of more memory, better graphics, and better sound cards.

Soundtracks like those used in Street Fighter II, Mega Man X, and Sonic The Hedgehog, continued to, much as they did in the third generation, pump up the player, though, through the more detailed sound cards, their sound was more rich, more full, drawing the player in much more than in the 8-bit era.

This higher-quality sound did a lot to help RPGs, especially. Since this genre in particular is so focused (generally) on telling a narrative, establishing a tone, and drawing the player in, they benefited significantly from this new development.

The difficulties of drawing sympathy from the player in the NES era, due in part to the graphics and less detailed sound, became much less of an issue, mostly due to the beautiful scores of composers like Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda, who, combining their musical talent with the skilled narratives in the games they worked on, created some of the most moving experiences ever to grace the medium. I’m sure many of our readers vividly recall works like Uematsu’s score for Final Fantasy VI and Yasunori Mitsuda’s heart-breaking masterwork that is the Chrono Trigger soundtrack.

Chrono Trigger was, honestly, the first game from that era to make me cry, due almost entirely to the soundtrack. Every song in there fits the situation perfectly, drawing so much emotion from the audience. Who didn’t feel triumphant after hearing “Frog’s Theme” for the first time? Who wasn’t melancholy after seeing the desolate post-apocalyptic world, set to “The Day the World Revived”? And I know I was in tears when “Far Off Promise” first played, and I cried even more when its lietmotif was used a second time.

I could go on and on about Yasunori Mitsuda’s brilliance with Chrono Trigger (it is the perfect game, after all), but the important thing that one should take from this is that, while graphics are important, they cannot enhance a story nearly as much as music can. Nothing can create that tone, create that emotion, like music can. Even back then, music was an extremely important part of gaming, and it’s remained that way into the modern era, though, with further development of audio technology, we’ll eventually see use of sound effects rather than pure focus on soundtracks.

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Justin Hutchison

Weekend Contributing Writer at DualShockers. Been gaming since getting an SNES with Super Mario World in the late 90s. My favorite games include Persona 4, Chrono Trigger, Sly 2/3, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Shining Force.

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