A game may have the best visuals in the world, but without great audio design a lot of a game’s soul would be missing. Everything from environmental sounds such as the sound of rain falling, a door creaking open, and the very voices of characters help lend life to a game. In some cases the lack of sound is just as powerful as well, making the noisier parts even more impactful.
This last year has seen games utilise audio design in a number of interesting ways, but only one could be considered truly unique.
A hugely important part of Hellblade is how it uses its audio to portray the psychosis that Senua suffers from. Even without headphone you have the portrayal of these voices in her head chattering away, either offering encouragement or dealing out derision, but when you put headphone on, the audio design reaches new heights.
Suddenly the voices are all around you, yelling different things, whispering words, telling you you’ll fail. You’re not just playing as Senua anymore, you are Senua and you experience her suffering in a way that no other game has really managed to do before. The voices are targetting you, telling you that you’ll fail, and it is you who must prove them wrong. It’s a huge part of how Ninja Theory created Senua’s award winning character and ties brilliantly into Melina Juergens’ award winning performance.
Audio is used effectively through the rest of the game as well. There are sections within Hellblade where all you can rely on are the sounds around you, from rattle of chains to monsters moving just out of sight. Again, it’s done well without the use of headphones, but once you have them on you’ll listen out for sounds and the direction they came from to stand a chance.
Horizon Zero Dawn – Runner Up
While a ton of praise has been heaped on Horizon Zero Dawn’s visuals and storytelling, its audio design plays a huge part in what makes the game so successful. Besides the wonderful collaborative soundtrack of Joris de Man, The Flight, Niels van der Leest, and Jonathon Willims, Guerilla Games have used sound to bring Aloy’s world to life.
The clanking, whirring and unique electronic shrieks and calls of the machines often provide as much information during an encounter as the visuals, and in doing so the development team have avoided what could so easily have felt like lifeless metallic creatures. The incidental sounds as you explore also bring the world to life, whether bird calls, the wind rustling in the trees, or the way Aloy’s feet make different sounds as she moves across changing terrain. It’s all incredibly detailed, and plays into how coherent and concrete this living landscape is.
The game’s audio also plays a vital part in making the story of Horizon as compelling as it is. The voice acting, led by stars Ashly Burch and Lance Reddick, is amongst the best you’ll find, making the characters become truly alive, while the vast repository of audio logs hidden throughout the world add layers and layers of lore to this incredible place.
Resident Evil 7 – Runner Up
Horror games, perhaps more than any other genre, rely upon great audio design to be effective, and it’s one of the ways in which the terrific Resident Evil 7 shines. The transition to first person adds a sense of immersion that is intensified by the wonderfully eerie background sounds. I haven’t played it in VR, but can only imagine that this is an even more unsettling experience.
The game’s hugely successful jump scares are enabled by the fantastic atmosphere created through the grindhouse visuals and the authentically horrific audio design. Recurring enemies carry a sense of dread that is conveyed through their audio presence before they lurch into view and try to cut your face off.
Capcom’s return to horror form makes great use of a soundscape created from creaks, footsteps, disembodied screams and even the terrified breath of the game’s protagonists. This unsettling atmosphere comes in part from the decision to allow silence to flourish. With the usual background music stripped away, every noise takes on significance.
Bodies have a suitably meaty sound, guns boom and who can forget that chainsaw effect from the epic battle with Jack Baker? Even the more generic ending section allows for creepy echo effects from the caves and metal corridors of the ship. Add in the retro effects of the VCR tapes and the analogue phoneline and you have a fantastic audio experience that takes the best parts of horror audio and exploits them for even greater immersion.
Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
- Doki Doki Literature Club
- Star Wars Battlefront II