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First Things First, Second, and Third: It's About Repetition in Game Audio

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George "The Fat Man" Sanger presents his thoughts on the repetitive nature of game audio and what can be done to address the problem.
Bits of this chapter, give or take a few changes, first appeared in "Game Developer Magazine."

The most important thing I can tell you is this: Repetition is the problem.

Certainly repeating sound effects are the first thing to clue a gamer in to the fact that he's been ripped off. If you've ever sauntered past a pike with a sound designer's head on it, you can be certain that it was placed there by a gamer who didn't want to hear that one certain sound another time. Regardless of variations in filtering, speed, pitch, reverb panning, and phase, no matter how huge the game's world is, the third time you hear that bomb blast with the splat at the end, or hear the same guy say "Stand up so I can kill you again," your subconscious is acutely aware that this is not, in fact, Reality. The acceptable film school or design committee way to state that the game's designers deserve to be tortured for all eternity is to say that the repetition of sound effects "compromises the willing suspension of disbelief." In other words, it makes the game an ineffectual joke rather than an immersive alternate environment.

Repetition of music does the same thing as repetition of sound effects, but it sports some special subtleties that are worth emphasizing here.

A normal, intelligent game developer will budget for about an hour of music for his game, more or less. For the sake of this chapter, let's call it an hour. That hour is destined to be stretched over, let's say, a 40-hour entertainment experience. That's the normal, intelligent way to do things, and it's pretty stinking ridiculous.

Think about it. Say there was a law in one of those places outside Texas—like Zanzibar or, say, Canada—that decreed that in order for any citizen to be allowed to hear a piece of music, he would have to commit to listening to it at least 40 times. Tell you what, the population of Canada would consist solely of the beaten, smoking corpses of Canadian composers.

Compare this one-to-forty ratio to your being forced to work a full week as a taxi driver with only one audio cassette in your cab. But Remember, it's a cassette that you didn't choose. Perhaps this is the reason that so many game players like to run about shooting and killing things. Sometimes I consider the tragic loss of NPCs and reflect on the possibility that if a few concerned citizens like us could solve the problem of repeated audio in games, perhaps we could save the lives of literally billions of innocent animated characters.

The first step towards solving this problem, saving those virtual lives, keeping our own heads off of pikes, and preventing the eternal torture of our designers is to be aware—and make other members of the development team aware—that the "normal, intelligent" approach to game audio is horribly flawed. Solving the problem might be beyond the scope of this book, but planting the seeds to allow you, dear Reader, to be among those who solve it is certainly not beyond its scope.

To help you on your way to Virtual Saviourhood, here are some of the techniques that have been tried with various degrees of success:

Method 1: Ignore the Problem

Here's what you do: Nothing.

Positives: Sadly, this is the best way to keep your job. It's probably closest to the way that any experienced game developers on your team handled audio on the last game. It's easy on the entire development team. It's inexpensive, and it does not challenge anybody's ideas, authority, or sense of confidence. Furthermore, you can rest assured that game will sound the way a game is expected to sound.

Negatives: The game will sound the way a game is expected to sound.

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