I’m bringing the topic back to video games to discuss this week’s topic of cinema as ear: acoustics and space. You really can’t have a complete discussion on the art of atmosphere and surroundings in visual entertainment media without bringing video games into the picture.
I mentioned in my previous post that I can’t watch horror films at all, so before I start this discussion and sound like a liar, I actually can play certain horror games. It’s probably mostly because horror games are relatively new to me, so it’s not the same as that deep-rooted irrational fear of horror films that started in my childhood. So despite the fact they’re the same genre, horror games and films are just not the same thing – however, they use sound in very similar ways.
From my experience, playing a game is not the same as watching a film in terms of immersion. Although the job of the film maker is to make the audience feel like they are a part of the film’s world, it can never be quite as immersive as physically playing a character in a game and navigating your way around the landscape. You’re not watching the events take place, you’re living them – however this is only when a game is actually done right. It’s easy enough to detach yourself from both games and films, which is why sound and atmosphere is so important at drawing the audience in and keeping them there.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a 2010 indie survival-horror game that I would consider an ’embodied’ soundtrack experience. The visuals of Amnesia honestly aren’t super amazing. They’re certainly not bad, but it’s a lot of the same sort of imagery throughout the game and they’re not exactly cutting-edge graphics, yet it’s a terrifying game. There is eerie silence followed by slow, subtle droning that repeats over and over until it drives you mad. You can’t always see a monster at first, but you know it’s seen you and it’s coming when you hear the unsettling ringing crescendo. Sometimes something as small as a sudden gust of wind flinging a door open can freak you out because it’s such a juxtaposition to the silence. The miscellaneous sounds like rats squeaking or bugs crawling or chains rattling that remind you of the disgustingly creepy, old castle you’re trying to escape. Not to mention the screams of tortured souls that emerge out of nowhere. You occasionally get a slightly lighter mood of music that plays when a puzzle is solved correctly, but that all flies out the window and is replaced with ominous, echoing songs and nerve-wracking chase music.
Amnesia does such a good job of mesmerising its’ players, and it’s mostly thanks to the sound and the fact that it’s always disturbingly dark. The darkness of the game makes the player subconsciously rely on their ears more than their eyes. Even though they may be squinting at the screen trying to desperately see what’s in front of them because god-forbid they use their lamp and attract a monster, when one of our senses are blocked off, the others are heightened – and automatically sound becomes the number one fear factor. The player feels the pitch blackness loom over them and hears the droning booming in their ears, reflecting their own heart beat which is probably beating slightly faster than normal considering the monster that’s around the corner. The sound surrounds the player from all directions – and if they’re anything like me, they can feel it in the pit of their stomach. It’s where I believe the fear is coming from. Not from the story or the visuals, but from the soundtrack.
This is why sound is so important in video games. An independently-made, low-budget game from 6 years ago that I have played and watched so many times, still gets my heart beating fast and my palms getting sweaty. I’ve seen the visuals over and over, I know what the game holds in store, but the soundtrack still keeps me on edge.
Literally as I was watching the above video just now before putting it in this post, I heard a sudden noise come from my window and I actually jumped in my seat. Given, it is night time and my house was silent, but it just emphasises the point that sound makes all the difference.