Behind the Sounds: From Pong to Batman

When choosing a new game to play, we often consider the graphics and story first. However, there is something that goes into every great game that often goes unnoticed: sound design. This series will explore the importance of sound and how it’s made for different games.

Sound design isn’t the music, but every sound — from explosions to ambient wind — that can make or break a game. When there is no sound, it feels unnatural, but we often don’t notice the layers of sound within a game. Sounds are almost camouflaged, always present but seemingly inaudible to make the experience feel natural. If you don’t notice it, that means it was done well, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.

Sounds of the Classics

(The recognizable and simple sounds of Pong.)

There are several types of sound design, and the craft has evolved a lot since Pong and Donkey Kong. Originally, programmers were in charge of sound, and it was both limited in ability and importance. Adding too much sound in early video games took up the space needed to run the game itself, so even the pitch was limited. Though changing pitch and some modulation was the most possible at the time, this alone was able to make the iconic sounds of games like Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and Space Invaders.

(The warp pipe and jumping sounds from Super Mario Bros. are examples of memorable sounds.)

(Space Invaders sped up the rhythm to create more tension when you ran out of time.)

As more bytes became available, developers dedicated resources to sound, including dedicated sound chips, and more sounds were available to play with. Eventually, the compelling sounds in Myst, Resident Evil, and Final Fantasy were made possible. Looping, layering, and variations turned more intricate over time, and sound designers were able to create more complex noises using foley artists.

(The iconic linking sound from Myst brings back memories for any fan.)

(Resident Evil wouldn’t be the same without moaning zombies.)

Named after filmmaker Jack Foley, who performed and recorded sounds that enhanced the quality of films tremendously, foley has been an integral part of film for decades. Almost every sound you hear in films is reproduced in a studio, not recorded on set. This allows for better quality and more control over what the audience hears.

As game quality progressed, this performance art eventually made its way into the gaming industry. In digital media, all sound effects start from recording sessions and audio libraries. These sounds are then edited and processed to bring the project to life. This process is used to replicate known sounds, like footsteps or clothing, or to synthesize sounds that never existed, like aliens and plasma weapons. 

Batman: Arkham City

Recording studios are often filled with old boots, metal scraps, toys, vegetables and more. Sound designers will go out into the world to record as well, to places such as zoos, pools, and hardware stores. The sound designers and foley artists responsible for Batman: Arkham City used several unexpected items in their recording sessions. The bone-breaking sounds in Arkham City were made by snapping celery, and Batman’s cape is actually a leather jacket and a bridesmaid dress being swished around. The guns were recorded outside by firing different models and recording on several audio channels to allow designers to adjust the sound for distance and angles of the firearms later. Raw sounds alone aren’t enough and are often edited for hours to get the right feeling.

(The first sound is celery being snapped. The sounds afterward are the same recording but edited.)

(The sound of Batman’s cape, made from a leather jacket and a bridesmaid dress.)

Sound design has evolved from blips in Pong to the complicated sounds in BioShock, Call of Duty, and Minecraft. Every sound studio and foley artist has their own way of creating sounds to make their project shine. What was once squeezed in as an afterthought by programmers now takes months of time, equipment, and whole studios to finish. Check back as I explore the various techniques and objects behind the sounds in your favorite games.


Classic Video Game Sounds Explained by Experts, Parts 1 and 2, by WIRED.

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