The Necessity of Sound

See, I told you I’d still write every once in a while.

I’ve been playing some Mass Effect and Dragon Age lately, and it’s got me thinking about music. The first time I played Mass Effect 3, I played it on someone else’s XBox using a computer monitor as a TV, so there was no sound whatsoever. When you create a new game, captions are turned off by default, and you don’t get the ability to turn them on until after the opening cutscene, so for the first 4 or 5 minutes of the game, I’m just watching everyone flap their mouths, gesticulate wildly, and get killed by Reapers. The second time I played I had the same setup, so by this point my brain was filling in all the sounds and voices it expected to hear.
Just recently, I started playing on my own console, in front of my own TV. It’s amazing to me how much of a difference the audio makes. For some reason, I’d never acknowledged that the Salarian Dalatrass was a female. Ashley’s voice was less soft and girly, and Liara didn’t speak so slowly (seriously, it’s like listening to Captain Kirk). The music made a huge impact on several portions of the game- I’d be standing and looking at something monstrous in the sky (every five minutes there’s something monstrous in the sky in Mass Effect, whether it’s an alien ship, or a planet, or a space station…) The previous times I’d played this game were enough to allow me to form a preconceived mental “image” of the emotions and feelings that Shepherd should have been having, and it jarred me when the music didn’t match up with that. It’s weird to think about how much influence the audio has.
Half-life 2 is a pretty good example; whenever you enter an area that’s about the hold some sort of intense action, this music that’s very different from everything else that’s been playing comes on; a very fast-paced intense sort of thing. That was great and all, but it felt a little weird when you’d killed all the bad guys, and the track was still playing. In Dragon Age 2, I guess there’s a default track that plays in caves and stuff, and at one point it turns into a choir singing sort of intensely, and I always flinch on the inside- “What’s about to happen?”
I remember one of the things that the original Dead Space put out, long before the game was actually released. Somebody had written something about how most games overuse that whole audio stimulus, and by leaving us in silence, Dead Space did a great job throwing you off-kilter, and ambushing you with bad-guys. I honestly can’t remember if the game held on to that, but I remember being disappointed in Dead Space 2 when the music would ramp up during an encounter.
I remember a Kickstarter, one of the first I’d ever contributed to, for an indie game that didn’t pan out. It was supposed to be a game where the main character is blind; it made heavy use of headphones and surround sound. It was some sort of space-horror game, and it sounded amazing. Months and months later, it turned into one of those kickstarters where the money just disappeared and the game never happened- a really apologetic email was sent out about how other circumstances had come up, and the funds would definitely go towards making a game, but that game in particular just wasn’t going to happen. Such a shame, because I feel like that’s a mechanic that isn’t touched very often- the necessity of sound.