Fascinating Games of E3

ImageEvery year, I head to the Electronic Entertainment Expo with the hope that my creative energies will be stimulated by some incredibly unique game that I’ll see on the show floor. While my primary mission at E3 is to meet with other developers and talk about future projects, I’m always keeping an eye out for what’s happening in the two major expo halls.  Because of that, I tend to view my E3 experience as a series of hunting trips. Each time, I hope that my expo floor excursion will be interrupted by a moment of surprise and inspiration, as I discover a game I hadn’t seen before. In previous years I’ve had my attention arrested by the fantastical world of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, the visual artistry of Trine, the hypnotically unique game-play of From Dust, and many others.

Last year, I couldn’t attend E3 because I was working on the music of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. Because of that, I was doubly eager to see what games would be on display this year, and what would capture my attention. There’s something about the way in which games are gathered together at E3… wandering through this collection of game exhibits never fails to fills me with creative fuel, helping me to stay energized throughout the year.

At this E3, the two games I remember most are Rain and Dragon’s Prophet.

Rain is a poetic game in which you play as an invisible little boy, searching for a mysterious girl through a dilapidated and inexplicably empty city soaked by an eternal rainfall. The boy is only visible in the rain, which reveals him to the creatures that hunt him. The visual presentation of the game blends realism with a stark stylized lighting and texture. The game makes use of licensed music well, particularly Debussy’s Clair de Lune. I must admit that, since Debussy is one of my favorite composers, my immediate affection for this game might have been influenced by its musical accompaniment.

Dragon’s Prophet, on the other hand, is a free-to-play MMORPG that focuses on obtaining, training and riding dragons. The appeal of the game, for me, rested almost completely in the lush details in the landscape and the opportunities for exploration. Flying on the back of a dragon over a glittering waterfall is a deeply enjoyable experience in Dragon’s Prophet, enhanced by a very effective orchestral score written by Alexander Roeder, Mindy Lo and Rmoney Chen. The soundtrack is not available for sale, but it can be heard in a playlist on the developer’s YouTube Channel. The track I remember hearing during my playtime at E3 was “Auratia” – a grandly thematic musical backdrop for gliding on the back of a dragon.

Hearing is Believing: E3 2013

E3

I attended my first E3 in 2004. It was the last hurrah for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, with next-gen consoles set to make their debut the following year. I was a newcomer to the video game industry, and I’d never been to a large tech-industry convention before. My memories of that E3 are two-fold:

First, I remember taking meetings to discuss the music needs of two projects that would become my first two gigs in the video game industry – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2K Games) and God of War (Sony Computer Entertainment America). These meetings would mark the beginning of my full-fledged career in game development.

Second, I remember not being able to hear any of the playable games in any of the kiosks on the show floor at E3. Developer representatives at the show would admit this pretty quickly when I asked them about it. “No, you can’t really hear the games here,” they’d say with a shrug and a smile. “There are speakers, but we turned those off. The noise level is too much, nobody can hear anything.” At the time, that really surprised me, but after several years of seeing that same E3 phenomenon repeated over and over, the surprise wore off.

Traditionally, the E3 show has relied heavily on visuals to propel excitement. In the past, seeing was believing, and audio couldn’t be experienced except in the big video trailers for the most important games being presented that year. These trailers were typically shown on towering screens on the show floor, where they dwarfed the demo kiosks and emitted thunderously epic music in a cyclical pattern, all day long. This often meant that the trailer music for the company’s tent-pole game accompanied the playing experience for every game in that booth. It could be a weird experience, particularly if you were playing a snowboarding title or a brightly colored platformer while listening to angry apocalyptic choirs and orchestral explosions of mayhem and despair.

The audio and music components of video games don’t tend to be acknowledged in early press coverage for an upcoming game title. Graphics, physics, story, design, controls… all these are discussed, sometimes at length, but audio and music tend to be missing from the discussion. At an event where the audio and music of a game are missing, this phenomenon is perhaps unintentionally reinforced.

As I write this, I’m about to embark on my second day wandering the E3 2013 show floor at the LA Convention Center. This year, I have been pleasantly surprised to see that some changes have been made. Headphones are all over the convention floor, waiting invitingly at nearly every game demo kiosk I’ve seen. While some of these headphones are clearly present to enable chat during multiplayer matches, others are there simply to afford retailers, press and industry reps the chance to hear the games they are playing. It’s a subtle but powerful change in the way games are promoted in the industry, and one that makes me hopeful that the music and sound of games will be more recognized moving forward.

E3 is an event primarily geared towards presenting a strong marketing pitch to retailers and journalists, and it’s well known that the world of marketing depends on the importance of music in reinforcing its messages. “The association of music with the identity of a certain product may substantially aid product recall,” writes professor David Huron, head of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory of Ohio State University. “Despite the largely visual orientation of human beings, photographs and visual images do not infect human consciousness to the same extent that some melodies do.”

Seeing pairs of headphones hanging next to displays at so many demo kiosks at E3 has been a great surprise, and I think it’s a very hopeful sign. I’ll be reading the E3 hands-on articles with great interest this year, looking for signs that journalists are getting an earful as well as an eyeful. Hearing is believing.

Subtle Weapons in the Loudness War

Over at the Designing Sound website, there’s an interesting article about loudness metering in video game middleware. While reading the article, I paused on a particular phrase: loudness war. The music industry is painfully familiar with this form of sonic warfare. It’s been an ongoing conflict for years, based on a pretty vicious cycle of reasoning that goes like this:

  • We want our music to be exciting.
  • Listeners get most excited when the music gets loud.
  • Therefore, we want our music mixes to feel loud.
  • Other people are mixing their music to be more exciting by being louder than ours.
  • To counteract this, we have to make our music as loud as theirs, or better yet, louder.

Like an audio arms race, each side piles on the volume until everything overloads, then squashes their mixes with massive compression in order to avoid clipping. This leads to painfully flattened music that explodes from the speakers like a tsunami of sound, always pouring forth, never ebbing. It’s the ultimate apocalypse of the loudness war.

But does it actually feel loud?

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, there’s another kind of loudness war about to break out once again in a couple of weeks. The big game publishers mount some of the showiest booths each year, complete with enormous video screens, stacks of speakers and rumbling subwoofers installed under the floor. The result can feel pretty thunderous. The noise levels were so migrane-inducing that in 2006 the Electronic Software Association began enforcing a cap on the loudness levels, with fines levied against the transgressors. Nevertheless, from my perspective as an annual attendee, the war seems to rage on. Entering one of the big E3 booths sometimes makes me feel like the “Maxell Man” from the classic commercial in which the power of sound is portrayed like the driving force of a wind tunnel. It hits me with a solid whomp, and I can almost imagine it whipping my hair back. Whoosh.

Despite this, I find that after only a little while wandering the expo floor, none of the sounds feel particularly powerful or impressive anymore. Sure, it’s all still quite loud, but it’s also all the same kind of loud. Likewise with the sonic arms race in the music industry – when every song strives to push itself into listener’s faces with aggressive sonic intensity throughout, it becomes numbing. Our senses deaden, and the music blends into a loud but featureless white noise.

How does this relate to our work as game composers, sound designers and audio engineers? The article at Designing Sound briefly discussed the lack of clear standards for levels of loudness in video games, and the loudness war that has resulted as game developers attempt to outdo each other in making their games sonically exciting. Like the big booths at E3, we’re all trying to shout each other down. As a game composer, I’m always aware of the place my music occupies in the sonic landscape of the game. If the game is loud, should my music be loud too? And will this turn into a mush of sonic white noise? How can I prevent this, and still create that level of excitement that is the holy grail of the loudness war?

My brilliant music producer Winnie Waldron has a saying when it comes to this subject. Since we tend to communicate in our own shorthand, I’ll need to translate it for you. When talking about loudness, she says, “Contast, contrast, contrast! Yin and yang, yin and yang!!” What does this mean? We only know a thing if we also know its opposite. Therefore, we only recognize something as loud when we have experienced something soft in close proximity to it. This is also true for all manner of musical effects, from tempos and pitch elevation to texture and rhythmic devices, but for loudness its particularly meaningful. In order to create an epically loud moment, we have to preface it with something hushed. Really effective popular music uses this phenomenon by incorporating unexpected pauses, stutters and breakdowns that challenge expectations and create those hushed moments. In game audio, moments of stillness can be our subtle weapons in the loudness war.