Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pavlov's Bleeps

This past weekend, Mrs. JPG and I drove to upstate New York for a friend's wedding. We stayed at a "casino resort," where we felt severely underdressed, as at no time were either of us wearing any of the following items of apparel:
  • camouflage baseball hat
  • NASCAR-branded suede jacket
  • cellphone clipped to the waistband of sweatpants
Despite our sartorial inadequacy, we managed to have a great time celebrating and catching up with old friends, dancing poorly, and losing only a modest percentage of our discretionary income.

On our way to the car Sunday morning we walked by one of the gaming areas, where the pleasant harmony of chiming slot machines was inexplicably drowned out by some hideously generic pop music blaring from the ceiling speakers. No plinking coin sounds, no faux-glockenspiel ascending melodies, no resounding jackpot klaxons. I remarked on this curious fact to Mrs. JPG, who obligingly feigned interest. I love that girl.

Still, it seemed odd that the casino wouldn't want the sound of the machines - which is a major subliminal draw - to prevail. As a musician, I've always loved walking around the slots just soaking in the harmony of the machines. (The 50- second "hidden track" 4:18 into Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack", which replicates this sound, is sublime to me.) Given the depth of planning and understanding of human psychology that goes into casino design, the choice to obscure the machines' sounds with piped-in Top 40 crap was doubly bizarre.

This got me thinking about the way sounds in games condition us psychologically. I'm talking about both "external" sounds (e.g., soundtrack cues) and those that exist within the game world (e.g., an approaching enemy's battle cry). There are a couple of interesting applications I've noticed:

1. The reward sound. The sound indicates the accomplishment of a task or conquering of an obstacle. The most obvious example is the "Achievement Unlocked" bleep-bloop on the 360, which is, I guess, a sort of meta-cue. Somehow this brief, very recognizable sound signals satisfaction for millions of gamers and keeps them on the hunt for further rewards. In some cases, like in World of Warcraft, the sound itself becomes a synonym for an accomplishment in discussion ("I dinged level 60"). "Victory music," heard after winning a battle or clearing a level (see: the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest series) also fits here. The guys at Giant Bomb refer to this as a "Victory Gong" or "Win Chime."

2. The failure/try-again sound. This sound or motif, which often plays when the player dies, reinforces the failure to overcome an obstacle the player has just witnessed on screen, and presumably provides motivation for the player to try again. The famous blooping descending riff in Pac-Man or the "chum-chum-chum" motif when Shepard dies in Mass Effect are good examples. This type of cue is seldom a sound that occurs within the game world.

3. The warning sound. This signals the player that danger is approaching and that s/he should prepare. A perfect example would be the ominous three-note riff that plays in Left 4 Dead when a zombie horde is near. This game, in particular, uses an audio cue to powerful effect: tension spikes as soon as the player hears the notes, before the enemies even appear on screen.

4. The ready sound. This sound confirms that a task has been completed and the player can now proceed to another task. Think of newly-created marines saying "Gimme somethin' to shoot!" as they emerge from the barracks in StarCraft. It can also signal that a certain ability is ready to be used: the cooldown period for a charging skill is complete, or a weapon is reloaded. The dialogue cues in Gears of War when the player succeeds or fails at an active reload attempt are an example.

5. The acquisition sound. This is an audio cue to confirm what the player has just seen on screen when the character acquires an object. Collecting coins in Super Mario Bros. is the classic example. The "shick-shack" sound you hear when picking up ammo clips in every FPS since Wolfenstein 3D is another. In some cases, without the combination of visual and audio cues, the player may not realize that s/he has actually picked up the item. This type of cue is related to the reward sound, but occurs much more frequently.

6. The damage sound. This sound, which is often combined with a visual cue, indicates that the player has sustained damage or has inflicted damage on an enemy. The "shwip" sound coinciding with a flash of red in games like the Legend of Zelda or Dragon Quest series indicates the enemy has taken a hit. In an FPS this typically manifests as grunts of pain from the main character, often accompanied by tactile feedback from a rumbling controller and/or flashes of red or blood spatters to indicate the direction damage is coming from.

7. The instruction sound. This type of cue reinforces a visual instruction the game is giving the player, usually outside of the immersion of the game world. In Double Dragon, a "ding-ding-ding" sound accompanies the flashing hand pointing in the direction the player is supposed to go when a group of enemies have been defeated. The Mortal Kombat series uses a musical riff at the end of a fight (along with the famous declaration "FINISH HIM!") to prompt the player to perform a Fatality; the music vamps for a few seconds to remind the player s/he only has a limited time window to perform the move.

I'm sure there are plenty of other types of audio cues I'm leaving out, but these are the ones that struck me as having a particularly effective Pavlovian slant. Interestingly, I find it difficult to play most games with the sound off or while playing other music; I need these cues to help me process my progress through the game. Like the harmonies of ringing slot machines, I guess I'm just subliminally tuned in.

No comments:

Post a Comment