Sound in games.

Sound is an important part of video games, helping to emphasise emotion and atmosphere as well as adding to the overall style and even the game’s mechanics.

Sound effects such as doors closing and opening, footsteps, NPC voices, and environmental ambient sounds generally add to the game’s overall experience, immersing the player into the virtual world, and occasionally (especially in horror games) playing on their fears or making them jump.

Music in games is also used in a similar way, drawing on emotions from players such as excitement, tension, sadness and fear. I will also be looking further into this in later post on audio theory.

Games can also use a lack of sound to build tension for their players, e.g. games such as LIMBO, where players run through an eerie simplistic environment, interrupted by loud sounds very occasionally that shock the player. This is also a common theme in horror games.

There are also games which are audio only, which rely on sounds or narrative to allow a player to progress through a story or manipulate the sounds they encounter, these sorts of games are good both for interesting contemporary design as well as perhaps players with visual difficulties.

I will now analyse and review the sound of a few games that I have played in my own time, I have also provided embedded videos to show examples of the sound in these games:

Amnesia; the dark descent

In Amnesia; the dark descent, the player is immersed into the first person gameplay in a creepy castle environment, the sound in this game is used as one of the key elements to cause tension and keep the player on the edge of their seat. As a survival horror the player can only run and hide from enemies and can’t fight back, making it important for them to remain hidden. one of the ways the game plays on this is to make the sounds of doors opening and closing as well as the players own footsteps and breathing relatively loud, including their breathing becoming louder and more erratic as enemies draw near. this adds a lot of tension as the player is very aware of every small movement they make, and also makes encountering an enemy extremely tense and frightening due to louder sounds and a rapid heart beat and breathing sounds.

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is a game/interactive story that has a melancholic feel achieved by piano and violin music accompanied by sounds of the wind and tide on the island setting. The story is uncovered through collecting letters to a character named Esther which are read aloud by a narrator, who reads the letters somewhat solemnly. the game does not have any jumps but the mood is set by both ambient sounds and the content of the letters, with music coming and going, becoming ever more present and emotional nearing the end of the game. It’s hard to explain how the music makes you feel sad, and I will look into the emotional effects of music further on in my research.

Bioshock – Welcome to rapture

Bioshock is a game rich in sound, set in the early-mid 20th century, all the music heard through the environment in game is from around the 40’s to 50’s, giving the game a style that stands out against a lot of others.

In the first two Bioshock games there is an ever present theme of water (understandable as the entire city is built at the bottom of the sea) as well as mechanical/electrical themes which are also expressed through sound. There is almost always a source of dripping or running water which remind the player how rapture (the city) is falling apart and giving way to the elements (the ocean) The mechanical sounds also reflect the massive amount of man made gadgets and tampering with nature that has taken place in this city, from bio-genetics to plastic surgery to the robotic inventions found scattered all over the environment.

There is also orchestral music in the game which is used to emphasise fear, sadness and suspense in parts of the game, such as extremely high pitched strings ascending as a splicer (enemy of the protagonist) crawls above ready to attack in the opening scene of rapture.

Gears of war – Berserker

One of my most memorable levels of gears of war was the berserker scene. in this part of the game everything is very quiet and the characters must sneak around the berserker in order to get to the next area, the berserker charges at anything it can hear, making an extremely loud and intimidating roaring sound and charging through stone columns and causing them to crash to the ground. This scene effectively uses volume and pitch to add suspense and frighten the player, as well as fast paced drum beats while the characters are being chased by the berserker.


FEAR is a supernatural horror FPS in which players must progress through the game, avoiding and escaping Alma (the indestructible and deadly paranormal child) and fighting off hordes of genetic super soldiers.

The game has a strong horror genre element as well as being a first person shooter in which players enter combat with enemy soldiers. One of the main ways in which suspense and tension are created in the game are through the long and uneasy silences, broken only by the sound of the characters own footsteps and interactions with the environment. As there is no background music this can cause a player to jump at almost any sound, and I found playing this game with the volume turned right down or the sound off completely really subtracted from the overall fear factor.

When the character encounters something supernatural there is a loud and high pitched screeching sound almost like nails on a chalk board, which causes the player to jump, as well as disturbing visuals. These are not the only scary sounds used in this game, others include; creepy voices, screaming babies (flashbacks), and childish giggling.

References: See bibliography [click here]


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