Review Rundown: What is Audio?

Reviews! They’re a big deal on the Internet. We love to slap numbers on stuff and dissect games into tidy little compartments – placing a chunk of Gameplay here, a morsel of Audio there – before we give it a Final Review Score For Metacritic. What does it all mean? The Review Rundown is a series explaining the process of reviewing games.

Audio. Seems simple enough, right? It should just – y’know? – be there and stuff.  But really, what is audio?

While that’s somewhat true, audio has the ability to make a game truly memorable. Games with iconic scores stick with us, the music and effects so deeply ingrained within them, that they endure throughout memory. Lots of things make games work, but audio makes a game last.

More so even than graphics, audio is directly tied to technology. Considering how important graphics are, audio was often relegated to second fiddle regarding storage and development. Well, at least it was before the PlayStation came along and upped the data ante when it moved from cartridges to discs. Before then, high-quality music simply couldn’t fit; nowadays it can. And nowadays we even critique it.

Enough armchair history.

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Full disclosure: I can’t play any instruments. I tried to teach myself how to play “Colors of the Wind” on piano when I was 23 and failed. That being said, I don’t feel that it’s necessary to be fluent in a craft to speak about it. When I say “good” or “bad” music, it is simply shorthand for me saying “music that does / does not appeal to my taste or wants, let alone the tastes or wants of the game.” So, let’s avoid the entire “That’s just your opinion” spiel because – well – that’s what a review is. Cool?

What do we look for when we judge a game’s Audio qualities? Most easily-identifiable should be the music in the game. Obvious as this seems – music itself being only slightly more subjective than video game analysis – there is a lot to take in. The hooky, catchy tunes we used to hum that accompanied short levels of yesteryear are largely gone, save for some rhythm or platforming holdouts. In their place are swelling scores that can dynamically adjust to the actions onscreen.

Right there are two great facets to look for beyond “good” or “bad”: If the game is not utilizing an orchestrated score, are the tunes catchy and well-crafted? Do they fight or snugly fit with the game’s overriding audio themes (sound effects, menu cues, etc.)? Regarding dynamic scores, they are certainly en vogue right now, a nice fit for the heavily-scripted pacing of a lot games. They’re just fine. I’ve always been a large fan of Marty O’Donnell’s work in this regard, who dabbled in a changing score with ODST as well. It brings the bombast and punch his worlds need all the while retaining their elegance and frailty.

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On the other hand, smaller games like Adventure Time: HIKWYSOG?! and Runner 2 – a fantastic example of marrying the two ideas of catchy tunes and dynamic scoring – have shown that the craft of making a hooky track is not gone. There are still games that have those infectious soundtracks that bore into your ears for days after playing. Frog Fractions menu is simply fantastic and Super Hexagon’s theme comes to mind as a game that bears the old standard of game music.

But, music is just part of it. More important to me than the music is the overriding audio design of a game. Like I mentioned above, the sound effects, menu cues, ambient world, interactions and the appropriate use of it all. Personally, I point to Legend of Grimrock as having the single best audio design I’ve heard in a game. The creeping, slimy, crackling world comes hauntingly to life not because of the (perhaps purposely underwhelming) graphics but because of the audio. Footsteps are muffled behind walls, monsters make truly terrifying, alien noises; directional cues are not just important but necessary.

Largely, it is not the fidelity of the audio that matters most – my recent review of the worth-your-time Zeno Clash 2 gets at that. Rather, does the audio heighten the gameplay? I’m thinking of the competitive CoD scene, where footsteps can give you away. Or Battlefield 3, where I originally mistook the game’s audio for a movie’s. Audio like this, under ideal circumstances, serves to further immerse you into the game.

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Lastly, another recently got-at topic, is voice acting. This has become hugely important in modern games where characters talk and spout exposition. While I’m not a huge fan of the aged cutscene, I can manage if there is believable acting. I’m not asking for Karloff or Bogart or even Streep, but there has to be some semblance of humanity there. It is fair to remember that sometimes the scripts are simply unreadable, so you have to really take care there. But when it meshes, like the fantastically written and acted Deus Ex: Human Revolution as a recent example, it makes the story yours.

So, what else can be said for the typically-lowliest of scoring criteria? Audio demands a large amount of emphasis and attentiveness towards judging it, as it’s a laborious and often-overlooked aspect. But what’s most important about Audio is whether or not it serves the game. It works for the game, it is at the game’s beck and call. Some games certainly rely on it more than others, placing it closer to the center of the production, but by and large it is part of the supporting cast.

Whaddya think? What are some games with killer audio, whether it’s effects of music? Sound off below.

Written by: Nick Cane

Game writer, fervent lover of mac and cheese. Favorite games are ES4: Oblivion, Kirby's Adventure, Link's Awakening, Final Fantasy 8 and Mario Galaxy.

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