The Beeping, Gargling History of Gaming’s Most Iconic Sounds
The bouncy beeps of Pac-Man. The percussive build-up in Legend of Zelda. The effusive gibberish of The Sims. The sounds in videogames tell us to speed up, start over, and of course, to keep playing. But how does one set of beeps so effectively tell you you've gained power, while another indicates your character has died? And how, exactly, does someone create the sound of the Dark Knight punching the Joker in the face? The answer: Genius sound design.
Take, for example, slugging a bad guy in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The sound of that blow was made using a watermelon, a frozen turkey, and some archery skills. Meanwhile, that going-to-die feeling you have when the music speeds up in Space Invaders is actually created by having a tone that's timed to the rhythm of your beating heart. "That was probably the first time a bit of psychoacoustics was finding its way into game design," says Russell Brower, senior director of audio at Blizzard Entertainment.
Brower is one of four experts consulted for Video Game Sounds, a deep dive dissection (above) of the many noises players will always associate with life (and death) in their favorite games—and a few they might not remember quite so well. (Can you recognize the sounds from Castlevania and Metal Gear?) In the video, they discuss how necessity created some of the most legendary sounds and the methods by which those tones were made.
With only a few channels of audio to play with, early videogame designers had to get very creative if they wanted their sounds to stand out. Pong, created in 1972, took a single tone and made it iconic, while Donkey Kong utilized the limited sounds of a Game Boy to trigger a range of cues and emotions.
As the games got more complex, so did the audio, and the theories behind it. A loop, or short, repeated section of audio, acts as a recurring cue. Dissonant sounds communicate failure, while consonant ones—think of the sympathetic vibrations of Super Mario Bros.—encourage players to continue. The tones can even mimic human sounds—a modulating synthesizer approximates laughter, like the “wawawawawa” in Duck Hunt.
With less restrictive memory limitations, designers could get wackier with their videogame sounds—and oftentimes, the engineers themselves made cameos. That “Groovy!” in Earthworm Jim? That’s the voice of the game’s creator, Doug TenNapel. The groans you hear on Tony Hawk's Pro Skater? Videogame music composer Tommy Tallarico recorded those sounds while falling off a skateboard in his backyard, and he has the scars to prove it. The cry of a Murloc in Hearthstone? That’s sound designer Tracy W. Bush gargling yogurt.
Like that yogurt-gurgling situation, many of the most iconic videogame sounds in history were recorded on a whim, which is why it's important sound designers always be prepared—and resourceful. “Record everything you can,” says Tallarico. “The best sound for something could be just at a moment’s notice. You have to be ready.” Even if that means recording yourself tumbling off a skateboard or shooting arrows into a turkey.
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