The Sound of Silence: The Use of Silence In Games
It is more and more common that grandiose musical scores are employed into our favorite titles to set the tone and create amazing atmospheres. Examples being high octane battle scenes where heavy drums and booming brass tones are used to amp up the player. Alternatively, soft, sporadic notes as you stand over a fallen party member. As you curse yourself for farming low level enemies to level them up.
With the prominence of gaming and the commercial success that has came with that, developers have been able to create increasingly detailed and thematic soundscapes. These allow players to immerse themselves further into the fantasy worlds that they inhabit. It’s not long ago since the best we hoped for musically was a 16 bit array of noise.
Thankfully, you find these tunes as someone’s doorbell in today’s climate. Gaming soundtracks are now winning prestigious awards and the hearts of many. These musical scores show real competition to the likes of cinematic soundtracks with titles such as indie hit Journey, or 2018 blockbuster God of War winning awards for their efforts.
Although, there are times in gaming where voice acting, musical scores and sound effects are not necessary. With effective inclusion of silence, it has more effect than any of these additions. Whether it’s to give the player an eerie chill down their spine, a moment of respite, or even a long walk to ponder recent events. Even virtual characters need their head spaced now and again. Here are some prime examples of when games turned the volume to zero.
Traversing Open Worlds
Depending on what sort of mood or over arching theme a game is trying to convey, there may be a track that simply keeps you moving forward or a dynamic soundscape that adapts and changes. This changes according to events that occur such as fight scenes, random events or discoveries. However, some games love to make you feel small and insignificant to the bigger picture that is the grand world surrounding you. Whilst others simply want you to feel completely alone as you trudge along to your next destination.
An example of the former is the beautiful and whimsical world of The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker. When Link is sailing upon the open seas with nothing on the horizon in any direction with the only audible sounds being the occasional wave lapping against the hull of your boat. It’s very apparent that the world that you are navigating is much greater than you. You are a speck, a drop in the ocean and yet, you are calm. It’s a peaceful moment that humbles the player and also serves to create a great respect for the sprawling landscape to explore.
An example of the latter that serves to unsettle the player and make them feel alone in a barren land is Shadow Of The Colossus. Within this game there are several long winding journeys. You will have to travel to the various giants that inhabit the realm. So throughout these moments in between the action, the player is left to ponder the actions that have just transpired.
The player is left with thoughts such as why they decided to murder a creature that didn’t seem to want to battle. Or why they were off to do it all over again. The lack of a score and only the thumping of your horses hooves upon soil serve as an ominous reminder. This being that you are alone with only your horse and your thoughts for company.
Silence is one of the most trusty tools within the genre of horror. Minimal sound serves as a method to put emphasis on all other aspects. As humans, we are programmed to respond to sound, for example, a car exhaust letting out a sound akin to a gunshot. This causing a massive rush to adrenaline to surge within you involuntarily. It’s a natural reaction and those who create horror titles thrive upon exploiting this.
Games like to exploit this through emphasizing the interactive nature that the medium provides. When the sound and score is sucked from a game, all that is left is the core mechanics. Therefore, if the player is in full focus on what they are doing. They are fully engrossed on the scene and this adds to the shock value. Games that put this into practice are the likes of Silent Hill or Dead Space.
It’s Quiet… Too Quiet
The former often uses no sound at all for long periods of the game. The player is left to navigate through the dense fog in complete silence, only with the aid of sharp sounds from the pocket radio indicating danger. This has the innate ability to shock the player, sending them into a frenzy to find what lurks in the mist.
Dead Space also has long periods of eerie silence but doesn’t hide the enemies behind a vale of white fog. In a lot of cases, it hides them in plain sight. The developers use the lack of sound to add to the terrifying atmosphere of course, but also use it as a false sense of respite. It allows players to believe they have defeated all the enemies. So they proceed to loot the corpses or reload weapons and do some inventory management.
Then without warning, the once dead creature springs to life again and takes them by surprise. Not to mention quiet periods that can be interrupted by the same enemies bursting from the roof or walls without warning. It does this periodically so that not all silences are dangerous ones. Just enough are that you can never truly trust the silence.
As A Game Mechanic
Using silence as a core mechanic is extremely unconventional. Perhaps that is because the technology was never there for the possibility to occur in the past. Plus, even when it became available, it’s not a conventional idea to begin with. Alien: Isolation not only does what the previously mentioned horror games do well but they also use silence as a mechanic. They achieve this through the use of a microphon, when the player is hiding from the alien antagonist that Amanda Ripley is running from all game.
Being quiet in game is essential to survival. In addition, with the use of this optional mechanic, the player can add a new level of immersion. The player will have to be mindful of their own real life noise as the microphone records throughout gameplay. It adds to the level of tension throughout. So much so that the player finds themselves holding their breath when hiding from the monstrous alien. There is always the worry that this can all be undone by your dog barking out the window. It’s a wonderful addition that complements the tense atmosphere perfectly.
The silent protagonist is, in its own way, using silence as a method of storytelling. This is through allowing the player to project onto the character they are controlling, through these characters being a blank slate within a world of bustling sound, dialogue and personality. It allows the player to project themselves into the character they control and make them in their own image.
The best examples of silent protagonists that allow for this are the likes of Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman, Jack from the first installment of Bioshock or Claude from GTA 3. This works best for these types of narrative driven games with very well constructed worlds. Taking the voice from the player puts an emphasis on the world and storyline. The player is playing the role of an interactive passenger in a world greater than the protagonist of the story itself.
To Convey Emotion
Last point of focus is silence and its ability to mirror the speechlessness that comes with an emotional scene. The standard place for this is when the credits roll but some games do their best to meld this with game mechanics to create a truly poignant scene. The most obvious example of this is the ending scene of MGS3: Guns Of The Patriots.
No spoilers here obviously but after a certain gut-wrenching scene occurs, the player is left to climb a seemingly never ending ladder. Initially you are treated to a nice track of melancholy music. Yet, after the music comes to a close, the ladder continues on and the player must ascend the ladder in silence, carrying their thoughts and the burden of what just transpired on their shoulders.
Hideo Kojima is a developer that uses this method to varying degrees of effectiveness. His newest title Death Stranding offering a similar silent moment as you complete your last journey. However, within that particular scene, the developer assumes that the player will instinctively know where to take the package. The directions given are vague hints pointing to be where you began the game.
Meaning that if you weren’t invested or didn’t remember the location, the silence was diluted of its emotional qualities. However, when done well, the silent moments within games can truly cut deep within your soul without saying a word. Also, honorable mentions to those scenes that aren’t silent but dial the volume down drastically for emotional effect. We’re looking at you, Final Fantasy 7.
What are your favorite instances of silences within video gaming? Is there any interesting ways that developers use silence to enhance players gaming experience that we missed? Let us know in the comments and make sure to check out other great content such as this article right here. As always, thanks for reading.