We have already written
about the fact that sound is an important component of any media content, including video games. Thanks to the correctly selected sounds and soundtrack, the games create an atmosphere and convey the mood, influence the player's feelings and make him empathize with the hero, get him involved in what is happening on the screen.
Today we will go a little further and tell you about the effect that makes the sound more important than all the other components of the game combined.Photo of Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay / CC-BY
Hear better than see
Very often, games have the main “hooks” - the graphics are especially good at some points, some of them have revolutionary mechanics, sometimes we play for the sake of the plot, sometimes for the characters. But rarely, very rarely in something worth playing just for the sake of sound.
There are games with a good soundtrack - for example, all the music played in Life is Strange and its sequel Before the Storm would be desirable if not to take it to the playlist, then at least listen to the end. In one of the first scenes of Life is Strange - the heroine is uncomfortable at school, she puts on headphones and walks down the corridor
. The central theme of the game plays, it absorbs (almost completely, but still not completely) the hum of school change - like the heroine, we don’t want to get out of this musical trance, return to reality (although for us this is, of course, not reality).
Nevertheless, the main “trick” of Life Is Strange is the gameplay and its close connection with the player’s participation in the plot. Music is an important, but still minor, detail.
There are, however, games that may not be distinguished by gameplay or graphics, but remembered solely by what is happening in the headphones.
One of the most recent and most illustrative examples of this kind is Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. The main feature of Hellblade is binaural sound. What it is?
Binaural sound in games is, in fact, the use of the characteristics of human hearing to create the effect of surround sound. This is not so much a technological solution as stereo, as physiological — our perception of binaural sound is explained by neurophysiology.
We hear with two ears at the same time. Binaural effect occurs when the right ear is closer to the sound source when you turn the head to the left of the source or vice versa. The sound reaches one ear earlier than the other - the phases of sound vibrations are shifted relative to each other. It is this phase shift that allows the brain (humans and many mammals) to determine the position of the sound source in space: the distance to it and the horizontal direction to the source.
Binaural audio is recorded using special microphones. A mannequin replica of the human head (ideally, of course, this replica should fully correspond to the head of the future listener, including identical auricles and the distance between the ears) two recording devices are inserted - one into each “ear”. Such a sound recording creates not only the illusion of surround sound, but also copies the ways in which the sound is perceived — those very features of understanding distance, direction and reflection.
In binaural audio, the distance between the ears and the effect of sound reflection from the auricles are important. Therefore, this sound is best perceived in headphones. Of course, you can also hear it with the help of speakers, but the effect will be weaker: the sound source is farther from the ear, at different distances from the ears and can be directed in different directions. In headphones, the sound from the left and right audio channels will directly flow into the left and right ear - this is the most important thing for the full perception of this audio illusion.
Voices in the head
The main heroine of Hellblade is the Celtic warrior Senua, who is sent to the afterlife to save the soul of her deceased lover. She suffers from a number of mental disorders. She perceives the voices in her head, by virtue of her mythical consciousness, as real or almost real people, gods and opponents.
She talks to dead people or those who are not with her. These voices, which pursue her constantly - dozens of fragments of her personality. Some support it, some condemn it; some gossip, others urge; someone is deceiving, someone is warning about the danger. They do all this at the same time: they call each other over and talk to each other.Photo by Surian Soosay / CC-BY
So, dozens of voices are constantly swarming in Senou's head. All of them were recorded on a binaural microphone, so the player can hear the distance and direction of each of them. This immerses the player in the psychosis of the protagonist deeper than ever was possible in video games (and not only), and causes a constant feeling of anxiety and fear. But that's not all.
In Hellblade, binaural audio becomes part of the gameplay. For example, in battle, voices warn which side the enemy will strike unexpectedly. We hear the cry "Caution!" - our brain understands from which side and from what distance it sounded, and we react accordingly, we manage to dodge or repel the attack. And because of the immersion effect, you sometimes have to remind yourself that only Senoy is in danger.
In the real world, auditory hallucinations appear in a similar form - the hearer understands the direction and distance to the voices, they either whisper in the distance, or they scream above the ear. Binaural effect not only immerses in the gaming experience, but also provides a unique opportunity to feel the state of a person with hallucinatory disorder. And this was only possible thanks to working with sound.
The player does not just hear the sounds that occur in the game - he seems to be immersed in the game space, he has the illusion that he somehow relates to the objects and people who fill this space. For example, if the enemy is behind Senoi, the player feels that someone is sneaking up behind him.
The developers of Hellblade kept a detailed diary (it's funny that the editor of the company's video blog eventually became the main character of the game). This is a story about binaural audio tests - in order to be imbued, you must, of course, put on headphones.
Advertising and movies
Binaural audio has such a powerful effect on the listener that the visual image is secondary. The next step is to get rid of the picture, relying only on the sound. So did, for example, in advertising ( one of the commercials of
the New Zealand national rugby team All Blacks).
A similar principle is made the game Papa Sangre for iOS. The game world is hidden
in the dark, and the player has to focus on the voice of the narrator, go to the sound and literally "see with your ears."
The effect is actively used for meditation and relaxation - in the corresponding videos, audio tracks and applications.
In 2013, The Blind Passanger was released in Australia. For him, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was specially recorded on a binaural microphone.
Why so little?
Despite all the advantages, binaural audio is used relatively rarely. Why?
The main difficulty is technological. To record binaural audio, you need special equipment. This is a long, complicated and expensive process.
In this case, the effect can be very easily lost if the player, for example, ignores the call to put on headphones at the beginning of the game. Or, moreover, I was not used to playing headphones at all. The widespread use of headphones during the game has only recently ceased to be a predominantly subcultural phenomenon.
The same is true in advertising, only the threshold of entry is even lower - it is unlikely that someone will specifically wear headphones to listen to the minute advertisement. In television advertising, this technique will not work at all.
In other words, binaural audio was destined to remain an interesting, beautiful, but still a curiosity in the gaming industry, and not a common technique. But here came the VR technology. Which are also individualistic, difficult to produce and consume, but offer a previously impossible diving effect. Most likely, in the near future we will hear more often about a bundle of
VR and binaural audio. For example, the Oculus Crescent Bay prototype already uses binaural technology.
But now an important feature of binaural audio - it works great in the most simple headphones
. To fully experience immersion in the sound illusion, you do not need to buy the most powerful and expensive equipment, because the main requirement is the separation of channels.