The same is true for video game sounds and music. Whether you started playing games as a child, picked up a console controller for the first time as an adult or simply enjoy online and mobile games, chances are there’s at least one video game theme or sound that you find particularly evocative. Here, we’ll be looking at the most iconic pieces of music that you will probably recognise from games on console, PC, mobile and online that you will probably recognise, as well as why certain sounds resonate with us.
Sounds in Video Games: Iconic, Evocative and Instantly Recognisable.
The trick to this is the use of pentatonic scales – the key to creating evocative gaming music and sounds found in some of history's best video games. Remember those happy, triumphant chimes when you completed a level in Nintendo’s classic Super Mario Bros. or when you collected rings in Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog? In addition to making the player feel a sense of joy and achievement, they also had major pentatonic scales in common. These high-pitched chimes let the player know that they were doing something right without the developers having to work out how to give verbal or complex visual clues.
Of course, as we entered the 90s and beyond, it became clear that gamers wanted more than just happy platformers with chimes – gamers wanted dark, scary adventures. So, as sound design became more sophisticated, developers began to dabble in non-linear sounds to create even more immersive gaming experiences.
Non-linear noises are created when sounds exceed the normal range that an instrument or human voice is capable of creating. A particularly impressive example of non-linear music that exists in popular culture but outside of gaming is the well-known staccato violin pangs from Hitchcock’s Psycho. Wild animals are also able to make these noises, though they are usually used only during distress calls, which is maybe why the best example of non-linear music in games can be found in titles like Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It may, in fact, be that these horror games were so popular partly because the developers used non-linear noises that instantly invoke stress and fear in animals, including us humans.
So, with happy and scary music already in the bag, the only element that sound designers had to come up with next was adaptive music. That is, music and sounds that clearly tell the player when more complex things are happening – such as their character being in danger or that they need to prepare for a battle.
The need for adaptive music became increasingly clear when stealth games such Metal Gear Solid were being created, as changes in pace and predicament were paired perfectly with well-suited music. It also helped in titles like the Elder Scrolls series, allowing players to catch on when their fun exploration of the landscape had been put on hold due to an approaching troll or giant spider.
With the pentatonic scale, a non-linear library of sounds and a wide range of adaptive music, sound developers were eventually able to come up with entire soundscapes and soundtracks, which is what we experience in modern video games today. However, as more platforms appeared that could host games, it became clear that not all games could make-do with or apply these three important sound tricks. Instead, they created their own holy grails of sound design.
Sounds in iGaming: The Universally Pleasant Tone of C.
Back in the late 90s when video games were working on non-linear noises and adaptive music, there was another game design sector working on their own soundscapes. Now known as the iGaming industry, online casinos were one of the first gaming sectors to appear on the internet. Over the years, many of the same sound design staples – particularly the pentatonic scales - were applied to games including poker, roulette and slots. However, over the last twenty years, they’ve begun using a brand-new sound that even the best video games developers can’t deal with quite as well.
Anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes this sound as the “universally pleasant tone of C” and has found instances of it in a number of online slots, some of which were created as far back the 90s. That's when the unique tone was created by the then director of Silicon Gaming, who mashed quite a few well-known casino soundscapes together to create the perfect note for all slots. In fact, many of the best slots listed by online casino Wink Slots including two of IGT's big hits Wheel of Fortune and Cleopatra have the tone of C and Schull herself has suggested to developers that all slots should contain the specific noise. As for why the tone is so important, it’s because the tone of C is one of the few noises that connect most other sounds together, making the experience of a casino game feel like one large soundscape instead of a disjointed mass of different sound effects.
The Future Sounds of Gaming.
Of course, as technology evolves so too must the music and sound in games – which is probably why most blockbuster games now have incredibly large sound departments, made up of music composers, sound designers, voice artists and actors. With the introduction of tech like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), these departments will be challenged further to create even more evocative, immersive soundscapes, whether they’re working on an online casino slot or on a big blockbuster console title. Whatever sound designers come up with for the future, we’re sure it’ll be fascinating.