Some of you might remember an older article I wrote about music in video games, but there was something in there I mentioned in passing that I wanted to expand on. Namely, ambient sounds. This is a place where a lot a developers drop the ball, because coming up with dozens to hundreds of sounds that a good number of people won’t even notice can’t be worth it, right? On the contrary, people might not notice when it’s there, but we’ll notice when it’s not.

First and foremost, what is ambient noise? Simply put, it’s the sounds the world makes. Bugs creaking in the night, the winds rustling through the trees, the groaning of stressed metal. Dozens of little things that come together to truly bring the world to life, that make it feel like it’s in motion, as opposed to stuck in permanent stasis until the protagonist comes along and sets off something nearby. Some games do use ambiance to bring in the player, but it’s almost always a calculated move for that specific area, and will usually stop as you move away from the event trigger.

Hello? Anything there?

Some of the worst offenders of this are MMOs, that can rely almost exclusively on music to set the “mood” for a zone, rather than trying to use ambient noise. Sometimes this works, for areas that are dead and desolate, the silence (until the music kicks in for whatever reason) works to bring home how dead the world is at that moment. Occasionally, you’ll find MMOs (and other games) that do use ambient noise, but is almost always on a short track that becomes obvious the longer you play in that area. Even worse, there can be events triggered that call attention to the noise, rather than letting it build up, then immediately cease once the event is over. F.3.A.R. had a nasty habit on one early level of having the player run over a set of ladders that were strung about, using them as bridges for the most part. Stepping on the ladder caused your camera to sway and the ladder to creak and groan as if it was about to break. Problem is, you can jump up and down forever on the things and they’ll never break, but constantly make the same groan.

The ladder issue could have been improved by having the pitch change if the player remains on the ladder, having the groan sound more and more stressed. A lot of outside zones could be improved by having crickets and birds in the background. Have a few tracks that randomly cycle depending on the time of day and the zone. One weird example is probably Dead Space where the ship actually sounds, for the most part, like a ship, but the ventilation system only makes noise when it’s trying to scare you/warn you of impending Necromorph attack and not really any time else.

Hear clacking, get to reloading.

Another game that really does ambient noise well has been Metro 2033. Playing the game with my surround sound headphones really puts a whole new level to the horrific tunnels. You can hear the wind flowing through the tunnels from time to time, dripping of water from busted pipes, even a light groaning of metal throughout the tunnels. Oddly, the hand carts don’t exactly sound like what you’d imagine, but I’ll forgive that for the game actually making me take off my headphones from time to time, just because living in wrecked metro tunnel in creepy as hell. Pretty sure the dev team lived in a metro tunnel for a while just to get every diabolical sound just right.

A final good example of sound that people over look, League of Legends has had several recent champions that actually have the noise of a sword swinging through the air, weapons impacting against varying enemies. Easy to miss, but once you hear it, it’s easily noticeable and adds a fun little detail to the combat.

So that’s that, my plead to developers to make their worlds just a little more life-like. Give it a greater momentum, have sounds that travel beyond 4 feet, have the little things that we all take for granted in the real world. Or things we find absolutely infuriating, like those crickets in my backyard that just won’t shut up in the middle of summer. It’s the little things that count.

Seriously, they just won't shut up.