The Soundtrack To My Extra Life

People passionate about games are often quick to point out that videogame audio is an undervalued element of game design. Not ones to keep you unclear about their opinions, gamers may well go on to explain that sound designers working on videogames use auditory cues to create soundscapes; acoustic landscapes which fit with and underscore the look, feel and premise of a game. Not only does sound help define what’s happening in a game world, then, but it is also fundamental to our enjoyment of the game experience. Imagine the Tomb Raider series without its beautiful score, or Super Mario Bros. without those luscious ‘one up’ and mushroom power-up sounds, or even that high-pitched noise each coin makes as you run into it. Such a scenario is simply unthinkable!

More than these, however, I became rather too familiar with other Mario sounds – sound 1, sound 2, and, ultimately, sound 3 – until I finally threw in the towel altogether and started playing Pac-Man instead. At this point, this became the resonant sound haunting my play sessions.

I’ve managed to find some excellent footage right at the other end of the retro-game-skill scale demonstrating what can happen when a gaming geek decides to experiment with speed. It’s also interesting because it features several of the Super Mario Bros. tunes that will have a pleasant nostalgic effect on many of you. Have a gander at it below, but be aware that the player’s dexterity reaches particularly ludicrous levels towards the end.


Let’s not forget good old Taito, creator of several arcade classics including Rainbow Islands, Parasol Stars, and Bubble Bobble. The main theme tune of Bubble Bobble can be heard by clicking here to further whet your pensive appetites (warning: once listened to, there is no way in hell that this tune will not be stuck in your head for the rest of the day). If nouns could have theme tunes, this would surely be the one for ‘fun’.

Sound design in games is in many ways more challenging than that of films because sound cues must be anticipated by the designer, who must then produce those sounds in such a way that they can be used across several events. This concept is known as adaptive audio and has also permeated the design process of game music. Micro-scoring, where each instrumental layer of an orchestral piece is executed independently from the others as deemed appropriate by the game engine, is perhaps the most prevalent modern technique for integrating adaptive music.  It can be heard in practice throughout the Tomb Raider series. Interactivity can therefore apply just as much to a game’s sound as to its graphics and gameplay.

Many a player of the Silent Hill survival horror series will understand the effect that game audio can have on a person. The first time I faced Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2’s Blue Creek apartment block caused me to develop a tactic I have since dubbed ‘silencing Silent Hill’. I found facing this overwhelmingly frightening creature in such a confined space too much to bear when the immensely thrilling music was present. I therefore had to continue with the volume on its lowest setting.

Not the most equally matched of fights I've ever encountered
Not the most evenly matched fight I've ever encountered

The Silent Hill series is actually a fine example of expert visual and auditory integration because sound cues are used perfectly in conjunction with visual cues. Further to this, many examples of sound cues are used, creating a rich auditory environment (for example, with footstep sound effects). Take a look at the tasty morsel of Silent Hill 2 gameplay below, including its fantastic climax, to see how fundamental the sound is to the Silent Hill experience. Notice how each auditory cue assists the player in appreciating the on-screen events, and also how sounds immediately change as the protagonist enters a new room containing different threats and objectives. Sound works to define a game area as much as the visuals.


I shall leave you with one of my favourite videogame tracks, Silent Hill 2’s True, whose tone and feel is perfectly in keeping with the scene it carries, a scene full of melancholic exposition. It’s Akira Yamaoka’s beautiful demonstration of achievable videogame composition standards. Experience it here.

And that’s it, you’re finished – you’ve successfully completed this blog post. Well done!







7 responses to “The Soundtrack To My Extra Life”

  1. xJDLx Vendetta avatar
    xJDLx Vendetta

    Excellent Blog!

    Audio makes such a difference, without it on the SH series you wouldnt be half scared! Im happy to admit i played the series on low volume with the flood lights on!

  2. John.B avatar

    If you’re a fan of video game audio I would strongly suggest you check out Halo 3. Not a game for everyone but the soundtrack is probably the best I’ve heard in gaming.

  3. Markatansky avatar

    Left 4 dead has an impressive set of cues aswell. I’m a wee bit annoyed that after all this time, people STILL can’t tell the difference between the Horde cue and the Tank cue though. >:C

  4. James avatar

    Silent Hill 2 was the first game I played in Surround Sound. As if I wasn’t freaked out enough already. Hands down one of the best soundscapes in gaming history. Nine years may have passed but nothing has come as close to capturing the sound of a nightmare as Silent Hill 2. Truly inspired. Even the confirmation noise used in the menu screens is intimidating. The loss of Akira Yamaoka last year was the final nail in the already well sealed coffin of the franchise. There ain’t no Silent Hill without him.

    @ John.B – Absolutely. I’m not the biggest Halo fan, but that orchestral score is proper; epic and haunting. I always come away with the central theme lodged in my brainium. Sterling work.

  5. Celeste avatar

    I was going to touch on the menu screen confirmation noise as an example of just how proficient Akira is with creating normal yet unusual, intimidating sounds. It’s luscious.

    Jesper Kyd is another videogame composition genius. Hitman 2’s score is one of the few on a par with Silent Hill 2’s in terms of the way it creates apt soundscapes which help to situate the player in the intended scenario.

  6. xJDLx Vendetta avatar
    xJDLx Vendetta

    Thumbs up here!

    Siren i thought was preety sweet also, and Halo 3’s “Never Forget” gets played daily John B 🙂

  7. Dangerous Dave avatar
    Dangerous Dave

    You forgot Outrun – soundtrack to a thousand music lessons on the Casio keyboard in secondary school- brap!

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