This is a rant about something that has been getting on my nerves a lot recently; the fact that that developers (and not just indies, but big ‘triple-A’ studios too) seem to be happy to release a game without seemingly any effort going into the game’s sound design and/or without proper audio settings. Good sound design can tell you a lot about the game world and improve immersion for the player, but not everyone gets this right.
The thing that really bothers me is that it is not only easy to avoid the problem in the first place, but that its simple to provide an adequate solution and yet many studios fail to do so.
The major symptom of the problem is simple and it is not being able to hear the dialogue in the game properly. It could just be that I’m being fussy, partly due to my musical background and the fact that I (like my father) have worked sound desks in the past, but I just find it baffling that any professional studio can produce a game that gets something so fundamental so very very wrong…
So, what’s the Problem?
Most recently, I encountered the problem when I downloaded the demo of Traveller’s Tales new Lego Marvel Superheroes game. During the demo, Iron Man and Hulk are attacking Grand Central Station, which has been besieged by a pair of nefarious super-villains. Not only are Iron Man and Hulk trying to talk to each other, but another voice, presumably Agent Coulson, is trying to give you instructions on how to actually play the game. All of this is for naught, however, because the music and sound effects are too loud and drown out most of the dialogue to the point where it either didn’t register at all, or sounded like background chatter from the nearby civilians and police officers.
Another example was the demo of The Darkness, which starts with you in the back of a car with two generic Mafia types, but you cannot hear what they are saying over the music and the sound of the noisy engine. This meant that I had no idea what was happening and no context or instruction for what I was supposed to be doing.
Ashamed as I am to admit it, even Valve, one of my favourite developers and the ones I usually hold up as an example of how to do it properly, are guilty of this, even in their most recent titles like Portal 2. There are times when the vocals were being drowned out by music or ambient noise.
Now, I’m sure this isn’t an issue for the Medal of Duty/Call of Honour games, where your soul motivation is to move through a linear succession of brown and grey chest high walls and shoot at anyone who ISN’T WHITE, but there are many games that are actually well-written and where motivation, characters and storylines actually matter. In these games it is important that you are able to hear what the characters are saying and it seems crazy to me how many games are released with such bad sound design.
Balancing the Sound
Now, in my opinion it is the job of the director, sound designer or whoever is in charge of sound in the game to get this right in the first place. They should balance the sound so that you can hear the vocals over the music and sound effects.
You might argue this is a more complex problem than it first appears. You might argue that having loud sound effects that sometimes drown out the voices of those around you is realistic and part of the game, but I don’t really buy that excuse. There may be times when this is true, and there are other ways to convey your objectives and motivation, but this problem occurs even during cut-scenes and other moments of exposition when the game’s story is being explained.
I could accept that the game might sound different on different platforms with different speaker systems and that it might be difficult to balance the sound in such a way as to work for everyone. This is a sort of valid explanation, but it doesn’t excuse the second part of the problem; the thing that actually bothers me the most. In fact, its an argument that makes it even more pertinent…
Now we’re getting to the real heart of the problem. Not the fact that the sound system is badly designed and balanced, but the lack of anything that the player can do about it.
Many games have an audio options menu. A well-designed version of this menu gives you sliders that let you adjust the music, sound effects and dialogue volume separately from each other.
And that’s it. That’s is the solution. Its so simple! So why, then, does Lego Marvel Superheroes only give you a single ‘volume’ slider? Why do Valve give you two sliders, but bundle vocals in with ‘sound effects’ so you can’t adjust them separately? Many games have the option to turn subtitles on, but stopping play to read text on the screen distracts the player from the action and tends breaks immersion.
If you’re not going to balance your sound properly, or don’t think that you can suitably balance it for everyone, then the least you can do is give us the option to do it ourselves. Those who don’t care (which, admittedly, might be the majority) can leave it be, but those of us who do care can adjust the volume to suit our needs. This allows us to actually hear the dialogue, become more immersed in the game world and better understand what we are supposed to be doing.
So, developers, please either get someone to design and balance the music, sound and dialogue in your game, or at least give us the option to adjust it ourselves. That’s all I ask.