Sound Effects and Music in Interactive Fiction

A Visible Pattern of Sound Waves
This has recently received some debate in the newsgroup, but I felt that perhaps I could further the debate on my blog, and add my own thoughts.

Do sound effects and music belong in interactive fiction? First off, let’s separate the two. Despite both subjects being of the aural variety, they are very different. It can be argued that sound effects make the experience “more real.”

> close door. (Slam!)

> jump in lake (Splash!)

> kick walter (“Oww! What the–???”)

It could then be argued that music makes the experience less real (unless the protagonist in the game has just turned on a cd player or walked into a dance club). People just don’t go about their ordinary (or extraordinary) lives with a personal soundtrack playing.

Some people feel that sound is jarring, and depletes the “immersion factor” of IF. IF is another form of literature, after all. Audio books aside, literature doesn’t make noise.

Simply put, I find it entertaining. I could do with or without graphics, but for some reason, I just love sound. It takes IF up a notch. You didn’t just read about killing that ogre, you heard it’s death cry. Or there’s an avalanche, and you can hear the din of falling rocks getting louder. Entertainment and drama can greatly benefit from sound effects if used effectively (no pun intended).  That goes for music as well. Some suspenseful music can really leave you on the edge of your seat. A light, airy tune can amuse you. A dramatic theme could tug at the heartstrings just a bit more during a sad or profound moment. Sound, in general, is something that I feature (and will continue to feature) in my games.

But what do you think? Sound effects and/or music: yea or nay? Do they enhance Interactive Fiction or detract from it? Entertaining? Or just annoying? I’m interested in hearing your views.



12 Responses to Sound Effects and Music in Interactive Fiction

  1. Jason says:

    These days, sound effects (especially stock sound effects) make me think of kid’s cartoons and old time radio comedies.

    I think if you want to use sound, you need to have a “soundtrack”, not just playing sounds for special events because it stands out too much and has a “oh look it’s playing a sound effect” feel to it.

    For modern games, if you’re entering a new area, the music transitions smoothly to the more ominous soundtrack. Audio cues are usually more ambient — humming machinery, birds cawing in the distance, etc, all usually somewhat muted so it doesn’t draw too much attention from whatever the focus of the game level is.

    Of course, that’s all for background; the sound effects are more obvious for things that you are actively interacting with, but the background sound level is needed so that the sound effects don’t sound out of place.

    • amethystgames says:

      Having continuous background sound effects in IF has never been done, at least not to my knowledge. Anyone annoyed by sound in IF in general, would be annoyed even more by neverending sound. The same can be said for music, however. It is something to consider, though. Thank you for the comment.

  2. Emily Short says:

    I basically agree with some of the earlier discussion about this, that sound effects tend to be funny or scary, but can be ineffective if they’re out of sync with the game text. And it’s hard (in my opinion) to pair them well with a serious game.

    I’d add one thing about user interface, though. In most of the games I play that aren’t IF, sound effects are useful (if at all) as a way to confirm that something I was doing had the expected effect — I successfully picked up an item, shot the enemy, built the new laser tower, etc. — especially when I might need to look away from the part of the screen where that result is being shown graphically.

    In IF there’s generally less need for that kind of feedback simply because the input and output almost always happens in one place, at the command line. But if I were playing a game where I very frequently needed to do an action and the result of that action was going to be displayed obscurely or put in the status line rather than in the main story stream, I might indeed want some sound effect to say “yes, that worked”.

    • amethystgames says:

      Interesting post, Emily, thanks! I do agree that sound effects can be hard to use in a serious game. It can be done though. Many sound effects in my game are homemade, particularly voices. It’s hard to find what you need, despite the enormity of today’s internet.

  3. Sarah says:

    Music? Yay. Very much yay. One of the things that pleasantly surprises me about today’s casual games (I’m not drawing a one-to-one analogy, mind you. That can of worms can stay firmly shut for now.) is their soundtracks. I mean, they’re *good*! I’d listen to this outside of play!

    On a craft level, I think combining text and music is something that hasn’t been explored nearly as much as it could be. “Literature doesn’t make noise” – well, can’t it? Why not? I think IF is well-suited for this task.

    But I completely disagree with how you’ve situated real vs. not real. I’d argue that sound effects are less real, and background music is more real.

    I’m not too keen on “sound effects” though because it’s too easy to go to stock. There are about two different cows in games and cartoons. Ditto other animals. Ditto explosions and bells. It’s telling that cartoony examples most easily come to mind – a lot of times, that’s the mindset.

    And then you mentioned that people don’t go through life with personal soundtracks playing, but I think they do – imagined soundtracks. Maybe this is a relic of the Walkman/iPod generation, or maybe it’s a personal quirk, but I’ve always got a mental song playing.

    (One of my WNIPs is heavily based on music. Unfortunately, it’s very much NIP at the moment – I’m waiting for Damusix to come out and there’s no way I’ll finish it for this year’s comp.)

    One concern I do have about music, though, is less about the work per se than its reception. The soundtrack was the best thing about “A Martian Odyssey” last year, but more than one reviewer complained about the resulting file size.

    • amethystgames says:

      I do agree with what you said about music in IF, Sarah. You have some good points as well. I also think that IF is well-suited for sound in general. The IF community seems rather divided, however. Thanks for writing!

  4. Ron Newcomb says:

    I have fond memories of a vinyl record that had a reading of Disney’s _The Fox and the Hound_. There were sound effects and voice acting where dialogue would be, but it was obviously a book read aloud by Mr. Narrator Voice. I still remember the sound the old hound made when, “Pete was bumped off the [railroad] tracks.” Chilling and sad, for a kid’s story.

    There wasn’t much in the way of music, except perhaps at the opening and closing of the whole story. Maybe a few bits here and there for punctuation.

    Generally, I tire of constant background music. It becomes a commercial jingle to my ears after a while.

    But to use sound in I-F, I think you’d have to use it fairly often. Three solid minutes of silence followed by a door shutting is jarring. Breathing, footsteps, snatches of voice (even if it’s just Harruphs to indicate tone) would be very important.

    • amethystgames says:

      I can’t comment on the Disney record, having never heard it. Footsteps and voice snips from the protagonist is a good idea. I hadn’t considered that. Thanks for writing in.

  5. Jimmy Maher says:

    I am not by any means absolutely opposed to sound effects and/or music in IF, but (like some of the other commenters here) my concern is that it’s very tricky to do well and very easy to do badly. (I haven’t played your game yet, so I’m just commenting in the abstract right now.)

    The use of sound effects that you describe (a SLAM when you close a door, etc.) can easily make a game seem silly, cartoony. That works if your game is MEANT to be silly and cartoony, but if it’s not you have a problem. Sound effects used more carefully and atmospherically can work. I think that Infocom’s The Lurking Horror uses sound fairly effectively, for instance, although its sound effects were limited in length and fidelity by the primitive computer hardware of the day.

    Music also is a tricky one. A jaunty tune might be nice to listen to once or twice on its own, but it’s going to quickly become annoying if it’s played over and over in a game. I think that an ambient soundtrack can work very well, however. Sarah mentioned A Martian Odyssey from last year’s Comp, and that’s a great example. Too bad the music was married to a wretchedly bad game.

    I’m not opposed to multimedia in IF at all. I have a big soft spot for the old Legend games that took multimedia just about as far as one can and still have IF. (Well, actually they eventually took it beyond that by eliminating the parser entirely… but we won’t talk any more about that.) Timequest in particular still has a place on my (hypothetical) IF Top Ten List.

    The trick, again, is that it has to be done well and done tastefully. IF authors working alone must already be good programmers, good game designers, and good writers. Asking them to be artists, sound technicians, and/or composers as well raises the bar even further. Finding partners who can do these things is the only other option. It’s thus no big surprise to me that we don’t see a whole lot of multimedia IF.

    The complaints about download size always surprise me a bit. Certainly I download plenty of much larger files on a pretty regular basis — MP3 albums, commercial computer games, even PDF files for uni. I’ve never seen ANY IF that I thought was truly ridiculously large in 2009 terms. Don’t most people into IF these days have broadband?

    But it seems that you’ve done everything you possibly can to accomodate everyone by offering a version of your game sans sound effects for download, and by giving us a way to turn the sounds off if we find them annoying.

    • amethystgames says:

      Hi Jimmy!

      Perhaps I wrote my examples of sound effects in an unsimplified manner. One should try to have sound effects be as realistic as possible, unless, as you say, it’s a comedic game.

      I agree that music does have to change often, or it tends to get monotonous. I have eight songs in my game, cued to different areas. My “secret” for procuring music, is mods, also known as tracked music. There are hundreds of thousands of these songs out there, and being a fan of them, I was able to find ones that suited my game, and obtain permission to use them.

      The filesize complaints baffle me as well. But there are some folks out there still using dial-up, believe it or not. I do try to accomodate everyone. Thank you for noticing that. 🙂

      • Sarah says:

        A much higher-quality example of using background music in IF is “The Moon Watch,” which just won the XYZZY for Best Use of Medium.

  6. […] with multimedia – not graphics so much, but definitely color and sound. Recently, Kerns posted about the use of sound effects and music in IF, so it isn’t all that surprising in […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: