Video games these days are more or less interactive movies—the breadth of the story is cinematic, as is the quality of the acting and the intricacies of the sound design. Programmers of yore would laugh at a phrase such as “intricacies” in terms of video game sound design, as what they had to work with in the early days of games was much, much, much more limited (they also had to provide all the sounds themselves).
A new video from Wired shines a light on the early evolution of sound design in video games. Touching on a variety of games, from Pac Man and Castlevania to Sonic The Hedgehog and Metal Gear Solid, developers from the likes of Blizzard and Nintendo provide some fascinating insight into both the crafting of these sounds, as well as the psychology behind their creation.
Basically, these programmers had a limited palette of bloops and a burst of white noise to work with in the early days, so they had to rely on things like pitch, rhythm, speed, and frequency to mold a bloop into something resembling emotion.
The sound of failure in Duck Hunt, for example, was specifically designed to mimic laughter, thus giving a voice to the dog that mocks you and your pathetic NES Zapper. As technology developed, that palette widened, but creativity was still a necessity. In Sonic The Hedgehog, the sounds of success was patterned after that of a slot machine spewing coins. By the time games like Myst and Doom rolled around, sound had evolved to a point where it could be woven into the gameplay instead of used strictly for emotion.
After watching, you’re likely to be a bit more forgiving of Resident Evil (which they discuss) and what many consider to be the worst voice acting in a game ever. It had its own charm, though.