Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 8
Opting out of the snark

Music to my ears - the interactive soundtrack

Yamaoka43 Akira Yamaoka--composer and sound effects creator for the Silent Hill series--recently spoke to Game Developer Magazine about his signature work on the series and his plans for the upcoming Silent Hill 5. Yamaoka makes some interesting observations in the interview, including his opinion that American game designers have surpassed their Japanese counterparts:

I'm really impressed with the American staff and their technology. Their graphical and technical ability is amazing. There's a huge gap, actually. They're very advanced. I'm Japanese, and I think this is not just with Silent Hill but with the whole of the industry -- I look at what American developers are doing and I think wow... Japan is in trouble.[1]

Outlets like Joystiq and Wired picked up on that comment and posted stories on it, resulting in some lively discussion.

But I was more intrigued by another observation made by Yamaoka. He spoke about the possibility of interactive music in narrative games like Silent Hill - music that would respond to the choices and actions of the player:

Interviewer: In the Silent Hill series, for instance, most of the interactivity of the music and background is either just sound effects or two tracks of music--one that's just normal state, and the other that is when you're in the Silent Hill state ... Do you think that you could go even deeper than that, and make something more like your actions really affect how the environment works and reacts to you?

Yamaoka: Oh yeah, we could go way deeper. There's nothing to say that we need to just have static state changes all the time. There's no limit. You really should be able to make the sound respond to the players' actions or movements. It's not just like "battle music start," or "ambient music start" and then crossfades like you were talking about... I think it's really important to go beyond that. I keep thinking I'd like to have the games and the graphics really and truly agree with each other. But it's still a game. I don't really want to make it virtual, I don't want to emulate reality.

Sign me up! I want to play that game. The approach to music and sound design Yamaoka is describing could profoundly affect a player's experience in the game world. Obviously, creating an environment that's responsive to a player's actions and movements is an exciting proposition. But I'm equally intrigued by Yamaoka's remark "I don't really want to make it virtual, I don't want to emulate reality."

This remark suggest that Yamaoka is thinking about a soundscape that not only feels alive, but also has personality and expressiveness. Liberating the sound designer from the drudgery of sonically mimicking every creaking door and moaning tree branch could mean rethinking the whole purpose of music and sound in games.

What if your actions and movement in a dark mansion--coupled with character choices you make along the way--resulted in one soundscape, and my very different actions and choices resulted in a completely different sound experience? And what if this sonic palette was flexible and responsive enough to  speak to me, as it were, in ways similar to the method GLaDOS communicates with the player in Portal?

Games like Silent Hill and the Final Fantasy series have amply illustrated the atmospheric and emotional power of music to enhance gameplay, but they have done so within a pre-existing cinematic framework, mimicking Hollywood's approach to music and sound design.

Yamaoka is pointing towards another way for video games, and I am keenly interested to see where that way leads.