The Beat Goes On

Aural Fixation


What are your favorite sound memories of games you’ve played? The theme from Mario? The “zeeyuuum” of TIE-fighters as they zoomed by in that first 50-center – that sweet arcade machine shaped like the cockpit of an X-wing fighter? Is the “ding” you hear when your character goes up in level sweet music to your ears?

Think about how sound and music creates a more immersive experience in movie theaters. Even the absence of sound sets a certain mood, silence stretching the tension as the story unfolds. In the days before “talkies,” a piano player provided the sound effects. Fast forward a few decades, and today, some of us will go to certain theaters because we think the sound is better there.

Similarly, good sound makes a good game an even more immersive and enjoyable experience. Forget the eye candy for a minute and think of the aural cues. In a world limited to the 19-inch or smaller screen in front of you, how many times have you cranked up the sound so you could keep track of what was going on around you or figure where your enemy was from the sound cues?

Sound design in computer games has been lagging behind advances in graphics, but the Thief series began pushing the envelope with its excellent use of ambient sound effects. These were games I played, not only with my eyes but with my ears. Along with visual cues, sound cues were an integral part of the gameplay.

The sound element added a thrilling aspect I had not previously experienced in a computer game. Being a thief, silent movement was all important. I could run, but that would be noisy and might attract the attention of a guard patrol. I could walk gently; walk on grassy edges instead of the paved street. My heart was always in my throat, my ears always keenly attuned for any sound. I was hooked.

With surround sound, immersive sound really shines (or does it rock?). And when you have a sound system that cost more than a top of the line TV, it’s literally moving, which is why when I logged into Xbox Live to check out Capcom’s Lost Planet, I cranked up the sound before doing anything else.


The wind howled like a banshee in the sub-zero atmosphere. The snow sucked at my legs with each step I took. My environment suit was made to absorb and store thermal energy for my own use, but I would have to make a fire soon. I lifted my weapon and cocked it, the sound of the bolt action distinct even through the wind, and fired at some mechanical wreckage. The rat-a-tat of the automatic weapon was almost comforting: a counterpoint to the howl of the wind. The jeep’s gas tank exploded. I ran toward the source of heat, my boots thumping clumsily in the snow.

I moved toward the abandoned buildings. There could be a weapons or energy cache, or if I was lucky, an operational mech. The wind had eased. My labored breathing was loud, echoing in the confines of my face mask, my steps crunching, squelching.

In the lee of the building, the howl of the wind faded to a soft whine. I looked in: It was an old parking garage, complete with abandoned clunkers. Ach! A hive of giant alien bugs! I plucked two grenades from my belt and lobbed them in. The explosions rocked the empty building, and I charged in, my boots ringing hollowly on the concrete floor. I fired without pause, spraying bullets at the bugs still alive and pouring out from the hives. Gunfire and the bugs’ angry squeals became my very existence. But my gun wasn’t doing much to thin out their numbers.

I switched to the grenade launcher. The resounding, heart-thumping “thooomp!” was followed by a cacophonous explosion. A few shots later, the odds were back in my favor. Mopping up the last few bugs with my rifle, I swept up thermal pods and replenished my suit’s energy.

I could see another building up the hill beyond the one I was in. Stepping out into the wind, I moved toward it through the thigh-deep snow. Suddenly, sound erupted all around me – and I almost fell out of my chair – as the bug hive’s queen shot up from under the snow. Swearing, I backpedaled as fast as I could, firing rapidly, ineffectively. I switched to my grenade launcher, unloading it into the belly of the monster. The surprise and the overwhelming mélange of sound made me all thumbs. The monster bug struck again and again, connecting with solid, flesh-rending blows and shaking the ground when it missed and punched through the snow to the frozen ground. The close range explosions of the grenade launcher pounded in polyphony to the blood hammering in my head. The screen faded to red. I was dead.

My heart racing, I found myself standing and wondered when I had left my chair. Six 12-inch subwoofers move a lot of air, so I felt each explosion I had caused except the final one; it must have been then that I stood up.

I shook my head to clear my thoughts and checked to make sure nothing had shaken off the walls. I thought about turning down the volume, but decided not to. I wanted it loud.

Carolyn “Sylvene” Koh is a regular contributor at and formerly the Exclusives Director at

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