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The Sounds of Digital Silence


My favorite spot in San Andreas overlooks the ocean. I found it after robbing some store in Los Santos and zooming to the outlying country to evade the police. Like most of my random crimes in any given Grand Theft Auto game, this one got out of hand when a particularly bold cop stepped in front of my fleeing car. Tires screeched, sirens wailed, guns fired, until somewhere far outside the city limits, I lost both my pursuers and my car’s radio signal. The sirens’ screams faded as I stopped the car and walked my character around the hills, and I was struck by the bizarre serenity of the scene. Somewhere in this digital world, a clamorous cadre of officers and shouting motorists blamed me for ruining their afternoons, and there I was, standing at the edge of world, listening to the sound of nothing at all.

Silence is a bonafide rarity in the medium.

Videogames are a noisy medium-so much so that sounds often share a metonymic relationship with the games they represent. Every title from Tetris to Call of Duty contains sonic fingerprints in both music and sound effects. We have come to associate Mario with not only his iconic jump but also the “bloop” that accompanies it (to say nothing of the game’s famous theme song). We instantly recognize the distinctive “zap” of Master Chief’s plasma rifle, the whistle Sonic makes as he peels out, and the fanfare that erupts when Link opens a chest in a dungeon. Just stepping into any arcade (which, granted, may be a rarer event now than twenty years ago) involves bracing yourself against a wall of disjointed sounds.

For these reasons, silence is a bonafide rarity in the medium. Occasions when music fades and sound effects dwindle are often overlooked, and most are only considered in terms of how silence builds atmospheric tension. Quiet moments in videogames, however, perform a much more significant role in the player’s experience. Sound provides a familiar anchor for players, something we expect to encounter when we boot up a game, and when the tether is severed, we’re left to consider how we interact with digital environments with little to distract us. In other words, when sound diminishes, gameplay crescendos.

When sound diminishes, gameplay crescendos.

In Grand Theft Auto V, I uncovered the most meaningful gameplay far from the busy city. While no one would consider the game to be a “quiet” one by any means, the outlying desert seems all the more alien because of its relative serenity when compared to the bustling, vulgar metropolis. In parts of the desert where the radio snags only static and the only people there are those who do not want to be found, gameplay speaks more loudly than any other facet of the medium.

The open landscape affords ample opportunity to try crazy car stunts or learn the nuances of any acquired weapons and explosives, all without fear of interruption by alerting the police. Without the suffocating noise of the city, those sounds the player brings to the desert echo more loudly and with greater impact. The player breaks the silence that pervades the area and, by doing so, becomes more acutely aware of their presence in the world as an invasive force. The player profanes the country by carrying the noise of the city into the calm wilds.

The stillness of Grand Theft Auto V‘s desert has its roots in Rockstar’s previous open-world epic Red Dead Redemption, a game that is in many ways a digital elegy for the American West. One of the central themes explored in John Marston’s story is the tension between the optimism of building a modern America and the inevitable loss of the romance of frontier. Though not quite as noisy as contemporary Los Santos, the small towns that dot New Austin offer glimpses of modernity: busy streets, commercial trading, and defined (sometimes even paved) roads.

The player becomes more acutely aware of their presence in the world as an invasive force.

These bursts of civilization in a newly-tamed West contain their own audible identities that crash against the quiet of the desert and prairie. If Grand Theft Auto V makes a point about how noise represents urban space, Red Dead Redemption offers a prophetic vision about the erasure of silence at the closing of the West. Each shootout that punctuates the frontier clashes with the organic quiet of the open land, and just like in Grand Theft Auto V, it gives each bullet fired substantial weight as it tears through the quiet frontier.

These two examples indicate a larger trend in open-world games to fracture the silence of uninhabited spaces with eruptions of noise. Traveling the wastes in Fallout 3, for instance, can be an almost serene experience until some irradiated monstrosity or group of bandits enter the scene. Using the game’s V.A.T.S. mechanic halts fluid play altogether and allows the player to target the enemy without interruption. The slow motion V.A.T.S. camera increases the volume of each gunshot exponentially, providing a stark contrast to the eerie calm of the wasteland.

Even a game like Shadow of the Colossus minimizes auditory effects to heighten the sounds of gameplay (the stamp of a horse’s hooves, the clash of a sword against stone, the swish of a bow loosing an arrow), reminding the player that he/she is an invader to an otherwise peaceful world. This notion becomes even clearer when a quiet, contemplative journey across the environment culminates in a bombastic battle with one of the colossi.

Noise defines the environments.

While open-world games tend to use sparse environmental soundscapes to heighten the impact of gameplay, other games, specifically those in the stealth genre, task the player to embody digital silence directly. In these games noise defines the environments, giving the player information about guard locations or alerting the player when he/she has created too much noise. In such a game, silence is an active mechanic that the player employs to navigate through a cacophonous world.

Few games actively engage with the mechanics of silence quite like the Thief franchise. Billing itself as a “first-person sneaker,” Thief: The Dark Project was the first game of its type to use a complex sound design that propagated virtual sound waves across digital space, and this realistic approach to sound design yields a complex stealth mechanic that prioritizes silence just as much as shadow. The game teaches the player to remain in hushed corners of the environment, only making noise if absolutely necessary to move or to provide distractions. Remaining quiet allows the player to eavesdrop on NPC conversations that give contextual clues for the whereabouts of important mission items, guard patrols, or unwatched passages. Since footfalls can alert enemies of the player’s presence, carpeted or mossy floors become the safest way to traverse the environment.

Every action that breaks the game’s stillness – even something as quiet as drawing an arrow – is rendered with audible consequences, threatening the player with discovery. All of these elements crystalize in a cohesive system of stealth gameplay that emphasizes a tangible presence of silence.

Such techniques have now become hallmarks of the stealth genre, from the Metal Gear Solid franchise to last year’s Dishonored, each approaching the mechanics of sound in as meaningful a way.

The most recent example of a complex system of sound feedback comes from Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Like most other stealth games, The Last of Us prioritizes quiet movement, and its stripped-down sound design keeps music and background noise at a minimum. The protagonist’s ability to focus his hearing allows Joel to “see” the location of patrolling enemies or shambling infected (the latest stages of which can only detect Joel’s location through sound,) turning audio cues into visual ones. The game shines, too, when stealth sequences explode in a flurry of noise and frenetic action if the player is discovered. The Last of Us also contains moments of genuine stillness that punctuate these sections of silent intensity, giving the player time to probe the highly-detailed places where society has crumbled. The Last of Us, then, juxtaposes two different approaches to silence in digital games: one that uses silence as a mechanic integral to progress and one that uses silence to open up the world to exploration.

Videogames speak through the language of play, and when sound recedes into the background, gameplay starts to find a clearer voice.

These few examples hardly offer an encyclopedic understanding of the complex and varied ways games make an understated concept like silence an integral part of experiencing the medium. Videogames speak through the language of play, and when sound recedes into the background, gameplay starts to find a clearer voice. We recognize the impact of our actions when they resonate through a quiet environment. We feel the weight of our presence when we shuffle unnoticed through raucous streets and corridors. We hear more clearly the whir of the console systems, the click of a mouse, the movement of an analog stick-even if we’ve trained ourselves not to-when the soundscape of a game becomes muted.

When we overlook how games force us to confront silence, we miss those opportunities to relish gameplay without sonic distractions, to become more absorbed in the digital worlds we briefly inhabit. Playing the quiet moments makes gameplay more meaningful because we become more aware of our roles as chaotic disturbers of the peace, as wanderers in the digital wastes, or as survivors quietly scrambling in the dark. In such times, I like to incline my ear to the noiselessness of the game-and it’s deafening.

David Chandler working on his PhD in English Literature, and when he’s not working on his dissertation, he writes for the gaming website AWESOMEOUTof10.com. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter for scholarly discussion and really bad puns.

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