If you play video games seriously, you may have read Timothy J. Seppala’s articles in outlets such as Engadget, Sound and Vision, and Ars Technica. After years of writing on subjects ranging from drag queens to online dating, Seppala began to focus on the sound-and art-design elements behind technology, specifically video games. In a recent story for PC World, Seppala explored the importance of audio for video games.
We spoke with him at E3 in Los Angeles recently to hear more of his thoughts on the subject.
Q: Why should gamers pay attention to sound?
Timothy J. Seppala (TJS): It’s literally half of the experience! More than half if you want to factor in the fact that your display sits directly in front of you with maybe a 40 degree effective radius. Surround sound is 360 degrees. I’d rather go for a smaller display than ever be without surround sound again.
With how advanced games have become this past console generation, it’s imperative to have either surround sound or a good set of headphones to get the full experience. Paying attention to sound actually helps you be more proficient at basically any game, too—especially shooters.
Q: What is the biggest misperception about sound in gaming?
TJS: That it isn’t that big of a deal. That TV speakers are good enough. It’s something that bugs me, because playing a game without a decent sound setup is like reading a book and skipping every other page.
Q: What is different about the role of sound in gaming versus other forms of entertainment, such as films and TV shows?
TJS: Tactical awareness. Because gaming is an active experience, every sound you hear means something and it counts for something.
For me, games make much better demo material than Blu-rays do, too. Don’t get me wrong, I still use the T. Rex pen scene from Jurassic Park and the Joker chase-and-capture sequence from The Dark Knight to show my gear off to friends.
But when I really want to impress them, I throw in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and turn the audio setting to “war tapes.”
Q: What are your favorite sound moments from games?
TJS: Dead Space and Dead Space 2 both have amazing audio, but even stomping a crate and shaking the house with my sub-woofer doesn’t compare to Isaac’s return to the Ishimura.
Because it was so sterile and quiet—especially in comparison to the horrors I endured my last time aboard the ship—it’s what I didn’t hear that made it so scary.
There were some jump scares—steam blowing off, etc.—but until that first enemy encounter almost 15 minutes after setting foot on board, my heart was in my throat in anticipation of the horrible inevitability.
Visceral Games’s pacing and audio design in that sequence alone, not to mention the rest of the game, was a total masterwork.
What is the most memorable thing you’ve heard in a video game recently?