There is no such thing as objective hearing! Understanding this can help us make sounds that are suited for a specific audience. So, what should we keep in mind when creating sounds for games?
Factors to Consider About How We All Hear Differently:
People with hearing loss lose their ability to hear high pitches first and low pitches last
Children can hear higher pitches than adults (up to 20,000 Hz vs. up to 15,000 Hz)
Infants hear all frequencies at the same time, meaning they don't filter out any sounds
Adults have selective hearing, meaning they filter out certain sounds
Those from suffering from tinnitus hear ringing in one or both of their ears
Neurodivergent people listen/hear differently than someone who isn't on the spectrum
When we have a fight-or-flight response, we hear more of what's going on around us
We have trouble tuning out our own language, but tune out other languages easily
Our current situation influences what sounds we're focusing on, e.g. listening to music
Our knowledge, interests, and fears influence how we perceive incoming sounds
There are cultural differences between what sounds are consonant, dissonant, recognizable, significant, and much more
This list is a lot to keep in mind! You may be wondering, how can we distill all those factors into a plan to implement sounds effectively? Here are some ways that we can maximize sound design's impact in your game:
1. Represent the player-character's perspective with sound
The game design document and narrative designer give the sound designer a rich foundation for representing your main character's world. This is especially important in games with branching narratives and a heavy emphasis on being that particular character. Take Max Caulfield from Life is Strange. You hear the conversations, and events, that she can control more than the background since she (and we) need to focus on them. We can also use middleware to change how that character would hear a sound based on their location.
2. Change how the game sounds when you're low-health
When our lives are threatened, we're in fight-or-flight mode. We can simulate this spike in adrenaline by triggering a change in the sound design when the player is at low health. One way we can do this is by lowering the volume of the music and increasing the volume of the sound effects. We can also add relevant sounds of a fast heartbeat, heavy breathing, and more. Half-Life 2 adds a diegetic sound for low health that accompanies jarring visuals.
3. Manage expectations when portraying "real" spaces
If you have an area like New York City in your game and are looking for realism, choose a soundscape that evokes the feeling of that city. For example, Spiderman stays faithful to how NYC sounds by adding sounds of sirens, cabs, and constant traffic. A sound designer's job is to create ambiences, one-shots, and time-based effects that suit these areas (like the team from Spiderman did). Many people have expectations about how popular spots should sound, so we can conform to these expectations or subvert them.
4. Do research about your target demographic
What age range will your players be in? Where are they from? How is their background and culture different from, or similar to yours? Will you need localization, or will they speak one language? Knowing what sounds those people are more likely to hear and how those sounds impact them makes a difference. A person who has lived in a rural area there whole life won't react to the cacophony of a U.S. city the way someone living in D.C. would. Also, someone living in Jakarta, Indonesia won't react to hearing a U.S. city the same way as their own.
There is no such things as objective reality or objective hearing. That said, we can use our tools as game designers and sound designers to direct players towards our intended experiences
for them. We can also manage their expectations and emotions by incorporating these differences in hearing into our gameplay. Contact me for more ideas about how to guide your players towards the UX you're aiming for with sound design.