The cinematization of computer game audio

“Cinema has stimulated our imagination for more than a century. Numerous successive media strive towards achieving a resembling experience in their audiences: a cinematic impact. Nowadays, cinema is everywhere, especially outside the confines of the movie theatre: it exists in all manner of altered forms and has become moreover an essential aspect of contemporary art.” (MPs footnote, see Steve McQueen’s evolution from art-film maker to major film director:

“In order to emerge, the cinema illusion asks for imagination. Film functions as a trigger for the mental processes that generate the true inner illusion.”

“Some film genres even subordinate the credibility and continuity of the story in favour of effects. What if the ‘core business’ of this ‘cinema of attractions’ is rather the composition of effects where the story only functions as an intermezzo in between the different action sequences?… Do these composed elements of sound and image in the current digital context have their own ‘natural’ laws that can give rise to similar immersive qualities like an overwhelming blockbuster movie?”

“Digital media do not represent, they generate. They are software rather than hardware and unlike any other medium we have known, ephemeral.”

Boris Debackere “The cinematic experience”, Sonic Acts, Sonic Acts Press, 2008 pg. 11-13.


Computer games are well established as a mass-media format with global impact. Their global relevance is intrinsically linked to their status as marketable items that relate to already existing cultural forms and ideologies.

It has been argued that the rise of popular music led to an outward-facing revolution in the way society was structured. The icons of popular music espouse(d) notions of self expression, freedom and individuality which resonated with children of the post-war baby boom.  This music also opened up enormous broadcast and sales opportunities via sophisticated marketing strategies that appealed to a newly discovered, reasonably wealthy and discerning (if fickle) market.

The model of popular music structures of the 60s and 70s led to a consolidation of the power of the music’s publishers. Their revenue streams were bound up with the licensing of their artist’s work to other media, the sales of units (LPs, Tapes and then CDs) and to some extent on the international tours of the performers.

With the recent channelling of income streams away from the actual objects that contain and distribute the music, record companies have concentrated on other models for income generation.  This has led them to rely increasingly on film and computer games rights to position their artists within bigger productions with an international reach.

As Holy Tessler describes in her chapter “The new MTV?  Electronic arts and ‘playing’ music” in (Collins ed., 2008)From Pac-Man to Pop Music: Interactive Audio in Games and New Media, Ashgate popular and folk music series (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), there are now questions over whether or not it is the record companies who need the computer games companies or if it is the other way around.  In this chapter, Tessler describes Electronic Arts and how one of their representatives describes “helping to break (then) indie acts like Franz Ferdinand, Arctic monkeys and The Streets”, suggesting that computer games publishers are responsible for the future success of the bands they choose to include in their releases.

Average game-play statistics demonstrate that a typical video game will be shared by 2.5 people, who play for 50 hours each, and each song on the title’s soundtrack will pop up around twice an hour.  Based on these numbers Electronic Arts estimates that each song on the SSX3 soundtrack will have been heard about 500 million times worldwide at the end of the game’s lifecycle, which is far more airplay ‘than a number one record around the world’ will receive. (ibid.)

Such statistics add add a useful dimension to our reading of the computer game as cinematic.  As computer games become influential and perhaps overtake music distribution networks (like radio) as instrumental in “taste-forming”, we also notice computer-games copying the film-music model. A model where early on in film’s history music and particular performers were linked directly to an income stream and influenced the distribution and impact of music consumption around the globe.

However, the cinematization of game-sound suggests something slightly different to the way we as sound designers consider the soundtrack.  With the term cinema comes our memory of the cinema space itself and the concept of something “cinematic” is worth discussion;

Get class to suggest what they think of as cinematic and add to the notes (cinema in general | cinematic sound)

Cinema in general

  • It’s big
  • Immersive
  • Loud
  • Communal
  • Individual
  • Narrative building
  • Expensive
  • Emotional
  • Experience
  • Defined by genre
  • Types and Archetypes
  • Site specific – there is a room
  • The delivery format is specific, defined, generic
  • Cinema is fixed
  • Governed by technology
  • Commercial (for some)
  • It’s a dark room
  • It has a particular smell
  • It is generally planar (it exists on a plane)

Cinematic Sound

  • Multichannel
  • Dolby THX ATMOS
  • Artificial
  • Limited/Fixed – dialogue largely in the same place
  • Certain standards / restrictions to format
  • Multilayered
  • Dramatic
  • Exciting
  • Emotional
  • Evocative
  • Loud
  • Manipulative
  • Skewed
  • Dynamic

Investigating the nitty gritty however, we notice that there are many issues that a computer-games sound track faces when trying to emulate the qualities of a film.  In particular, as Rob Bridgett points out;

Primarily, from an aesthetic standpoint, a competent use of subtlety and silence is distinctly missing from video game audio.  Lack of dynamic range, over-compression of sound and music assets, not to mention narrative notions of tension and release are among elements that video game sound can more deeply exploit in order to achieve a more cinematic feel.

Rob Bridgett From the shadows of film sound, p. 153.

Bridgett goes on to state the games producers want “every sound to be audible”.  In films where there is time and space to carefully mix between the elements of dialogue, music, sound effects etc., computer games are faced with a much more complicated issue of dynamic mixing, automated compression and pushing every sound to the front leads to a much hotter soundtrack.

The cinematization of video games soundtracks can also be heard in the adoption of a 5.1 soundscape, famous composers are commissioned to write the non-diegetic music for these games and big-name movie actors are used as voice talent.

Bridgett picks on survival horror games as being the most skillful and cinematic of computer-games genres. I don’t recommend you actually watch the linked video below (it is absolutely horrible) but if you do, you’ll certainly notice a very close mapping with the movie that this game is based on.  There is also a fine-line between the real-timeness of “movie perception” and the game-timeness for the player.  The cuts between are subtle and must surely add to the tension felt by the players.

Bridgett explains that the type of game that is being made will obviously have some effect on the way the game is designed sonically and he also lets slip that it is relatively easy to know the boundaries of the game’s sound production values because games are designed for specific markets in the same way that films conform to their own genres in a particularly straightforward way.

In the “old” days of PS2 and Xbox, there was not enough memory for the games to have hundreds of sounds playing simultaneously but this now not the case so there is a need to develop more sophisticated methods of interactive mixing. Rather than pushing sound levels up, computer games engines need subtle ways of reducing sound levels in a similar way to the way a film mix is usually made clearer by reducing the level of various layers.  Given the way games are produced and mixed, there is no standard reference level that is used.  THX Games Mode?

There is scope for a much wider dynamic range and we should design to make the best use of this.  Certainly, tools like FMOD offer far greater opportunities for global and locally context sensitive mixing.

Scarface – the movie, final scene

Scarface – the computer game, final scene



-In film, music is very often a copy of something we know from the classical music world – the biggest sound-making instrument we have is the orchestra and film deliberately borrowed it’s devices and mechanisms from the largest and most spectacular events of the time. Opera, operetta, theatre, and symphony orchestra music.

There are economic reasons for this. Film had cinemas built to house it, just like operas had buildings made to house them, this is a significant investment that spans the lifetimes of those involved. Technologically, these art works involve expensive and innovative equipment which is involved in the production and representation of the material, therefore, the production values of the product itself need to reflect these other costs.

Music is a good example of being a multi-use device in film.  The orchestra is one element, often non-diegetic, however, music from popular contemporary culture is also used to project a set of values the audience will empathise with. Or, music is used as a symbol that is linked to the period / location of the work, it’s used rather like costume or a prop.

-In computer games, particularly those that have cinematic values, we could be in a situation where we have music that is actually a copy of a copy — is this problematic?

Pay offs and complications

-The structure of a game will either aid or hinder a cinematic treatment.

-Linear games (Bridgett) work much better for cineamatism than open worlds…? Discuss.

The game’s “levels” change as you move through the world therefore there is a narrative arc to the project

-However, linear stories, whilst easier to embed within a filmic arc, there are some issues as you still have to work to push yourself through, you’re stopping and starting at your own rate, unlike a film that ploughs on regardless of how you’re reacting to it.

Presence of technology

-Early games, the technology was present, just like early cinema, the technology and artifice is present and up front and accepted as part of the experience.

-As technology evolves and the works develop around the technology, there is a tendency for the tech to evaporate and for other values to emerge. At some point the concept of fidelity emerges but fidelity to what?

-In computer games, is this fidelity to the game’s story, the experience of gaming (its ludic nature), it’s real-world fidelity, or perhaps more closely it’s fidelity to the other cultural artefacts it aspires to? 

Beyond cinema

Clearly, computer games, their related technologies and the incumbent aesthetics are under incredible pressure to ‘perform’ as a known entity, whilst also confounding expectations and being innovative. For some, the cinematization observed in today’s session is a step backwards, away from the ‘future’ artworks that these systems are capable of.
For example:

Flower gameplay 13-Feb 2009:


Flow gameplay Feb 2011


Botanicula gameplay May 2012


Limbo Gameplay Jul 2010


Dear Esther Feb 14 2010

The Unfinished Swan:


One Upon Light:





Dear Esther:

The Path:

Gone Home:


Sward & Sworcery:

Kentucky Route Zero:

The Witness:






Memory of a Broken Dimention:

Cart Life:



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