Video Game Sound Effects: A Quick Guide
When we think of video games, often the first things that come to mind are the visuals, the storylines, and the memories we create when playing with our friends.
However, sound is just as important an aspect of our connection to the gaming experience. Iconic video games such as Zelda and Super Mario contain sounds and music that can transport us back to a point in time and are often intertwined with our childhood memories.
A good video game employs a delicately refined mix of sound effects (SFX), dialogue and soundtrack, in order to convey the emotions needed.
In this guide, we dive into everything you need to know about video game sound effects and how to employ them - from using a royalty-free subscription service like SFX Cellar, through to making them yourself with a touch of software assistance.
Game audio can generally be split into two separate categories, diegetic and non-diegetic sound. There is a fair bit of overlap between the two terms, but non-diegetic sound usually refers to a game’s soundtrack, background ambience and narrative commentary.
Diegetic sound usually refers to a game's sound effects, background ambience and the dialogue which takes place between characters.
Any sound that originates from a source within the video game’s world is referred to as diegetic. It is a sound which you would be able to hear if you were inside the game’s world.
Examples of diegetic sounds are:
- in Super Mario, Mario jumps and an iconic sound effect accompanies the jump
- pressing the acceleration button in a racing game leads to the sound effect of a car revving up
- a non-player character (NPC) says something to the player and the player hears the recording of a voice actor.
It is important to note that diegetic sounds can also occur off-screen where the source of the sound is not visible. Here, the sound is implied.
For example, the sound of distant gunfire and explosions may be audible in the background of an FPS game, despite the fact that the guns and explosions are out of sight of the player.
Non-diegetic sound is a sound whose source is neither visible on-screen nor has been implied to be present within the game’s world. Non-diegetic sound is external to the in-game world and is only heard by the player.
Non-diegetic sounds include the commentary of a narrator, an original soundtrack (OST) or SFX added for dramatic effect.
Examples of non-diegetic sounds:
- in Grand Theft Auto, the player is thrown from a car and dies, initiating the ‘wasted’ sound effect
- in Space Invaders, the background music increases in tempo as enemies approach the player.
in the final mission of Halo 3, a section of the OST is playing in the background in order to increase the tension as the Master Chief escapes the Ring
Game sound is important as it gives the game context, individuality and depth. Iconic video games are synonymous with their soundtracks and SFX, and it is beyond doubt that a strong palette of sound is integral to the player’s overall experience of a game.
Sound effects provide important gameplay cues for players where they clarify or reinforce player actions, giving feedback on the player’s decisions.
Are your character's shields running low? Is your gun out of ammo? Are there enemies nearby? – Sound effects can provide all the cues needed to give a player feedback on their in-game situation, without having to engage visually with a graphical user interface (GUI) or heads up display (HUD).
Video game sound also drives the emotion of a game. Much like in cinema, an original soundtrack is used to complement and augment the mood of the in-game world. Employed as a narrative or worldbuilding tool, an OST enhances the game's mood and underpins its genre, ultimately contributing to the game’s memorability.
In most games, a soundtrack will occupy the background of the sonic environment.
Fast-paced, beat-driven music can provide additional energy and excitement in racing games.
Orchestral, composition heavy pieces reinforce the genre in epics such as Halo and atmospheric, atonal pieces are fundamental to the dark mood of horror games such as Silent Hill.
Essentially, a good soundtrack enhances the emotion of a video game, making it a more absorbing experience. For example, tense music might bump up your adrenaline, making you more inclined to remain locked into the game. This effect on the player ultimately increases the game’s playability and popularity.
Cult classics such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the Halo series, the Final Fantasy series, Zelda and even Minecraft have become synonymous with their soundtracks.
For many games, the OST is purchasable through digital or vinyl formats. For some, the music has become so popular that dedicated symphony orchestras perform the soundtrack to paying crowds.
Overall, a good OST can make a game. In much the same way, a bad soundtrack can break one.
Take Nintendo’s 2014 title Yoshi’s New Island, for example. The soundtrack has been named by Reddit users as the “worst video game [soundtrack] of the past decade” and Eurogamer lambasted the soundtrack as “bewilderingly poor with a series of feeble variations on a lacklustre main theme and several duff jingles”.
Unsurprisingly, the game received extremely poor overall ratings from critics across the board.
The best video game sound effects are memorable.
Think of the goggle sound effect from Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. It is an instantly recognisable sound, and even if you’ve never played the game you’ve likely heard it elsewhere. Other examples of iconic sound effects include the vault door opening sound from the Fallout series, the seismic charge sound effect from Star Wars Battlefront 2 and the Big Daddy voice from the Bioshock series.
Good video game SFX are used with a strong purpose in mind. For instance, Bioshock’s Big Daddies – genetically modified mindless humans – communicate with low pitched, whale-like moans. These vocalisations reinforce Bioshock’s gameworld context, the sombre cries evoking a sense of isolation, confinement and depression. They also are linked to a colour change in the Big Daddy’s diving helmet, giving the player an audible cue as to whether it is a likely threat.
In this particular case, the vocal performances of a voice actor were recorded and modified in post-production, time-stretching the audio and pitch-shifting them. We’ve outlined a similar process in our blog, where pitch-shifting is used to create a Space Marine voice from a normal recording.
Star Wars Battlefront 2’s seismic charge is an example of a sound design heavy SFX which works well. Listening to the character of the sound, it is highly likely that it is made up of multiple pieces of audio which have been processed and fused into one.
Individual samples, synthesised sounds and foley recordings can be spliced together in a DAW and treated with audio effect plugins to create a singular, unique sound. This video by Marshall McGee exhibits this creative process in his recreation of Battlefront’s “seismic charge” sound effect.
Perhaps the most creative way to obtain sound effects for video games is to create them yourself. In this video, Joonas Turner shows the process of creating sounds for the video game Atomicrops through the technique of foley recording.
Foley recording is the creation and compilation of a library of appropriate sound effects through the manipulation, performance and recording of materials and objects. Objects and materials are used to create each specific sound effect, for example:
“Celery for bone breaks, heavy-duty staple guns for gun noises and thin stick and dowel rods for whooshing effects”.
Foley is divided into three main categories.
- Footsteps: walking surfaces are performed upon in order to replicate the sound of a character walking.
- Movement tracks: the clothing movement of a character is recreated by using similar materials with a performer replicating the rhythm and movement of the character’s body.
- Spot Effects: incidental sounds such as the striking of a match, door creaks and gunshots are recorded.
Joonas’s video exhibits the use of soundstages. A soundstage is an area that has been rigged with microphones where a foley artist can manipulate objects or materials. This video explaining the audio production for the game Batman: Arkham City is another great example of this.
A convenient alternative to a traditional microphone is a handheld audio recorder, such as the Zoom H4n. Handheld audio recorders allow you to record on the move and are great for recording background ambiences such as forests and cities, or incidental sounds such as footsteps.
If you do not have high-quality microphones or are new to recording, your foley sounds may require some refinement. For this, Accusonus’s ERA Bundle is perfect. Our collection of audio repair plugins features a wide variety of tools that can help clean up your audio.
If your recordings contain a large amount of background noise, ERA’s Noise Remover can clear it from the recording, increasing your sound effect’s clarity. You might also have found that your recordings have distorted because the input level was too loud. This can be taken care of too, with De-Clipper.
Check out these and other plugins in the bundle by starting your free trial today.
In the creation of video game sound effects, high-quality microphones and software are usually a staple.
Purchasing high-detail microphones, preamps and audio effects plugins can be very expensive. Game studios often have large budgets and entire departments dedicated to the creation of audio, and most freelance audio designers will have an extensive collection of equipment that has been built up over many years.
Thus, you may be unable to access the equipment and software needed to create sound effects to a similar standard. Here, seeking out free sound libraries may be an option.
Accusonus’ own sound effects library has a range of royalty-free sounds which you can use in your projects for free. SFX Cellar gives you access to thousands of high-quality recordings, with the sounds on offer including ambiences, foley, impacts, sound design, animals and more.
Additionally, we’ve collected a curated selection of more than 300 royalty-free SFX sounds and 120+ minutes of high-quality recordings, and organised them into sample packs, which you can find here.
As outlined previously, creating your own sound effects is a fun and inspiring process.
When creating unique sounds that can't be recorded directly from the real world, it is recommended to follow a process such as the one shown by Riot Games here, who brought us the popular League of Legends title.
By layering and combining individual sounds before modulating them through processes such as saturation, equalisation (EQ), and pitch and volume automation, you can create your own sound effects while maintaining a large degree of creative control and individuality.
For this, you should use a DAW such as Ableton or Logic Pro, although any will do. Further refinement of your sound effects through the use of tools such as those included in the ERA bundle can give your sounds the final polish they need to stand up against professional sound designers.
And don’t forget, if you find yourself unable to create that sound you’re looking for, help is always at hand with SFX Cellar. With a simple and inexpensive license subscription, you get access to thousands of hand-picked sound effects for use in any production on any platform worldwide.