This article is part of the “Critical Exemplars” features series. For the previous series, “Better Game Culture,” click here.

Contrasting Noise and Silence in Braid

As an audio engineer, I spend a great deal of time attempting to eliminate unwanted sounds from audio recordings. My clients require audio that is as pristine as possible, free from any undesirable spurious frequencies; these include microphone clicks and pops, preamp or tape hiss – any sounds that detract from the focus of the recording. I use a variety of techniques, which generally fall into two basic categories: auditory masking, in which louder sounds are used to cover up softer ones, and active noise reduction, in which signals with inverted phase are used to remove specific frequency bands (also known as “phase cancellation”). Using digital editing software, I am able to not only remove the offending “noises,” but also save them as separate audio files. These noise tracks are the inverse of the final edited, polished track; they contain all the unwanted snippets of the original recording – all the clicks, pops and hisses — lifted from the proverbial cutting room floor. Though unrecognizable from their origins, they sound incredible on their own; it’s as though I’m eavesdropping on an extra-terrestrial radio broadcast!

I feel the need to underscore the difference between noise and silence, as the two are not mutually exclusive.  Generally speaking, noise is considered any “undesirable” sound [1]; this could take the form of a deafening jackhammer pounding the street, or faint buzz of a mosquito in an otherwise quiet room. Silence on the other hand, is a lack of any audible sound [2], with the emphasis on audible. With regards to digital audio, the terms digital silence or absolute digital silence are used signify that the audio signal contains all zeros; it maintains duration, but contains a complete lack of frequency information.

The Fascination of Noise

john-cage900x600

In The Future of Music: Credo (1937), John Cage wrote:

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” [3]

Cage heard all sounds as equal with respect to each other, and noted that we are the ones who individually define noise or place importance on certain sounds over others.

We can’t escape noise. Moreover, we can’t escape sounds. In the absence of sounds we consider important or attention-worthy, there is still the background noise: the distant roar of the wind, the deep, barely audible rumbling of the ocean or the thin, high-pitched whine of a fluorescent light; the din of traffic in the distance, the soft whirring of the refrigerator or the sound of your breath bouncing around the room.

The Discomfort of Silence

Even in an anechoic chamber, a specially designed room used for testing microphones, speakers, and other types of sensitive measurement devices, there is still noise. The chamber’s walls, floor and ceiling are covered with acoustic foam and panels, which absorb frequency vibrations — including microwave and electromagnetic signals. Standing in an anechoic chamber, the complete lack of sound reflections is actually quite disorienting. In the absence of this sensory data, we hear and thus focus on the sounds of our own bodily functions — our eyes blinking, blood pumping in our heads, our creaking skeletons shifting — all of which were previously masked by external sounds in our environment. Studies have shown people can experience hallucinations or paranoia from this sensory deprivation in as little as 15 minutes! [4]

anechoic_chamber testing

An anechoic chamber

So what does any of this have to do with gaming?

In the early days of video games, audio was an afterthought. Computer processor memory was at a premium, and the simple squarewave melodies of Atari 2600 and NES games were primarily used as an attention-grabbing tool in arcades to attract players. [5] As hardware processing speeds increased, the limits on sound playback and quality disappeared. Games were now able to employ much more sophisticated methods of audio accompaniment, including the use of rich orchestral scores, realistic sound effects and multi-channel surround sound. As home video game consoles became more prevalent, games no longer needed to compete for attention in the arcades. Instead, the goal became to make games more realistic and engaging; shifting from competing for players’ quarters, to a correlative role of enhancing the visual narrative.

Discovering the Expressive Soundcraft of Braid

In a recent course I was exposed to some game studies ideas and had the opportunity to play and study Jonathan Blow’s Braid intensively. With my background in sound production, I chose to analyze the audio components of the game and how these complimented or detracted from the player’s overall emotional experience. As I explored the levels and read interviews with Blow, there was one recurrent theme that seemed to permeate the underlying narrative – the dangers and consequences of becoming so consumed with achieving an objective, so immersed in our task that we lose sight of our physical and social connections rooted in reality.

At the beginning of each level in Braid, there are a series of books that open and display text, apparently providing a narrative of sorts, when the player character passes in front. In my first run through the game, much of this written narrative seemed ambiguous and open to interpretation. In the final level of Braid, there is a quote, which suggests Tim is representative of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project creating the atomic bomb. This revelation happens at the “end” of the game; the next level we encounter is the opening scene back at the “beginning” of Braid. We are now able to explore the various levels we previously completed, this time without the quest for a princess or puzzle pieces to define our journey. When I made my way through the game a second time, the book texts took on new meaning; elements I had missed before became layered with significance.

braid-deadsilence

Dead silence in Braid

Braid contains several references to old school video games such as Super Mario Bros and Donkey Kong, which provided a welcome introduction. However, there are some spectacular differences. When the player’s character Tim is “hit” or “attacked,” he falls downward, freezing in place at the bottom of the screen. There aren’t any lives or health meters in Braid; instead, there is a gameplay mechanic that allows the player to reverse time. By holding down the SHIFT key for as long as is required, the player can reverse the gameplay back to any desired previous location in the current level. When this first happens (when the game is frozen), it’s jarring and provocative; the complete digital silence and absence of all movement is a sharp contrast to the relaxing, mid-tempo music that led us to this point. I would imagine that this is a much more accurate portrayal of what we would hear had our character literally died – complete silence.

braid-distantrumble

Listen to the distant rumble in Braid

After playing Braid for a couple of weeks, I happened upon a particularly compelling sound element which appears only when time is rewound all the way back to the start of the current level. Tim runs and jumps in reverse until he arrives back at the level’s entry door, at which point time appears frozen as it had when Tim “dies.” Although, any game elements that glow are still permitted to move. I expected to hear complete silence as before, but instead I heard a faint rumble. I maxed out the volume while continuing to hold SHIFT and realized the rumble was oscillating – it was changing, slowly becoming louder and then softer. It sounded like the distant reverberation of a massive explosion, expanding outwards in every direction.

I was reminded of the theme from earlier, taking on the perspective of the Manhattan Project nuclear scientists. It could be said that the quest to “rescue the Princess” is symbolic of the quest to unlock the secrets of nuclear physics. With this in mind, I reassessed the bright, fiery landscape, the rumbling, the strange glowing clouds that continued to float by, immune to Tim’s manipulation of time. I glimpsed the horror and confusion that a nuclear explosion would inflict on an unsuspecting populace, and carried that perception with me as I released SHIFT. I began to look closer at many aspects of the game; seemingly benign background images and subtle cultural references took on a new, deeper meaning. It was a moving, introspective experience and a far cry from my previous exposure to video games.

When game developers use creative soundcraft to explore alternate dimensions of narrative, it has the potential to deeply alter the player’s perceptions. However, it requires the player to reconsider what is seen as important within the game and why – looking beyond those aspects of gameplay that are solely deemed necessary to reach the game’s objective. Games such as Braid stand as exemplars that go beyond the traditional uses of sound in game design, playing with our sensory expectations. In this case, Braid presents a contrast: between noise vs. music or noise vs. silence, to articulate different spaces or realities. Instead of encountering sound primarily as an instrument of feedback, Braid provides a suggestive example of how game sound can become a part of the underlying narrative that beckons the player to listen a little closer.

Next up in the series:

Notes

[1] “noise.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2014. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/noise (20 Jan. 2014).

[2] “silence.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2014. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/silence. (20 Jan. 2014).

[3] Cage, J. “The Future of Music: Credo.” http://www.arts.rpi.edu/~century/MMC11/JohnCage_Silence.pdf

[4] Mason, Oliver J. DPhil, DClinPsy; Brady, Francesca BSc, MSc. “The Psychotomimetic Effects of Short-Term Sensory Deprivation.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Volume 197(10). October 2009, pp 783-785 [Brief Report].

[5] Huiberts, Sander. Captivating Sound, The Role of Audio for Immersion in Computer Games. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU), 2010. Web.

Leave a Reply

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: