Friday, 19 October 2007

Gameplay conventions

I've been thinking about game audio recently, and was having a conversation with a friend about Valve's Deathmatch FPS release, TF2. I watched a video of some gameplay footage to get an idea what the game was like and was surprised that I recognised some of the audio effects from another of Valve's seminal titles, Half Life (which were also used in HL2).

Specifically I recognised the 'heal' sound that the stations make when they recover your health, shields or ammo, and the weapon select confirmation noise (possibly also one of the pistols and shotgun?). While it's natural to use the same audio in a sequel (HL to HL2), I was surprised that they used the same effects in a title from a totally independent game world (TF2). It works extremely well, though. I instantly understood the significance of the audio cues and hence what was happening in gameplay terms.

This in turn made me think about gameplay mores, about the tropes and aesthetics that have become de facto standards, and how they help familiarise us to new games. But what then of audio games? I wonder if they suffer from underdevelopment such that no standards have emerged yet.

This reminds me a little bit of gaming during the 1980s. This period was characterised by the diversity of games that didn't seem to fit into genres yet. By the 90s I feel that the commercial market had evolved and certain conventions had emerged, for example using the WASD keys for navigating first person games.

This is a particularly interesting point for me as my MA dissertation dealt with embodiment in games, and developed on the extension thesis of Marshall McLuhan and the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, amongst others. The basic premise is that our sense of self is predicated on our sensory experience, which depends on our situated body and it's relation to the rest of the world. In a game environment, mediated by a keyboard, WASD becomes a naturalised and pre-reflective expression of our intentions. The reuse of this form allows us to build up what Merleau-Ponty refers to as the "habitual body image".

The absence of consistent interface semiotics in audio games as with the early 80s games results in the inability to transfer any continuity between any of them.

On the one hand the 80s was a very creative time which I think a lot of people yearn for in their renewed interest in retro gaming, but on the other hand the lack of a shared language of gameplay acts as some kind of barrier, or increasing the learning curve of each and every game. This in turn was an obstacle the had to be overcome on the way to mass commercial viability for the industry.

One possibility for this project I'm currently engaged in might be to investigate and define standards for audio interaction rather than to create a client. Another aspect of Second Life that is interesting in this regard is the possibility to own land and create environments which can be controlled to be more accessible. For example, I could imagine an island designed for blind users, where all objects emitted audio cues. This might be an easier way to prototype the requirements of a client.

This idea came from thinking about AudioQuake as a mod for an existing game. Second Life is more complicated because the environment is so much more diverse, volatile and not under control as it is in Quake or other games.

Also there's a problem with my current plan for developing a prototype client using just Linden Scripting Language: the only feasible technique for creating spatial audio is to create an invisible object that follows the target object and emits sound, thus indicating the target's location to a blind user. However, this audio will be heard by everyone, and especially the target, which, even though they have the ability to mute the emitter, is very anti-social behaviour! The optimal solution is to develop a dedicated client so 3D audio can be triggered on the local rather than server side, which is approach being followed by the National Science Foundation, and to a certain extent also evaluated in our project.

Perhaps the quickest and most effective solution in the time frame is to simply buy land on which to develop an accessible environment. However, this would require a modest investment of real world money as land in Second Life is sold commercially (at least for now, until the server is open sourced).

A preferable and free solution would be to simply run our own server, but the current Open Source version is quite limited in what scripts it can run.

Half Life (Windows). Valve, Electronic Arts. (19th November, 1998).
Half Life 2 (Windows). Valve. (16th November, 2004).
Team Fortress (Windows). Caughley, Ian; Cook, John; Walker, Robin. (Australia: 1996).
Team Fortress 2 (Windows). Valve, Electronic Arts. (2007)

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964)
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. trans. by Colin Smith (New York: Humanities Press, 1962). Originally published as Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945).
White, Gareth. Embodied Evil - The Aesthetics of Embodiment in Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition. (The University of the West of England, 2007)

No comments: