Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bad Audio in Heavy Rain?

Award winning video game. Impressive graphics. Touching music. Stunning story. These are just a few words that first come up whenever someone says Heavy Rain. Could it be possible to find bad audio in such a master piece? In this post I'll discuss three main issues. First, I will briefly discuss about the voices in the game. Second, I will show my reasons to disagree with Kenny Young's claim that missing sounds in the game are audio crimes. (These two issues have been widely discussed online here and here). Finally, I will talk about a problem that has been overlooked in the game, related to the use and abuse of loops in some segments.

The first thing I noticed when I played the game was that the main character’s voice didn’t sound realistic. It sounded plain and out of context. Actually, many online articles and blogs discuss about the bad voicing in Heavy Rain. The main concern about this subject is that immersion is always interrupted when characters speak because their voices don’t match with the high level of graphics and visuals in the game, resulting unconvincing. This happens due to poor voice expression; especially in the main character Ethan. His voice always sounds as if someone was reading a script.  

Another problem regarding voices, is the repeated use of two audio samples during a scene when calling name. This could probably be common in a 1993 game like Cybermorth:

(Video by AVGN)

Even though it is not so critical in Heavy Rain as in Cybermorth, it can really be annoying to listen at sometimes:

 (Watch min 4:06.)

There’s a very interesting article that I strongly recommend, about voicing issues in Heavy Rain, posted in The Guardian’s Games Blog called Voicing concerns: the problem with video game acting, which can be found in this link. The article deepens on the importance of expressiveness in voice acting in complex games that involve dense psychological stories; the way such voices should transmit emotions to the game players, and how this can be achieved through writing stronger scripts and not leaving voice acting to the end of the production chain. In this post I won’t analyse this subject, as it has been meticulously examined in the above-mentioned blog.

Missing sounds is the second audio issue I found in Heavy Rain. The car windshields don’t have sound, even when they appear in foreground. The first scene, where Ethan’s wife is washing something in the kitchen, has no sound at all; the footsteps in the balcony make no sound, as well as some of the kids’ footsteps on the grass. In the blog Sound Spam, its author Kenny Young comments about more missing sounds, and classifies this issue as an audio crime. He mentions that the lack of some foley makes the characters seem a little floaty and fake. I agree with him in the fact that some sounds are missing, and that's why I mentioned this as an audio issue. However, I wouldn’t say this is audio crime because of the cinematic style of the game.  Due to the strong and intense story, this particular video game is suitable for different sound and music cinematic treatments. As stated in the book Sound and Music for Film and Television by Tomlinson Holman, music heard alone serves to recreate or make emphasis in an abstraction. I would say an abstraction could be an emotion, a feeling, or maybe a dream. The use of foley sound effects help the scenes look more realistic. This is why many films start a scene with just music, and gradually add sounds to draw the audience into the story.  It is a subjective matter the way people interpret these sound design decisions. For me, Heavy Rain has missing effects in parts that are charged with drama and emotion and where music has the main role; the extreme detail in sound design wouldn't contribute to this kind of enhancement intentions.  For others, it might simply be unacceptable to have missing audio.

Finally, the loop issue. Heavy Rain is a slow paced game in which the player spends a lot of time in each scene discovering all that can be done. This happens because there are numerous possibilities to explore, the actions and movements of the characters are slow, and the story is dense, so you must think carefully what choices are better for you. The problem with this is that suddenly you start identifying loops associated to specific elements that you would expect to appear randomly. An example is the TV show that Shaun watches at the beginning of the game. Sometimes it’s a dialogue accompanied by a carnivalesque music and a funny laugh, that sounds again and again, and every time a character turns on the TV. It is then followed by a drum loop, and then a soprano singer.

Take a look at this video to see the TV examples in minutes 4:44 and 8:55. In 5:16 there's the soprano singer, and then again in 9:20. The music is in 3:22 and again in 6:30. This sounds also appear in the prologue, which is supposed to have happened 2 years before.

It’s also inevitable to start listening to ambiance looping. It happens in the park scene, when Ethan and Shaun are playing with the boomerang. The wind sounds similar to the ocean waves, producing a short pattern very easy to identify. Usually you wouldn’t pay much attention to the wind, but in Heavy Rain I noticed that there are really long periods or “spaces” that lack of music, making these ambiance loops more exposed and evident to the player. So, even if you changed the short wind loops for longer and more subtle ones, you would probably still notice them and the scenes would seem too empty. Thus, I think the real solution to this issue would be planning better the relation between difficulty and music. The more difficult a scene or place is, the more you have to wonder around trying to find out what to do. Therefore, the absence of music becomes more evident and repetition of ambience loops results boring.

Those are all the audio issues I have found so far. So, even though Heavy Rain is not quite the best example of a game with bad audio (because, overall, the audio in this game is actually good), it still has some audio issues, and some of them could have been avoided. Nowadays it is very difficult to find a recent game with bad audio, specially if it's a console game. In my opinion, the most common modern issues have to do with voice dubbing. In old games there were more cases of bad audio because audio technology was not so advanced and sound for audiovisuals wasn't even an academic field and therefore I suppose sound design wasn't an important aspect for games as it is now. Thus, finding audio issues in a recent game helps us see what problems are faced today.

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