10 Incredible Audio Cues in Videogames
| Reuben Howe
…and the best ways to hear them
Gaming has become a pinnacle of interactive media, with audio-visual information able to be processed faster and at a higher quality than ever before. Whether it’s the tip-tap of footsteps around a corner in Warzone or the dulcet tones of an atmospheric open world, audio and music are a key part of games for many of us.
Even people who can’t hear at all or play with reduced volume can enjoy the immersion of modern sound design thanks to recent changes in Accessibility features. Now everyone can enjoy the satisfaction of pulling off a special trick, the adrenaline rush of a parry, the thrill of an enemy spotting you and the tension of a QTE…
What are Audio Cues?
Audio cues are uniquely positioned music or sound effects. Where an OST might play on loop throughout an area or level, audio cues are context-sensitive and will play to signal something in the game environment. They are a type of sound effect, but ordinarily are in the game to tell the player vital information rather than simply represent a sound.
Here are 10 incredible audio cues that told us vital information, gave us serotonin, or became iconic in the industry. If you haven’t heard any of these for yourself, be on the look out for our recommendations for the best gaming headset and earphone technologies to make the most of videogame sound design
1 - The Dark Souls Series’ Parry Noise
Dark Souls and the Soulsbournekiroing (I’m told this is the current state of the portmanteau) saga in general are, of course, considered some of the hardest games to complete. While they certainly pack a punch in terms of difficulty, the soundtrack and audio design can hit you in the stomach just as hard. When a boss theme slaps or a ranged attack goes off you know about it.
The parry effect is one such sound, and harkens back to Demon’s Souls. A parry is a defensive move with an off-hand shield or weapon that deflects an enemy attack entirely. This not only negates any damage, but opens the enemy for a riposte. The thrill of knowing a hit could result in lost souls unless you land a parry is incredibly tense, so the designers at From Software gave us not only a gameplay reward (The riposte) but an audio-visual one too (The parry sound cue).
The Dark Souls 2 one in particular: That deep bass twinned with an echoing gust of sharpness is a unique combination that makes full use of both bass and audio range. A pair of over-ear headphones with the passive noise-reduction of the padding and the benefit of 50mm drivers makes these sorts of wide-ranging and deep sounds even more satisfying. Earbuds are certainly impressive, but for a full depth and range an over-ear headset is still the go-to.
2 - Low Health Pokémon Sound Effect
Seeing a heath bar drain is something Dark Souls and our next contender have in common. Seeing a Pokémon fall from 107 HP down through the 50s and into the 20s from one attack would be scary enough, but Pokémon games insist on using a simple but effective tone to let you know your little friend is in the red.
No, I do not know why there is a 10-minute version of this tone
This two-tone alternating sound cue is simple, but is similar enough to fire alarms, police sirens and alarm clocks that our brains are conditioned to feel a bolt of energy and panic. The sound cue here is a double-edged sword, as it actually confirms your Pokémon is, at least, alive!
For playing games on-the-go you can connect Bluetooth Earphones to your Switch. Now that low-HP noise in Diamond Pearl Remake, Arceus and Scarlet Violet can be heard in all its terrifying glory, anywhere.
3 - Reaching Dawn in Darkwood
This one sits on the fence between audio cue and OST / music.
Darkwood is a hit indie horror game with a unique (For the genre) top-down perspective and “real” line of sight. This means only areas of the screen that your player can see are actually rendered in detail, including the presence of monsters and enemies. Horror games thrive off of knee-jerk reactions to visuals and sound, but it’s Darkwood’s slow, hopeful crescendo at the end of a night that makes the list.
This audio cue is particularly interesting because it plays directly into the gameplay loop. Over night you are holed up, pretty much unable to do anything except ensure your own survival. The fact that the dawn is rung in with an audio cue gives the player a light at the end of the tunnel, something to listen out for. As soon as the process starts the relief is ready, but still hidden behind a tense 20 seconds of build-up in which anything can happen.
A slow crescendo towards a bright morning
In terms of music design this cue is also fantastic, as it resembles “Tuning up”. Any of you who have launched a PlayStation 3 would remember the orchestral opening of the system. This is what “tuning up” sounds like and is the process orchestras go through before a performance. They will take the stage, with the audience already in place, and play harmonies / drones to tune to each other and ensure the actual performance is perfect.
Using this motif as an audio cue for the dawn in Darkwood is a promise that you have spent the night waiting, have dawn to “tune up” and prepare before going out into the world to progress quests, fight enemies and more.
These all-encompassing sounds of an orchestra are ideal for room-filling audio. A stereo speaker with proper subwoofer and tweeter units makes sure you get the lows, highs, and everything in between blasted out at a solid volume as you welcome the dawn.
4 - Left 4 Dead (1 and 2)
A progenitor of an entire genre, as well as a certain trope of sound design…
Left 4 Dead is a zombie-filled shooter that focuses on two main enemy types. Hordes, and specials. Specials are where the audio gets spicy, as each individual type of special enemy has a dedicated motif. These audio cues aren’t related to anything in the actual game universe. Instead, they are musical jingles from distinct instruments that are performed for each enemy.
No more than 8 notes and yet instantly identifiable
The tall, horrid Spitter Special for example features a screeching, sharp violin across 4 notes, while the bulbous Boomer Special is introduced with a plodding, deep bass guitar. These little audio cues add a splash of campy flavour to an otherwise apocalyptic horror setting, and enable faster communication and gameplay at higher levels when everyone has learnt which motif is which monster.
5 - MGS Spotted Sound
It had to be on here, we all knew it. For those who don’t know, it’s this:
A short, electronic tone that is unapologetically loud. An iconic sound for gamers everywhere, even those who have only heard of Metal Gear Solid in references.
6 - Tony Hawks Pro Skater Series Special Tricks
Nothing made a young gamer feel as cool as pulling off combos in Mortal Kombat, finding the Rocket Launcher in DOOM, and pulling off a Special Trick in Tony Hawks Pro Skater. The special trick sound is symbolic of an applause, cheer and “Wow that was so cool!” all at once.
Special tricks are often a combination of specific directions in the right order, with a face button to top it off at the end. Needing to pull a specific one on a specific jump has plagued many a child gamer with hours of trial and error, before finally they hear it:
The sound of success. Suitably bass-y and with a distinct skater twang to it while still retaining the grandiose celebration of an orchestra, all in a half-second audio cue! It’s impressive work, and makes people happy to this day
7 - Dead by Daylight QTE Checks
Dead By Daylight has had an interesting history, having been released for well over 2 years before it suddenly gained a huge amount of traction. Nowadays it has achieved crossovers with multiple horror franchises and has a loyal following.
A key part of Dead by Daylight are the checks your survivor characters have to do when performing actions. This could be urgently applying a medpack or sneakily getting to work on a generator to power the escape gate. Either way, the game doesn’t just let you hold the button!
At random intervals you’ll hear a faint audio cue, and just afterwards a circle appears on the screen. Pressing the correct input in time for the QTE is a combination of panic, responsiveness and surprisingly, patience.
This is because the sound cue has alerted you to an upcoming QTE and your senses all activate, but that can make you jump the gun. If the QTE zone is very delayed you could end up reacting too quickly, while if it is very early and you wait you may miss it!
The sound cue is pivotal to creating the tense 1 - 2 seconds of calculation, reaction, panic and relief that occurs every time one of these QTE’s trigger.
8 - Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild Guardian Combat
Breath of the Wild has a lot of discourse surrounding the sequel, Tears of the Kingdom, and how similar or different it will really end up being…
One thing we hope doesn’t change too much is the music and sound design when it comes to combat. Not only does the soundtrack react to hitting enemies and being hit, but the trill of the piano itself is indicative of imminent danger.
That Trill at the start mimics a spider scuttling and is hauntingly well composed
The powerful Guardians are able to one-shot players from early in the game, and the ones still able to walk around on their spider-legs can scuttle across vast swathes of the map to line up a shot. This threat is real enough, but adding an audio cue of frantic, high-pitched piano that trills back and forth really hammers home that things are about to be bad for you.
The interaction with the world and the feeling of traversal from the climbing system all compound to make BOTW an immersive experience, even if it isn’t the prettiest. Having a consistent and coherent audio atmosphere helps Breath of the Wild keep a sense of pace even when the game is so open-ended.
To make the most of these worlds and cues a proper noise-cancelling gaming mode is perfect. You can find earbuds with noise-cancellation built-in that can connect via Bluetooth right to the Switch!
9 - Levelling Up in The Outer Worlds
For as much as The Outer Worlds was seen as a let-down from Obsidian, who had made a cult following out of Fallout: New Vegas, the game had some incredible ideas. One of these was the music.
While remaining a pretty orchestral affair the motif on the main menu and used for levelling up is a perfect encapsulation of the feeling the game tried to evoke. The short tune is reminiscent of classics like Star Trek and evokes the same feeling of wonder, exploration and success. Even amidst underwhelming combat and a disjointed faction system, the feeling of levelling up was never marred.
Honourable mentions to levelling up in the Gothic series, Hellgate: London and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the range of audio-visual effects and jingles used.
10 - Directional Sound in Battle Royale
While not a specific game, but rather the idea as a whole, the final slot goes to the new ways sound is handled in the waning era of Battle Royale. There’s a reason streamers and gamers across the world go on about their headsets and equipment, and virtual surround sound is a bit part of it.
Being able to hear directional sound to within 20-degrees of where it came from in-game through both smart audio design and quality hardware puts you above the competition and enhances the whole experience.
For the times you want one more round some headphones even feature memory foam padding across the spine, to ensure you are never held back.
Headphones vs Earphones
There are gaming headsets that create incredible surround sound and cover your ears in thick padding to immerse you and communicate all the audio info you could ever need. With modern tech even earbuds can emulate surround sound, and have ENC Noise Cancellation to make up for the fact your ears are left open. Experience the full depth of artistic sound design with ENC Wireless aptX Low Latency Earbuds.
Between a gaming headset and portable true wireless gaming earphones you can experience these games to their full potential and start noticing elements of sound design you never thought about before.