One thing that has always bothered me about the Arkham series—from City onwards—is the ‘local surveillance’ radio feed. Wherever you go, goons are constantly jabbering about how “they ain’t scared of the Bat”, about events in the story, about that time they robbed a bank, about their favourite sandwich. Your average Arkham game is about twenty hours long, and it feels like you spend most of that time listening to street thugs and henchmen wittering on in daft New Yoik accents.
And it’s not just Batman. A lot of modern games are annoyingly noisy, drowning your ears in music and dialogue. How many times have you strayed from the critical path to explore, only for an obnoxious voice to crackle over the radio and remind you of your objective? Which is why, when a game decides to just shut the hell up, I always appreciate it. Silence can be a powerful thing—as this short film by Tony Zhou, The Art of Silence, illustrates—and I don’t think game developers use it enough.
One game that uses quiet effectively is, appropriately, Silent Hill 2. There are moments when you enter a building and there’s no sound at all except for the echo of your footsteps. The sudden transition from the streets, where the sound of the wind is ever-present, to eerie stillness is jarring. As Akira Yamaoka, the game’s composer and sound designer, says in this making of documentary, the role of a sound designer isn’t just creating sounds, but knowing when to use silence as well.
The Talos Principle is an example of a game that makes sparse use of sound and music to create a quiet, meditative ambience. The gentle music and birdsong provide a soothing backdrop to its brain-melting puzzles. I love Take On Mars, which is silent except for the lonely howl of the Martian wind as you scoop up soil samples and grow potatoes. And it’s not a PC game, but Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater’s famous ladder moment—in which Snake climbs a seemingly endless ladder to a haunting rendition of the game’s ludicrous Bond-style theme—is beautifully minimal.
Alien: Isolation is another game that does silence well. There are loud, dramatic moments, and the shrill strings that herald the arrival of the alien are chilling, but there are moments of relative calm too. Wandering the empty corridors of Sevastopol, you can hear the hum of machines, computers bleeping, and the ruined station creaking as it struggles to stay in orbit. Leaving the player alone with their thoughts like this is a great way to build tension in a horror game. You wonder why it’s so quiet, then start worrying about something suddenly jumping out at you.
Audio design is something we don’t talk about enough on PC Gamer. Not because we don’t care—I’m actually really interested in it personally—but because it’s so difficult to write about. Sound designers are, I think, the unsung heroes of game development, because their work is so critical to the experience. I just wish they would embrace the power of silence a little more often, and say something by saying nothing.