“Quiet, you”: Computer Games, Silence, and the Anti-Aliasing of Expression

August 11, 2011
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Quiet!The devil’s bargain I made with myself when I wrote about noise in “Handle With Care: Computer Games, Noise, and the Fragility of Play” is that I would write a companion post about silence. It seemed only fitting at the time given the intrinsic binarism of the computer game medium. Games–and, in fact, all digital media–are built on a logic of opposites, on the flow and cessation of electrical current and their representation as ones and zeros, on and off, true and false. In keeping with this logic, I thought, surely there is a quiescent counterpoint to games’ incessant noise, and the post on silence would be immediately forthcoming and practically write itself. If only things were so tidy.

For starters, I got sidetracked thinking about the role of computer game study in the humanities writ large. Then there was the purchase and (ahem) intensive product testing of a new pair of gaming headphones so as to be able to hear with unrivaled precision games’ silence. Finally, there was the fun if ultimately unconvincing conference presentation I saw about the lack of sound in the Zelda series (I say unconvincing because the supportive clips, while certainly sonically spare by many games’ standards, were still loaded with ambient and non-diegetic sounds, making me wonder if games could in fact ever shut up).

The real spanner in the works, though, has been my slow-witted realization that game silence is actually silences–there are all sorts of quiet moments in games, from the abeyance of play in an inter-level break to the stasis of memory registers awaiting incoming data to the constant and ineluctable suppression of electricity in the communication between game hardware, software, and operating system. In addition, these silences are often relative in the flurry of overt, covert, and background noises games produce. It can be hard to hear and differentiate them amidst the hail of hails (e.g., the moment after a game requests an asset from the hard drive and before the hard drive spins up to retrieve that asset versus the moment after the asset is located and before it is loaded into RAM to be utilized in the game).

Needless to say, some of these silences are not particularly interesting, unless perhaps one is pursuing questions of hardware/software optimization or data flows. Others are more compelling, such as the aesthetic and haptic design choices leading to periods of quiet in the rumbles of a force-feedback game controller. Regardless, they pervade the medium and its experiences like so much sand on a beach towel. In some ways it is the silences more than the noises games make that are responsible for ludic experience.

Of course, this theoretical armature of interstitial import is nothing new. Anyone who has ever taken a literature course in college surely recalls the instructor saying “What the text omits is just as important as what it includes.” But I wonder if game silences are any different from those of other media, or if they can illuminate notions of structural space in unusual ways. The line breaks in uncompiled game code certainly resemble the spaces between the still pictures of a strip of movie film, for example, in that both segment their medium and appear to disappear in the exhibition of it. However, one veiling is due to the translation of a programming language into machine code, and the other is a result of a biological phenomenon, the persistence of vision. There are different mechanisms and processes at work, and yet both offer a kind of anti-aliasing of technological expression. Maybe it is here that I strike the next devil’s bargain with myself.

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3 Responses to “ “Quiet, you”: Computer Games, Silence, and the Anti-Aliasing of Expression ”

  1. Derek Kompare on August 11, 2011 at 4:15 PM

    As with every other form of media, as you suggest in the last graph, silence can be both willful aesthetic gesture and necessary by-product, like those blips between film reels, fades to black on commercial TV, and white space in graphic design. There are many ways of producing aesthetic silence, but admittedly they’re mostly cinematic/POV type moments (e.g., when a grenade goes off too close to you in CoD, or those beautiful moments of still contemplation in Ueda’s games).

    Then there’s always LOADING… screens, but alas they’re almost never silent anymore.

    Infocom games had the ultimate silence, of course, well familiar to anyone who writes for a living: the blinking cursor, accompanied only by the system’s fan.

    And here’s an odd sort-of silence. The Madden 12 demo features loads of Sunday afternoon NFL TV type music and gameplay sounds…but no announcers. This was likely some sort of odd contractual quirk with the voice talent, but it’s oddly uncanny nonetheless.

  2. Myles McNutt on August 11, 2011 at 11:39 PM

    A brief anecdote: I have a vivid memory of a guest lecturer in an undergrad Shakespeare class talking about the importance of silence, who upon throwing the idea out to the class was met with…well, silence. In that case, I think the class struggled to reconcile the difference between reading/seeing the play in question, but I also think that silence isn’t something we’re naturally conditioned to consider until it’s placed in front of us – accordingly, I’m very pleased to see this great post.

    Something that Derek’s comment touches on for me is the idea of silence where we know there should be noise; the lack of commentators in the Madden demo is an ideal example. However, the game also gives players the ability to create that silence, which is something I often find myself doing when a commentary track repeats itself too often (as it did with Grand Slam Tennis for the Wii). So, while the technological silences you point out in this post are one answer to “Why are there silences?”, in some cases we *create* those silences, perhaps more than we’re aware. Heck, I often find myself playing iPhone games on the bus without headphones, in which case the system is on mute and a game with plenty of sounds (like Angry Birds, for example) becomes a very different experience.

    However, I’m wondering if it does. Perhaps I’m just a crazy person, but when I cut out the commentary on Grand Slam Tennis, I found myself filling it in myself. Those “uncanny” silences that Derek alludes to open up a whole other discussion of how we respond to silences: do we stop to soak in the silence when a grenade goes off next to us, or are players frantically yelling “Oh shit!” and trying to reconfigure for their next move (especially if they’re on XBox Live or PSN and have a headset on, in which case there is likely no silence at all).

    I guess I’m wondering to what degree video game silences are interactive, and to what degree this differs from other forms of media silence.

  3. Brett Boessen on August 15, 2011 at 11:04 AM

    @Myles: Agreed: it is a fairly different experience playing a game muted for whatever reason, because so many of the sounds in a game are not simply ambient but occur as a direct response to player action/agency, as feedback to guide you through a challenge. But once you’ve played a game many times, you can often recognize the visual feedback well enough to be able to dispense with the audio and still proceed.

    There’s also the difference between the silence that is really “ambience” and the silence-in-error of a true lack of sound. (I’m familiar with this through film and video production, where leaving an actual hole in the audio track is obvious and jarring to the viewer/listener. I’d assume student game designers have similar lessons to learn.)

    I’ve noticed many ambient audio elements in games when I have to take a break mid-play to answer the phone or tend to my kids. If its a game like Portal, I don’t feel the need to immediately pause, so when I come back my avatar is just standing there, and I tend to notice all kinds of little things like creaking metal or water dripping somewhere, that I didn’t notice at all while playing.

    First I have this sense of awe at the amount of detail generated by the game producers to create and sustain a sense of realism, as I imagine untrained film and video viewers do.

    But it also makes me aware of a structured relationship between sound and action, or silence and (often) inaction. Most big-budget games tend to make this connection fairly regular and explicit, although sneaking games tend to invert this (“noise is bad; it means you’ve been spotted.” I *hate* the zombie slobber-noise in Minecraft. Makes my skin crawl, but Minecraft is already doing much different things with sound and silence than most non-indy games).

    I find such reinforcement annoying, as I tend to be personally at my most productive/active when I’m quiet (maybe that’s just my introverted nature). But I imagine it is a function of the still-early place we’re at with game design. As the medium matures, we’ll continue to see more diversity in terms of using ambience/silence to do other things besides just “you’re wrong.”