The use of audio in games is integral in creating atmosphere, emotion, tension and ambience, as well story progression (Bridgett, 2010; Whitmore, 2003). Using the Wii game Okami (2008) as our case study, we will explore the use of sound and the relative success of its application in video game media.
Okami is an action adventure game set in a fantasy Japanese setting. The protagonist, Amaterasu, is the mortal incarnation of the creation goddess. The game revolves around the use of “celestial paintbrush” techniques to complete puzzles and defeat enemies (Capcom, 2008).
Speech – Narration
Video reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IC9KfOMwQU at 0:36
Background and history of the game world and characters are provided in the form of narration, usually through speech. There is a unique language used in Okami, which is described within the Dialogue section below. The opening narrative introduction sequence when starting a new game is designed to pull the player in to what promises to be an epic story. In some ways the sounds are secondary to the text (given the player must read the subtitles to understand the language), however as will become clear in the next section, narration and dialogue in Okami are uniquely distinctive.
Speech – Dialogue
Video reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqCoCx7V2Gs&feature=related at 0:12
Conversations between characters are spoken in an unusual language and subtitled on screen. Different characters speak in different pitches and tones. The use of the special language gives the player a sense of an otherworldly quality, and also imbues the game with ancient Japanese culture (despite not being an actual language). Okami uses dialogue in this way particularly well – whilst the player cannot understand the language, the sound is unique and mysterious. However, the sound can be repetitive and grating after a time, which can detract from the story unfolding. Less tolerant players may opt to mute the audio so in this respect, it could be argued that the sound is used less successfully. My opinion is that the unique language is part of Okami’s charm.
Figure 1: Okami – Dialogue
(Source: What is normal? 2008)
Sound Effects – Contextual
Video reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZloCD06QjiE
There are many examples of contextual sound effects, from the sound of Amaterasu running and jumping (thumping sound, whooshing and leaves fluttering when she leaps into the air), paintbrush sound effects (slashing enemies, the swirl and sparkling sound of the sun being called out), to the harp string run when Amaterasu’s inkpot is refilled. Each sound has a purpose of contributing to the game. The running/jumping gives more realism to Amaterasu, the paintbrush effects demonstrate interactivity with the world around you, and the harp string run is very reassuring when in battle. Okami uses sound effects exceptionally well throughout the game. Each sound has its place and is necessary to give the game its well-polished finish. The sounds complement the visuals almost perfectly.
Figure 2: Okami – Running with flowers in wake
(Source: IGN undated)
Sound Effects – Narrative
Video reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IC9KfOMwQU at 0:28
Within each story scene, visuals are painted on a piece of parchment. The sound of the paintbrush scratching across the parchment is a good example of narrative sound effects. Another example is the crying of hawks in the distance whilst the player explores the game. The paintbrush on parchment gives the player a feeling of being there as the scene is painted, whereas the hawk cries suggest a larger world, with things going on beyond the initial viewpoint of the player. Okami is a game that is rich with ambient sound effects that all add to the narrative.
Music/Soundtrack – Location and Time
Video reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRx9gnY0Mp0&feature=related
The soundtrack throughout the game encompasses traditional Japanese themes and music. Flutes, harps, drums and other traditional-style instruments place the game in its ancient Japanese setting, which allows the player to gain a sense of the time and place of the game world. By using unusual instruments that are traditional in nature, the game clearly sets itself in the past. The music throughout Okami is exquisite, and perhaps the release of the CD soundtrack (Play-Asia, undated) is testament to the success of the application of music throughout the game.
Music/Soundtrack – Identification
Video reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2G6sCZVL_xc&feature=related
Characters within Okami are identified by their own unique musical themes. The character, Issun, (a tiny painter that resembles a bug), has a light-hearted and somewhat silly sounding theme, which uses jaw-harps and bells. This theme occurs during humourous sections of dialogue and separates Issun from the seriousness of the rest of the game. Issun’s theme is particularly unique and cheerful; however other characters (such as villains) have darker, more ominous sounding musical themes.
Music/Soundtrack – Transition
Video reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqpQHEjy7Zo&feature=related
The best example of transition in the musical soundtrack occurs when moving from a day to a night scene. The night soundtrack is more mysterious, somewhat eerie, and a lot softer in tone than that of daytime music. The application of a different musical score suggests that night time is more dangerous, and that monsters may be more abundant.
Music/Soundtrack – Pace
Video reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqCoCx7V2Gs&feature=related at 4:22
Okami’s game music is normally quite upbeat, but when entering a battle, the pace and intensity of the music shifts dramatically. Battle music is fast and furious, with louder and harsher instruments. This gives a sense of urgency and makes the player change pace from exploration to furious attack mode. Okami does battle music very well; the music is intense and lends itself to high tension for the player.
Okami is an amazing game, in both visual and audio presentation. The game is rich in both areas, and is highly emotional. My favourite part – which never got old – was restoring a guardian sapling from a twisted gnarled husk to a blossoming beautiful cherry tree. It is very hard to describe in words the transformation. The cherry tree blossoms and the music swells, then a wave of music, ambient sounds and visual graphics whoosh along the land, cleansing the evil and restoring the beauty and abundance of the countryside. It all comes together to present an intensely emotional, happy, gladdening feeling. See for yourself in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0SA9B_s2pU
Figure 4: Okami – Guardian Sapling
(Source: Test Freaks undated)
Figure 1: What is normal? 2008, Okami – Dialogue, online, viewed 30 September 2010, http://what-is-normal.info/wp-content/uploads/okami-normal.jpg
Figure 2: IGN undated, Okami – Running with flowers in wake, online, viewed 30 September 2010, http://wiimedia.ign.com/wii/image/article/860/860386/okami-20080318112603890.jpg
Figure 3: MTV Multiplayer undated, Okami – Battle mode, online, viewed 30 September 2010, http://multiplayerblog.mtv.com/wp-content/migration/photos/uncategorized/okami02.jpg
Figure 4: Test Freaks undated, Okami – Guardian Sapling, online, viewed 9 October 2010, http://i.testfreaks.co.uk/images/products/600×400/16/okami.223504.jpg
Bridgett, R, 2010, Subtlety and Silence, online, viewed 30 September, 2010, http://www.zero-g.co.uk/index.cfm?articleid=722
Capcom, 2008, Okami, online, viewed 9 October, 2010, http://www.okami-game.com/
Okami, 2008, Capcom, video game, (Wii)
Play-Asia, undated, Okami Original Soundtrack, online, viewed 9 October, 2010, http://www.play-asia.com/paOS-13-71-8l-49-en-70-1bno.html
Whitmore, G, 2003, Design With Music In Mind: A Guide to Adaptive Audio for Game Designers, online, viewed 30 September, 2010, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/2852/design_with_music_in_mind_a_guide_.php?page=1