Lecture & Learning: On Silence In The Video Game Soundscape

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Lecture & Learning: On Silence In The Video Game Soundscape
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The Side Quest says
On Silence in the Video Game Soundscape

Scholars of sound often overlook silence. It is our antithesis as beings in motion: living bodies whose heartbeats create a subtle metronome behind all that we perceive. Yet silence can be pregnant, peaceful, unsettling. Silence is an art of context.

In this lecture I examine the impact of four types of silence on video game soundscapes: nondiegetic, structural, psychological, and the unheard. True nondiegetic silence is rare; as Kuzelic-Wilson has demonstrated, silence typically represents death or profound isolation. In Mario 2 (1988), the miniboss victory theme ends abruptly, leaving behind a disturbingly hollow silence urging the player to continue on.

Structural silence allows ambient sound to become salient as music and dialogue cease, creating environmental depth or dramatic tension. For example, in Super Metroid (1994), the low hum of abandoned machinery represents the aftermath of a brutal slaughter. As Gorbman has shown, nondiegetic silence is often perceived as a mistake (a faulty projector?); structural silence serves as a metonymy, evoking a deeper sense of absence.

Psychological silence is symbolic, created by ambient music that a player stops consciously perceiving. Stasis lulls the player into contemplative inwardness; minimalist textures in Loved (2010), The Company of Myself (2009), and I Can Hold My Breath Forever (2010) create discursive spaces for the player to insert herself into emotionally complex narratives.

The unheard represents a broad range of potential silences in games. Some sounds are relegated to a silence of the circuits, never heard because the player does not (or cannot) trigger them in the course of play. Several tracks were abandoned in Chrono Trigger (1995), but remained embedded in the source code to be discovered years later by dedicated fans. The unheard also describes the experience of deaf players, missing vital cues in games without accessibility modifications. The unheard represents unrealized potential, and thus an incomplete (and potentially unsatisfying) experience.

Ludomusicologists investigate soundscapes, aural stimuli that brings the game to life: the adventurer’s swishing sword or the contours of a beloved leitmotif. Perhaps we can also learn to listen to the spaces between, when silence speaks of perfect peace or impending danger.


Dana M. Plank-Blasko has her BA in Violin Performance & Music History from Case Western Reserve University. Her MM in Violin Performance from Cleveland State University and is a Ph.D Candidate in Historical Musicology at The Ohio State University
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By: The Side Quest

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