String cheese.

I’ve recently been suffering with an ear infection which, seeing as I have to use headphones at all times, has meant playing WoW with the sound turned off. So this got me thinking about sound within games. Sound obviously provides an atmosphere for an MMO, from the ambient sounds that help realise the world, to dramatic music scores which add emphasis on the heroic nature of the world’s inhabitants. From the epic sound of battle on the open plain, to the blood curdling chill horror that can only be a male gnome laughing…

The problem I find with a lot of sound in MMOs is that it’s very rarely dynamic in nature. When you enter a battle, the battle music (if there is any at all) fires up. What would be nice would be for different battle music to start depending on the opponents you were facing; if you’re facing undead opponents, a haunting blood-chilling score could start, for example. Something that adds just a little more emphasis and atmosphere to the specific encounter. So far in WoW I’ve not missed having the sound in this case, I’ve just hummed the tune to ‘Saturday night’s alright for fighting’, which works surprisingly well especially if you’re a dwarf. No, I don’t know why.

What would be even better is if when you were close to gaining aggro from a mob the music score changed a little. I have the strange feeling I’ve played an MMO where this happened, but I can’t remember for the life of me what it was, or whether I dreamt it one night after drinking a pot of out of date cream, which in all honesty is more likely.

Anyway. There’s not usually a way to judge how close you are to suddenly getting Gordon the Ogre King’s attention, especially when you can stand right in front of him but about nine feet away and he doesn’t spot you, even though you’re sharpening weapons, casting buff spells and summoning demons from the netherworld. Then you take one step further forward… “Hey! Where you come from? Me smish” cries Gordon. So clearly ogres have an eyesight range of nine feet, right? So why can’t you take one step back again? “Hey, where you vanish to?” One step forward… “There you are, I’m go…” One step backwards. “Hey! Gone again”.

Ok, so aggro ranges are a stupid immersion-breaking convention at the best of times, but they work in some situations better than others. Imagine you’re in a dark dank forest, it’s misty and you can’t see very far (probably slightly further than Gordon though). Instead of having mobs out in the open where you can see them and then walk around them at what you think is their maximum Gordon range, have them hiding away ready to jump out. However, as the adventurer approaches an area of danger, the music score changes to a slightly more sinister tone. The adventurer is then aware that danger is nearby, but doesn’t know precisely where, but his keen adventuring senses tell him that it might be an idea to cast some buff spells and to ready his weapon. He won’t necessarily be able to conveniently avoid the fight, but he will be prepared for combat and, more importantly, slightly on edge and apprehensive… immersed if you will.

When it comes to combat itself, again it’s an incredibly repetitive affair, so a little greater diversity would be welcome. What’s more, it would be nice if the majority of fights didn’t sound like the frenetic drunken mating ritual of two west-country farmers in a dark alley.

*ungh* *arr* *crash* *ugh* *meow* *thunk* *oh yeah* *krang* *chang* *clank* *yee-har*

And that’s if you play a male character. Pick a female character, and not only does your plate armour consist of a soup ladle and the ends of a pair of candle snuffers, but when you fight in combat you sound like you’re having a world-record-length multiple orgasm.

Dramatic music scores are always a fantastic way to make a player feel heroic, but again, they need to be used in context. World of Warcraft gets the dramatic part of it right; I remember walking my dwarf paladin up the Valley of Heroes (does that sound like a euphemism to you too?) and the Stormwind score suddenly blasting out; this chanting choir of voices accompanied by a melodic string accompaniment and rousing drum roll, and I looked at the statues towering above me, the captain of the guard in full-plate armour (he was male so it was full full-plate) mounted on his horse awaiting my arrival, and I felt I was entering somewhere important. That I was important, and that I would do well here. I felt as though they were saying “Here comes the mighty dwarf! He enters the hallowed streets of Stormwind! Hail to thee paladin!”. It was epic. Great stuff.

Then, later, I was walking across the square to the bank and suddenly the choir bursts in to song again, and I’m thinking ‘Oh kaaay’ why the epic song now? What is this moment we’re having? So I looked around but there was nobody but me. So what are they singing about now? “There goes the mighty dwarf! He’s off to fetch some boar intestines from the bank! Hail to thee chef!”. Um.

Then later on still, I had a quest to buy some cheese, and so I’m in the cheese shop trying to decide which variety the weird old ‘cat’ lady with the cheese fetish wants when the choir breaks out again! And now I’m thinking ‘what the hell?’ I mean, what are they singing about now? “There shops the mighty dwarf! He’s buying some variety of cheese. We’re not sure which. Maybe it’s Alterac Swiss, or perhaps he’s favouring the subtle taste of Mag’har mild”. Why do they keep bursting in to epic song all the time, and how do they know where I am?! And so I spin around quickly and the whole of Elling Trias’s Cheese Emporium is filled with a choir and orchestra and they’re all looking really embarrassed at being caught.

True story.

So now, every time I walk up the Valley of Heroes, as soon as the thunderous tones of the Stormwind theme break out, I shout “I’m not buying cheese today!” and they’re cut short.