On Sound Cues

Playing Left 4 Dead 2 recently made me realize something. The sounds and music in that game and its predecessor Left 4 Dead 1 are absolutely amazing. Really, the more I think about it, the more I feel the sound direction is what ties the game together and gives both the game and the player direction without being in your face.

You see, in Left 4 Dead, there’s not a huge amount of actual music. All the music comes from the many sound cues from your environments as you walk by. You know when there’s a tank coming, not just from its grunts and roars, but by the fact that the music suddenly starts building up. Most people will recognize that there’s a Witch nearby, but there’s actually a small audio cue as to when she spawns in as well. Each Special Infected has their own little music cues on top of their normal sound cues, delicately warning you of the dangers that are ahead. Incoming hordes have their own music cues as well, giving you a slight opportunity to plan ahead and work out what you want to do.

On top of that though, you have the survivors all with their own call-outs and distinctive shouts. If one player spots a Boomer for example, their Survivor will shout it out too. So you have three ways of spotting a threat – their musical cue, the enemies’ gurgling sounds and the survivors’ own warnings too. It all comes together nicely and flows naturally.

It might not seem much, but those cues become insanely helpful when you can’t hear the normal growls and gurgles in the middle of a horde. And if you ever play Realism Mode, it’s worth listening out for these things, since there’s no alerts telling you your friends have been knocked down or anything like that.

Medic listening to music

Team Fortress 2 does a good job of this as well. Every character has a distinct voice, every weapon type has a distinct sound to it, every threat makes a noise that you know to avoid. Even if you can’t, for example, see that there’s a sentry gun around the corner, you can actually tell what level it is by the number of beeps it makes and the sound of its guns firing. You can also generally tell what miniguns are being revved up, what Medi Gun Ubers are being used, all sorts of little things like that.

The only times you have an outside voice are for the Administrator, and she only points out important things that you can’t always see, such as timers and objectives.

For chaotic games, you need to be able to differentiate things. Left 4 Dead does this very well. Warframe on the other hand kinda doesn’t and doesn’t at the same time.

Sure, something like the Eidolon fight, you can tell what’s going on, what attack it’s going to do, all that sort of thing. But it’s off-putting how you have the Quill telling you what is going on as you hear what’s going on. A lot of things in Warframe have obvious sound effects but they also have someone pointing these things out to you.

The worst offender is any fissure mission. Granted, the game doesn’t explain how to open relics in the first place, but when you’re in a mission, anywhere from a Lith Fissure on E Prime to a 40 minute Axi Survival Fissure in the Void, it’s the same dialogue over and over. “There are dangerous enemies, can you handle them?” “You need to get more reactant…” These are things that are already obvious and have obvious sound cues (e.g. the crack of lightning and the humming sound when enemies get corrupted) but the Lotus explains them over and over again anyway.

Another not so great example could be found in the Binding of Isaac. It’s not a horde game, but it’s got a lot of varied enemies and a lot of variations of enemies. So you need to know what enemies are nearby or off screen quickly, but they don’t all have unique sound cues, instead relying on colour cues. Which is great and all but those stupid charging maggots come in blue or white, AND they can have champion versions in any colour. Games like Enter the Gungeon do this a lot better, enemies have more unique firing sounds and things like that, and you can often tell what attacks are coming by hearing for them.

Left 4 Dead is a prime example of how to effectively use audio cues. Warframe would be if it wasn’t for the constant chattering of floating-head NPCs.

It’s something to think about though. Next time you play a game, stop and listen for a moment, and consider what you can hear.


Also known as Doctor Retvik Von Schreibtviel, Medic writes 50% of all the articles on the Daily SPUF. A dedicated Medic main in Team Fortress 2 and an avid speedster in Warframe, Medic has the unique skill of writing 500 words about very little in a very short space of time.

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