Make no bones about it computer companies of today invest serious amounts of money on ensuring the sound quality is as fantastic as it possibly can be. It may seem hard to imagine now but back in 1990 when the Sega Megadrive was released it had just 6 channels of stereo sound. imagine that by comparison the Dolby 5.1 surround sound of today has almost ten times as much.
I was invited to take part in an ‘experiment’ by Amplifon which involved me playing a game that I had never played before to see what kind of difference it would make to the gaming experience if there was no sound. Before I begin it is worth pointing out that although this was a fun experiment to be part of, there are some very real issues underlying this; I don’t think many people stop to consider just how many young people are hard of hearing of which National Statistics suggest stands at around 25,000 for children aged 0-15 years. I feel fewer of us stop to appreciate just what an impact this can have on just day to day living let alone playing computer games and what a different experience that must be.
The game I chose was Tomb Raider Definitive Edition for the Playstation 4. Why? Well for a number of reasons. Firstly to be honest I haven’t played that game since the age of the PS1 days and I haven’t reviewed it previously so it means there is no comparison to base it against, so that is reasonably fair. Secondly I was fortunate enough to get my hands on the next generation hardware before Christmas and like many gamers I have been frustrated by the lack of games for the machine thus far, so this way I get to experience new hardware and a new game from a fresh perspective.
Tools of the Trade and Rules of the Game
The game Tomb Raider Definitive Edition on the PS4 obviously – the conditions were set that it must be played ‘as is’ that is, no setting adjustments could be made other than difficulty level and brightness. I had to play this game ‘raw’. For a full comparison I made the decision to play the game for a full 4 hours without sound and then again with sound and document my experience and progress.
The other tool was a pair of JVC Noise Cancelling Headphones – these babies are stated to have up to 75% noise cancellation and no, they were not plugged into the controller – that would be cheating.
So with the tools and the rules set in motion I put the headphones on and fired up the console.
The first thing that stood out for me, even just upon firing up the console is that of awareness. Even on the basic screen for the PS4 it dawned on me just how dependent we are on sound for even basic things such as cursor movement and game selection. It occurred to me very quickly that I had to be very alert and could not take my eyes of the screen even for a few moments; as the game proceeded to do its update and then restart I had become distracted and when I turned my eyes to the screen and it was blank and I could honestly not say what was going on.
Ease of Gameplay
In the game this was even more so. It is perhaps a tragedy that Tomb Raider does not have the subtitles set to ‘on’ as default. Watching the intro I could see the young Lara Croft on a boat, about to drown and then running to what seemed to be her father and falling from his grasp. But I could hear absolutely nothing, without subtitles you can be at a loss. Praise has to be given to the developers I was surprised at the level of detail put into the game; Lara looks better than she ever has, but despite this when the characters are speaking I doubt that the mouth movements are lip-synced. Now I am no lip reader but I certainly could not tell one word from another. I could tell expressions – sadness, anger, fear but little else. By hour two of gameplay I realised just how dependent on all my other senses I had to be and whilst this was great as an experience I felt a great empathy for those that have to deal with far more complex tasks than finding arrows, shooting wolves and solving puzzles.
O.k so without speech and without language can there be a plot? Well yes and no, thankfully a few things show up on the screen as you are playing explaining what you should do and what you can look for. Another great thing of the modern day console is the use of vibration, although similarly to speech it is far from accurate you at least can tell and have some immersion with what is taking place on the screen. Firing weapons, turning cogs all would have had far more dissidence had there not been vibration as some kind of feedback on the senses. However it was really hard to tell what was happening and this was especially true when Lara looks back on her video camera, I could get a gist but certainly couldn’t work out who was who. I ended up bumbling through, trial and error becoming my best friend and I realised by hour three that I had missed a couple of caves because it flashed up on screen: ‘When you hear this sound a cave of treasure is nearby’ I was thinking all good and well you telling me but if I can’t hear it what difference does it make.
There are parts of the game too where it takes voice recognition and I am sure whilst this is a novel idea, I had no idea how loud or quiet my voice was, the first few times this didn’t work so in the end I had to shout everything. I am sure my next door neighbours thought I was losing my mind shouting out words like “Map” “Gun” “Stealth” at opportune moments like I had Tourettes. I am just glad they didn’t call the police because with the headphones on I wouldn’t have heard the door.
Comparison with sound
Playing the game a second time with sound was a different experience altogether. The first thing that surprised me was just how much voiceover there is; Lara reflects on practically everything and every situation she finds herself in and there is a great deal of interaction between her on screen and you as the player trying to figure out the puzzles. Obviously the graphics are just as good but you can tell what is going on because you can hear what people are saying and the style of mood in the soundtrack changes to reflect whether it is a stealth situation or if you have been spotted.
Also worthy of note is the sound immersion. The PS4 has a speaker on the controller and this game fully utilises it. This means gun shots ring out from the controller, audio diaries are read to you and you can hear those jungle drums when you are near a hidden cave. The experience is completely different and this means the engagement is different. By the end of hour four I was much further ahead than in my previous attempts without sound.
In conclusion computer companies spend serious amounts of money on ensuring the sound quality is as fantastic as it possibly can be, they do this for good reason, the engagement from the player is tantamount to the game’s success. Do they consider those with less ability in areas such as hearing? I doubt it; the numbers just wouldn’t tally up in terms of investment, but what I think can and should be done is greater player options, it really would not hurt in making gaming more inclusive than exclusive. Lets be honest this experiment is far from scientific but one thing it certainly achieved is in raising my awareness of those less fortunate. It also made me realise just how many things we take for granted.