I'm sure you've come across such a term as ambient many times. You may even be fond of this musical genre. Specifically today we are talking about ambient in games and its role in creating a high-quality environment.
What is ambient in games and how does it “surround”?
By its nature, ambient translates as "environment". This is music that works to create an atmosphere. This is not a music track per se, but rather a mood-setting space. If the geometry of the level and all of its content are physical objects, then the musical ambient is air.
Moreover, sounds created by musical instruments do not have to be ambient. Squeaks, rhythmic steps, the sounds of crickets, the howling of a wolf, or some voices coming from afar can easily act as an ambience. This can be the sound of clicking on the keyboard, or other things typical of the office space, the hum of cars outside the window, dogs barking or noise behind the wall. Any sound source that conveys the atmosphere or emphasizes the emotional state of the hero can be called ambient in games.
Most often, an example from the second Silent Hill comes to my mind, when James descends into the depths of his soul, metaphorically depicted as a staircase. All you hear is Sunderland monotonously descending the stairs, beating the rhythm with his shoes. Over time, you start to run, because, apparently, this ladder cannot be overcome at a slow pace. The sounds of footsteps intensify, and the staircase does not end. You can't change anything except your movement speed. And over time, the sound of your footsteps is what depressing the most, intensifies the atmosphere of decline. And this is exactly what the game designers wanted.
Also from the more recent Do not Feed The Monkeys example, where you play a voyeur spying on people around the world from your apartment. You hear cars humming outside the window, your neighbor playing a song, someone coughing or walking in the stairwell - and it immerses you in the game perfectly. You really feel like you are in this small stuffy apartment.
It is probably best to describe ambient as a sound interior or a way of narrative.
Where did the ambient come from?
The musical genre itself came to us, as you might guess, from the acidic and rebellious America of the 70s, when the discovery of one's inner consciousness and meditativeness was a characteristic motive of the musicians of that time, performing mainly psychedelic rock.
There is no exact date, album, or artist that can be considered the parent of the genre. In most cases, this title is attributed to Brian Eno, who released the classic ambient album "(No Pussyfooting)" with Robert Fripp.
However, even before them, at the beginning of the decade, King Tabby, Irving Solomon (also known as Irving Table) created similar music, and Isao Tamita experimented on the other side of the planet in Japan.
The contribution of Brian Eno lies in the fact that he popularized the genre, refined and brought to mind. Brian himself called ambient music, in every note of which you can ponder or just ignore - it all depends on what the person wants to hear.
Techniques in games
Ambient is only a part of the soundtrack of the game and can be in long compositions. I can't help but remember Hotline Miami [although this is more an example of the soundtrack itself, close in genre], where in between levels you go to a store / video library / pizzeria or your house. You are always accompanied by an ambient soundtrack, or at least its elements, which helps you to relax after completing a difficult mission. In the moments when we meet Richard, we hear another soundtrack, emphasizing the instability of the psyche of our main character.
Ambiet music should create the story of an entire location, which is why it is so important. After all, even though the visual effects mainly try to take this role on themselves, it is the correct soundtrack that will breathe life into them. It does not sound very loud, fills in the pauses, and reinforces what is happening on the screen, not allowing complete silence to arise. After all, then the player will be knocked out of the atmosphere and will feel uneasy.
The soundtrack in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where wind, grass, and the whole world creates a stunning soundtrack that underpins the name of the game - "Breath of Nature", is remembered as a reference for such a soundtrack.
The Shadow of Colossus is always put on a par with Zelda, where we need to crush 16 huge ears. The entire environment in this game, both visual and aural, tries its best to show us the atmosphere of decline, and this helps to distract from some mundane activities, such as exploring or solving puzzles.
As for me, insanely beautiful ambient was able to recreate in the game Limbo. Limb (according to all religious canons), in essence, is a place where unbaptized children end up after death: empty, gray and gloomy space. In the whole game, the only sound effects are our steps, the sounds when we move objects, the noises of any mechanisms, the rustling of spiders' paws. The atmosphere of hostile space and emptiness was perfectly conveyed to us, as if you are walking forward through a dark cave and do not know what is in front of you, what is behind you, but you are afraid of it to hell.
Or, for example, in Firewatch. We are walking along a dark path, the sounds of nature are around us and that's it. And then two eyes light up in the bushes, the ambient ends, pumping music appears, and a rabbit jumps out of the bushes, inhale and exhale, and we again stand surrounded by the sounds of the night nature.
It is more difficult, of course, to implement ambient in an open world, because it must correctly reflect the mood. In real life, this can be compared to when you go out and put on headphones - you have your own, the atmosphere you need. The developers should do the same when working on the sounds of the environment for large locations. But if in the headphones you put your own music and set the mood, even in the same scenery, then in the game composers and game designers must figure out how to adequately implement everything so that the players feel the right mood. To make the world seem alive and natural to you.
For example, when you board a ship in No Man's Sky and fly into space, where there is nothing but vacuum, the noise of the engine, the operation of the dashboard, and buttons creates the atmosphere for you. Yes, you have not been in space, but at the same time, such a recreation seems natural to you.
This is exactly the essence of ambient in games. It is possible that in games it is present as a direct soundtrack of this genre, but this is a completely different story.
The Topic of Article: What is ambient in games and how does it work.