Audio Warfare: The Realistic Sounds of “Battlefield 4”

What do I hear? What do I hear? You ask yourself repeatedly as you materialize into the battle zone. At first, the only audible sounds are the wind teasing the fabrics of the broken billboards and your heavy boots trampling on the darkened debris. But as you stop by a crossroad, you suddenly hear the ground trembling under the heavy wheels of an approaching enemy truck. Your blood rushes as you quickly ascend to the second floor balcony for a better shooting position. For a split second, everything is quiet as if the world were frozen into a transparent, motionless glass. The moment passes and the clamor of guns blazing, truck engines roaring and buildings collapsing suddenly envelope you in infinite waves, so you pull the trigger and let your gunshots join the battle of loudness. Welcome to the battlefield.

One of the great successes of “Battlefield 4,” a popular First Person Shooter (FPS) game released in 2013, has been its ability to convince gamers via the resounding echo of the modern warfare, that they are there, on the roof of a falling skyscraper, under the sky occupied by the “klee-ewing” sea gulls and beside the tank groaning amidst the melting metals. Although the realistic visual rendering of the game attracts many industry praises, the game’s audio is what truly immerses gamers into its war zones. “Sound in the FPS game is [currently] the only way of inserting real-world causality into the virtuality of the game,” Mark Grimshaw, the author of Game Sound Technology and Player Interaction remarked about the relationship between sound and immersion. The war itself has a voice, a voice for the world to echo and a voice for the reflection of reality that familiarize the people to the constant conflictions in human history. In the end, it depends on the game’s audio effects to personalize the intonation with which the war will speak.

Audio fidelity and the diegetic sounds

If “Battlefield 4” were to eliminate all of its environmental sounds, the game would instantly lose its audio fidelity. The immediacy of war is presented by diegetic sounds, that is, sounds throughout the game that promote deeper connections between the game and the players. Without the bullet cracking, the jets roaring and the soldiers yelling, the overall experience would be severely diminished by the lack of a wartime immersion. Diegetic sounds also help to convey crucial combat information to the players. While player can only see 90 degrees at any time, they can hear sounds coming from nearly everywhere. As the diegetic sounds attract players to trivial sounds like the approaching footsteps and incoming grenades, they create a more readable soundscape that prompts the gamers to interact in a real world manner.

Take the skyscraper in Siege of Shanghai, a popular map offered in “Battlefield 4,” as an example. Players can tear it down in various ways, including shooting at the beams from a helicopter or detonating claymores fixed on the ground level walls. The sound properties, as a result of different methods of destruction, vary largely. When observing the skyscraper’s destruction from above, players experience a time delay as the concrete-smashing sound comes after the actual collapse of the building. The sound at the bottom of the building, however, appears to be more immediate and louder as if the walls are crashing right next to the players. The interactivity enabled by the multi-dimensional audio space not only attracts the players to its sonic accuracy, but also drives them to explore other hearing experience when destroying the concrete behemoth through alternate means.

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The power of non-diegetic music

The soundscape in “Battlefield 4” not only illustrates the audio space, delivered almost singlehandedly by diegetic sounds, but also uses the background music to embellish its perceptual reality. The earworm effect rationalizes the need for video games to integrate surreal music elements. In reality, a piece of melody that involuntarily loops in a person’s mind is only imaginary, but the feeling can be so real that he or she embraces it as part of their actual sensation. As Grimshaw indicates,  “for the purposes of immersion, a reduced realism may be all that is required.” To a large extent, aesthetic approaches are employed by the non-diegetic soundtrack to navigate the players through territories of real emotions.

To get a refreshing touch of artistry to the realism of “Battlefield 4,” the composers of the game had to forgo the concept of “classical music for a shooting game” and search for a new musical gesture. With so many maps in “Battlefield 4,” music has to fit in the moods of these diverse locations as well as weave each individual song to a flowing stream of melody. Satisfying both criteria using elusive musical language is not easy; nevertheless the “Battlefield 4” soundtrack succeeds in inducing a mixed feeling of excitement, danger, and unpredictability throughout the gameplay. For instance, the evacuated building construction site in Shanghai has a calm but somewhat chilly musical theme hidden in the blowing wind, while the majestic warship Valkyrie, features a deep undertone revolving around the vessel floor. The tenderness and tension fluctuating between the music notes are so real that they touch the players’ heartstrings.

The battlefield defined by perceptual realism

As “Battlefield 4” uses both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds to immerse the players in its brave new world, the binary choice of “real” or “fake” is replaced by a blurred conjunction of virtual reality. But questions concerning the proper degree of realism of the game’s audio begin to emerge as the soundscape reaches its uncanny valley; how realistically can the sound effects reflect the cruelty of the real war, and how much do the players want to hear?

Tong Xu, a potential music minor student at Dartmouth, said that he played “war games for the excitement of the battle […], not to relate to the bleakness and terror of living on the brink.” Xu’s words epitomize the wishes of thousands of other FSP players wanting to experience the rousing, masculine atmosphere of battles but not the disturbing reality of the real wars. As much as players enjoy bloody shooting games, they can hardly undergo extreme emotions like the fear for death and the terror of suffering in pain that prevails on battlefronts. Therefore, to avoid dabbing into dreadful sensations that implies the horror of war, “Battlefield 4” audio intentionally chooses not to sound completely real.

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But how can “Battlefield 4” instill the essence of realism into its game play with the selectively realistic soundscape? While different theories are offered to analyze the controversy, all can be summed up with a simple, short phrase:

“To define the battlefield.”

This is actually the mainspring of all reality-oriented audios in FPS games. No matter how intricate the audio designs are, they serve to build up a virtual world and draw the players into it. Rather than replicating every realistic detail, the game’s soundscape convinces players that, in another space, at another time, there is a digital universe where normal people can become heroes. Utilizing the fact that people’s reactions to sound are often deeper and stronger than their reactions to the visual, “Battlefield 4” prompts the players to listen to what their eyes fail to see. No longer limited by flat surface of a screen, non-diegetic and diegetic sound effects form a multidimensional continuum of space and time, reasons and emotions to reshape the modern battles. “Battlefield 4” is just a doppelganger of the wars that remind us the constant theme of conflicts in human history. In the end, it is not the rigorous reproduction of the real that becomes important; it is how people understand the battlefield that truly matters.

Maybe the sounds of “Battlefield 4” imply more than a technical pursuit to fascinate video game players; it is also the birth cry of a future generation of entertainment that mirrors the real world but is more artistically enjoyable than everyday life. With the support of highly developed simulation technology, video game audios are now stepping outside box of “bleep-bloop” 8-bits sounds and crossing the blurry boundaries of reality and imagination. “Battlefield 4” is only the starting point, and the future video game industry has the potential to combine real and surreal sounds further into an audio fantasy.