“This generation will be defined by player immersion through audio” – How audio will define the era of PlayStation 5

Written by Trish Garcia-Tuohy, client director at Cord Worldwide

Trish Garcia-Tuohy, client director, CORD worldwide

With the recent PS5 reveal spectacular, it was hard not to be impressed and seduced by the litany of titles on display; between the visuals, the new custom SSD enabling new forms of gameplay (looking at you Ratchet and Clank), the return of old favourites and the emergence of soon-to-be blockbusters.

It was a real tour-de-force in showing the best of the medium we call video games. But, in being dazzled, many may have overlooked one of the key features being pushed by Sony for this generation: 3D Audio. 

Indeed, when announced, Sony made the strong recommendation that anyone watching the PS5 reveal stream should do so with a headset, as opposed to their TV speakers. Why? Because as Jim Ryan said to the BBC, 3D audio will represent a paradigm shift in how games are experienced by players. 

Traditionally, audio is one of the last things to be tackled in the development production process. 

Now, this isn’t just the case for games, it has been this way in advertising and movie-making for as long as those industries have been around. It’s simply the way things have evolved, and that is often reflected in the division of budget for the development of large-scale productions. 

Typically, once the picture has been ‘locked’, the music supervisors will come in and try to narrate the story with music and sound effects, to translate the storyline into feeling. 

We know that audio affects the overall gaming experience, because a number of researchers have published evidence of the difference in a player’s heart rate and respiration where audio is present, versus where it is now. 

The results have shown that there is a significant difference in favour of audio, and that the physiological response from players is greater when they are further immersed in the experience. 

 The games that live with us long after we’ve finished playing them are usually the ones that we associated with a higher level of emotional connection – whether that be fear, empathy, excitement or nostalgia. 

Who can forget the first time you moved through a bustling marketplace, rife with life and trade, before taking your first leap of faith in Assassin’s Creed? Moving through the underwater groans of a dilapidated city, amidst the footsteps of a nearby Big Daddy in Bioshock? Or in Dead Space, where tension is built to breaking point through the use of moments of silence, broken only by the unnerving clanking of machinery and distant sounds of unseen terror?

This is exactly the type of attachment that developers are looking to make with players. Audio has become a key tool in mimicking the multi-sensory experience of reality surrounding the beautiful visual worlds that we can create. 

This is especially vital in first-person mechanics, where the objective is to make a player ‘feel’ the sensations that they might experience in these environments as the main character. 

The games that succeed in this are the ones that seamlessly blend their visuals, gameplay and audio together, where an invisible conductor moves the players through a world that completely immerses them, yet isn’t their own. 

And this is where Sony’s 3D Audio comes into play: it’s going to create and enhance that sense of presence across more titles, more easily and in more ways than we’ve seen before.

The overall objective of audio in video games has always been to make the experience as immersive as possible, within the constraints of what is technically achievable. 

Developers know that there have been incredible recording techniques available for some time which can record and replicate sound exactly the way they would like it heard. The issue within video games has long been the challenge of what was possible on previous hardware generations. 

For example, take the film industry.

It has developed techniques which allow sounds to be recorded in a way that makes the viewers feel as though they are in that exact space of that on screen. And, through advancement in audio technology and post-production techniques, films can now more accurately give audiences a sense of place – we see this with Dolby Atmos.

However, this is the first time that games will be able to keep up with cutting-edge innovations in physical recording techniques. PS5’s Tempest 3D Audio technology moves beyond the 360 audio realm, which previously could not account for elevation whereas now, for instance, players will be able to hear if someone was moving around on the floor above. 

3D Audio will allows developers to create truly three-dimensional environments with sound, giving players a sense of depth and layers – from exploring a location where the individual sounds will seem as though they are coming from the correct place – the leaves rustling in the trees above, the campfire crackling below, an animal walking in the distance on one side. 

3D Audio allows sounds to be more dimensional which, in turn, allows developers to come even closer to a sense of reality – even in the most fantastical of worlds. 

With Sony making 3D Audio (and their associated Tempest Audio Engine) integral to their hardware, it is reassuring to know that every PS5 developer will have had the option to record and encode their sound to give players a heightened sense of presence across every game. 

And this is just the start. This generation will be defined by player immersion through audio, just as video was with the arrival of consumer-grade VR. 

Like getting lost in a good novel, developers want their stories to act as a means of escape; for players to temporarily forget about normal life and be drawn into some other world. Therefore, our job at Cord is to constantly further blur the lines between reality and what a game is. The more realistic that you can make the experience, the bigger the connection, and ultimately that is what we want to achieve. 

Developers can pull out the immersion through the story but in an intense moment, whether you’re hiding or about to face an enemy, if the audio pulls you in and places you in that space in that moment of time, it can create a monumental emotional payoff like no other.

Thanks to this technology, we are about to see those moments become more memorable, more compelling and more immersive than ever before, and I can’t wait to see how the PS5 will ignite our imagination through sound.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is a freelancer writer and was MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer from November 2019 until May 2022. He joined the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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