More splat! More splash! Affective ‘joy’ in game sounds!

I like the book Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation by Steve Swink. It does a great job of provoking conversations with my students on how games can be a combination of spatial and input systems to produce different feelings in players. Talking about how different input controls such as buttons and triggers, how certain forms of pressing and pulling things, for example, map to physical sensations and mental processing of space always creates a great discussion about what type of controls students love — and those they think they hate. This always leads to discussions on how if I am squishing buttons versus tapping them, I feel different ways. There are degrees of tension and frustration that arise in my body as a result of wanting to produce a visual effect on the screen in a simulated, spatial system. Where I quickly depart from Swink (2008), though, is a focus on challenge and flow. I don’t think such an emphasis on player control is useful.

I am so tired of talking about the challenge of games, focusing on if a game is challenging enough, or mapping difficulty against some imagined linear progression of flow.

What I love about Swink’s (2008) work, and how I use it within my own classrooms, is changing the conversation away from “Is this challenging enough?” to a different question: “Where are the moments of joy?” I’m not talking about fun, but where desire and tension meet, the times when my perceived agency — not control! — work with my orientation to the game. I am delighted. I am excited to use a new character skill. I want to know more about the story being explained to me. Joy instead of dominance of a space.

Measuring “Fun” is Always Measuring Against Assumed Normative Biases

Bonnie Ruberg has a great chapter in Video Games Have Always Been Queer on the word fun. Drawing from Sara Ahmed’s work on affect theory and Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, Ruberg (2019) asks an important for all game designers who use the word “fun”: whose fun? As Ruberg (2019) explains, “Fun is cultural, structural, gendered, racialized, and inseparable from larger structures of power, privilege, and oppression” (p. 167). While it can be tempting to use the word in design spaces, and in conversations with students on their projects, these discussions should change in their focus. Whenever I feel myself wanting to ask “Is this fun?”, I try to change it a different question: “Where is the joy here?”

Why not happiness?

In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed (2010) does an amazing job of examining happiness and how, in many cases, it is oriented at normative forces. “Being happy” is a matter of conforming to a past, an ideal, or some other imagined location or collection of objects. In a section on the “freedom” to be happy, Ahmed (2010) puts it very simply: “To be bound to happiness is to be bound by what has already been established as good” (p. 133). The use of the ending phrase “established as good” is a strong part of the point Ahmed (2010) makes throughout the book. Happiness is too often entangled, sometimes hopelessly so, into measuring against some assumed or imagined point. I will be happy when I get this job. I will be happy when I’m in a relationship. As Ahmed (2010) complicates a queer reading of happiness, an affective interpretation of good and bad feelings is often trapped in a binary of its own. “Bad” feelings are conservative and “good” feelings are always progressive. Yet, this need not be so. Ahmed (2010) concludes with a hopefully note of “unfinished stories” (p. 199). “To make hap,” writes Ahmed (2010) at the end of the book, “is to make a world” (p. 199). There is more beyond a “promise” of happiness in some imagined world; there is possibly in a moment to re-make it.

Quake’s “Perfect! Double Kill! Triple Kill!” and Peggle’s Pitches

Quake (1996) has a very gritty atmosphere and a focus on fast, kinetic gameplay. In multiplayer settings, players make quick moments and navigate spaces with efficiency. Top-tier players can anticipate actions and make counter-moves through understanding the speed of characters and how fast particular weapons reload. When a player achieves a kill in the multiplayer match, the announcer rewards them with a phrase. Achieve multiple kills of other player characters in a short time period and the announcer says more things. “Double kill!” says the announcer on killing two characters quickly enough; “Triple kill!” on three kills. The longer the player can achieve this streak, the more the announcer rewards them with praise and excitement.

Peggle (2007) is visually nothing like Quake (1996). Players arrange a shot and let loose a ball. They watch as it bounces onto different things and points are multiplied. As a combination of pinball and pachinko, Peggle (2007) invites a perception of agency within a system of randomness as balls bounce across different areas and set off “explosions” as players are rewarded by different sound effects and actions based on where their balls navigate the paths of obstacles within the level. The more any single ball bounces on progressive things, though, the higher the pitch of the bounce sound. This climbs and climbs until the ball randomly collides to break the sequence. Within this sound sequence is its own movement of tension and release expressed almost exclusively through sound as it grows in pitch and then, finally, resets.

Where both Quake (1996) and Peggle (2007) intersect are in joyful sounds. Based on their play, both games reward the player in giving them sound progressions, the announcer in Quake (1996) and pitches in Peggle (2007), provoking joy in the player. It becomes joyful to achieve these states in either game, either through the ability of one player to anticipate how others will react or in the setup of a “perfect” shot in Peggle (2007) as a ball bounces from one reward area to another, racking up the points, triggering sounds effects, and lighting up the screen.

The Middleman and “Chubby Sounds”

The TV show The Middleman was not considered critically great. It depicted the character Wendy Watson (played by Natalie Morales) joining a secret agency known as the The Middlemen in their fight against evil including fish-craving zombies and vampiric puppets. It was very silly, but it holds a place in my heart as a show that had its problems, oh yes, but delighted in its pop culture nature and was willing to have its actors say things like “the daring do of a certain kind of ruse” and other nearly-lyrical things.

Something its creator (Javier Grillo-Marxuach) always emphasized in the construction of its props and sound effects was the use of what he called “chubby sounds.” Unlike the clean sounds of Star Trek where doors whoosh closed and tricorders trill, the sounds on the The Middleman were chubby. They plopped, splatted, and splashed. Any time some technology made a sound, it was something that provoked a silly joy in its emphasis on the analog over the digital. It purposely recalled the noises of earlier technology when parts jangled and clanged rather than rumbled or chirped.