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Chaos Theory: Sounding off on the influence of ambiance in The Secret World

MJ Guthrie

From chirping birds and swooshing swords to background music for different areas, MMOs are rife with in-game sounds. Yet plenty of folks actually opt out of the original game sounds and music, shutting them off in favor of personal soundtracks. I myself usually turn game sounds down to around 3% because I often find the sounds too overpowering. Doing so never seemed to affect games much -- until now.

Sounds make The Secret World.

By now, you've all heard me rave about the ambiance in TSW, either in my Why I Play, here in Chaos Theory, or during my livestreams on Massively TV. I've repeatedly said that the spooky atmosphere that pulls you right into the game is one of its greatest features. Yet it actually goes deeper than that: The ambiance is more than just added frosting that can be scraped off without affecting the main treat; it is completely integral to the game. Thanks to an unplanned "opportunity" this past week, I can tell you without a doubt that if you remove or turn the sounds in TSW down too low, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. In fact, you are actually missing out on the game.

The Secret World screenshot
Sound is profound
My first inkling that sound was more than just a component and actually defined TSW's experience was during a normal livestream. As usual during streams, I cranked the volume up over my usual gaming levels so that viewers could hear nuances better. But what happened was that I started experiencing the game on a whole new level! No longer did I just hear and react to sounds during the course of gaming; now the sounds enveloped me and made the experience profoundly visceral.

While the visual effects like wisps of fog and ominous buildings in the modern day setting do much to set the mood in The Secret World, it is really the sound effects that draw you in and make you a part of the experience. Suddenly, the game world is less something on the other side of your monitor and more surrounding you. The slight changes in pitch and cadence of music alerting you to some shift in the world around you; the barely noticed sound of movement somewhere behind you causes physical reactions. When hearing something as you explore and adventure in TSW makes you tense up and immediately start scanning your surroundings, elicits goosebumps, or even causes you to yelp and jump right out of your skin, you know it's affecting you on a deeper level than just some game.

And trust me, I've yelped a few times and felt my heart nearly jump right out of my chest, all from just the amazing symphony of sounds in-game.

You;ve lost that spooky feeling
The Secret World screenshotAs much as I trumpet how great TSW is in so many ways, I have to admit that without the sounds, the game seriously loses its punch. Thanks to a Windows Update snafu this past week, I got to see what it was like taking part in the game without any sound: no voice overs, no music, no ambient sounds. Nothing. And I found very little draw to keep playing. Sure, I saw the guy in the gas mask standing in the fog, but I didn't hear the anxiety in his voice or the way the fog muffles other sounds like the lapping of the water.

Without the sounds, there really was a serious lack of appeal. I was now disconnected instead of pulled in. My attention wasn't captured, and I found my eyes and mind wandering away from the game. Sure, the game still looked just as it did before, but the experience was gone. Truth be told, it even lost some of its visual luster.

Interestingly, this led to another discovery that highlights The Secret World's uniqueness. Of course, the more senses you involve, the more powerful the impact, but in TSW, sound fully trump visuals. In most games, I can take or leave the sounds completely, but losing the graphics would make them less appealing. However, in The Secret World, the opposite holds true. It turns out that I can lose the visual aspect of the game completely and still have a moving experience, enjoying that intensity and suspense that the game provides, whereas a loss of the sound effectively knocked the game down a bunch of ranks on my interest meter.

The Oscar goes to...
Besides the artfully placed realistic noises of the environment and cunning use of musical scores, TSW has another ace in its pocket when it comes to manipulating us with sound: fantastic voice acting. Over and above the specific words the the NPCs utter, so much of the personality and backstory of NPCs comes through in their inflections and tone of voice during the conversations. In fact, how the NPCs say something usually affects us more than what they say; actually listening to them gives us a better emotional understanding of the situation than navigating purely text dialogue.

Sound off! Er, on!
This whole little audio experiment and resulting revelation about the integral nature of sound in TSW led me to wonder whether some of those folks who complain about the combat and character models (although I really do not have a problem with either) have fallen prey to dismissing the in-game sounds. If they have removed that core part of the game, maybe that's why they are missing the experience and are instead focusing on those other things. Quite honestly, I can agree that the game may not be all that and a bag of chips in all the other areas, but once you add in the sound, it blows you away like so few games can.

The Secret World screenshot
So here is my recommended fix: Just turn up those sounds in game! Turn your lights out, use headphones or surround sound (if you have them), and let the ambiance seep into you -- let it pull you into the suspenseful world of secrets. Without the intensity of the sounds toying with my emotions, not to mention my nerves, I, too, found the game a bit lacking. But once I cranked up the volume, I was lost again inside the world again. I think the audio can overshadow many of those other things and really make your time in game an experience worth having. So take advantage of the ambiance; that is where the The Secret World shines!

Oh, and see you folks next Monday, as Chaos Theory moves back to a weekly schedule!

Conspiracies, paranoia, secrets, and chaos -- the breakfast of champions! Feast on a bowlful with MJ every Monday as she infiltrates The Secret World to bring you the latest word on the streets of Gaia in Chaos Theory. Heard some juicy whispers or have a few leads you want followed? Send them to and she'll jump on the case!

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