The weird thing about silence is that it doesn’t really exist. Or, more accurately, you don’t measure it. Instead, you speak about it in a roundabout way. You measure its absence in a quantifiable unit of sound. Silence is binary; either there is sound or there isn’t. Something doesn’t really exist when it nothing more than a void, right?
It becomes stranger yet when you consider that, in its infinitely less nuanced presence, silence is just as powerful as its vibrating counterpart. When music swells and you feel your heart pound in a cinematic cadence, you understand the importance of good sound to a film. Something like Garden State wouldn’t be half as good as it is if it didn’t have its soundtrack just like Transformers would be a totally irredeemable turd instead of a turd with one shiny spot if it lacked its impressive audio engineering.
And then consider the troll fight in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Stuck in a room deep in the Mines of Moria, orcs begin to attack the group. They pound away at the door while the fellowship steels themselves, huddling tight and drawing their bows. Drums slam in sync as an orchestra supports the staccato foundation. And then the orcs break through the door, and the music cuts away.
Now it’s just a cacophony of words slamming against swords, and shields smashing into heads. It’s loud and raucous, almost as deafening as the horns and strings preceding it. But when the troll trundles through, smashing the door along the way, it all goes away. For a moment, if ever so briefly, we hear nothing, and all we see is the troll.
The silence punctuates the moment. It strips away our aural senses to give way to our visual one, taking in the magnitude of the problem before our heroes. It makes the beast seem so much larger than it actually is, and the scene is better for it. Silence, in this case, is absolutely vital.
Then you consider something like Gravity, where silence is, instead of an asset to be used and traded between people for drama and emotion, a whole theme. The film turns the absence of a thing into an almost tangible object, contrasting it with the bombastic physical action of being thrown around space at the whimsy of physics.
By and large, those two films are considered quite good. (They are two of my favorites, in fact.) That is partly due to them going for something as difficult as utilizing the hard-hitting impact of silence and succeeding. Many times, editors and directors go for that and fail. It happens about as frequently as a novice writer gunning for satire and falling into a half-committed bundle of ineffective words.
If you’re wondering what made me think about this, I’ll tell you. It was Infamous Second Son, the third of the franchise and the first to not feature the gravelly-voiced Cole MacGrath. It’s quite good and I have a review incoming, but something stuck to me that I just couldn’t let go.
It’s actually a problem that seems to have lingered from Infamous 2. In that and Second Son, the cities that our heroes find themselves in are disturbingly quiet. You may see people walking around, cars driving around, and bad guys beating down innocent bystanders, but, standing on a corner and observing the masses, it’s eerie.
Set in Seattle, you don’t hear anything resembling an urban pulse. There’s no hum from cranking infrastructure, there’s no slow grind of cars and their tires into the asphalt, and there’s no muted gibberish bleeding through the walls of busy restaurants and stores. It’s just…quiet.
Which would be fine if that was what the game was going for. Consider something like Alan Wake. Large portions of the game have you wandering darkened forests, only hearing your crunchy footsteps over the fallen leaves and sticks of the trees all around you. It sets the tone for the game as a strange, detached world of horrific malaise.
But Second Son establishes a real world (literally real, as opposed to the fictional city analogs of Empire City and New Marais in the past two games). Its silence serves no purpose. At least no intentional one. It does make you feel strange. You see the busy, active streets of downtown Seattle and the surrounding areas, but you don’t hear them. It’s as if the game has put cotton balls in your ears, making you lean in to the soft spoken world but hearing nothing.
It feels as if I’d stumbled into a modern performance art piece. It’s a warehouse of finely choreographed dancers and stuntmen and actors, moving without making a sound and reacting in melodrama. It’s as if a warped version of The Truman Show had emerged, skewing reality to make someone believe they are extraordinary instead of overtly ordinary.
Granted, Seattle isn’t like walking around Midtown in New York. It’s not an ear-rattling experience of angry cab drivers and frustrated locals yelling at tourists. But ginning up audio is not wholly about accuracy. When audio engineers and Foley artists create sound effects, they will go out to record the real deal. An explosion here, a car screeching to a stop there, or whatever they need.
Once they get back to the studio, however, they show off their skill, exhibiting the differences between good and bad audio production. They’ll amp up a blown up car with big, bombastic bass so the audience feels the shake of the world in their seats. They’ll mix in a subtle splash the crunch of a two-by-four to make a broken bone feel more fleshy.
That is the element of precision, matching up with accuracy to be what both sounds and feels right. But both precision and accuracy are missing from the streets of Second Son. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it does make the moments when you want to soak in the incredibly beautiful world around you feel rather hollow. It exemplifies the power of silence. It’s just unfortunate it does so by showing what not to do.