The Horrifying Sound of Death in Games
The 'Call of Duty: WWII' trailer uses gut-wrenching audio to sell its pathos. It's not the only one.
All Call of Duty images courtesy of Activision
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
I'm a fan of the Call of Duty franchise. From that first battle across the fronts of World War 2 to the most recent gung-ho shoot em up across the solar system, I have been checked in and ready to go. When the trailer for the newest game, the simply-named Call of Duty: WWII, dropped, I was ready to watch it immediately. I followed this rag-tag group of soldiers from one explosion to the next. I saw tempers rise. The camera cut quickly around someone's head being smashed in. And it was all soundtracked to swelling classical music from Henryk Górecki and the sounds of people dying.
There's are two points of strangeness here. The first is that the song used in the trailer is the second movement of Górecki's Third Symphony, or the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (thanks to Dan Golding for pointing this out). Written after Górecki was ultimately unable to produce music in response to the Holocaust and the horror of Auschwitz in particular, the Third Symphony revolves around a relationship between mother and child, between a figure who remains and a figure who has been lost.
And while the composer distanced himself from readings of the symphony that would reduce it to the horrors of the second World War, it's hard to swallow the dissonance between a video game about American soldiers tearing it up across the European theater and a symphony of such profound sorrow and loss that was written after someone was unable to musically come to grips with one of the most profound tragedies of human history.
The second strangeness is the second layer of sound: the cries of the dying. Watch the trailer again. Turn your sound up. Pay attention to :53, 1:09, and that brutal murder at 1:25. There's a layer of beautiful vocals and swelling sound, and above that, a thin dull roar of the dying. At some points in the trailer it blends into yawning roar of machines. Sometimes it seamlessly transitions into the sounds of buildings crumbling in response to plot points.
What strikes me about this use of music and the use of the sounds of the dying is that it means that this trailer and this World War II action game are both built on the sonic interpretation of human tragedy. The people who made the creative decisions for a trailer that is meant to sell millions of copies of this game to millions of excited players thought that the best way to do so was to lure you and me with the sounds of suffering and death as much as the visuals around them. It's brutal to watch a man get his head beaten in. Listening to him scream is a certain kind of aesthetic multiplier. It's a matter of intensity.
This isn't unique within the war genre. Medal of Honor: Frontline, a personal favorite in the WW2 shooter genre, fills its opening scene of storming the beach at Normandy with the screams of the dead and the dying built on the back of the familiar scenes in Saving Private Ryan, a film which contains one of the most horrifying scenes of the sound of a man dying in cinema.
These are experiences that are soundtracked by the horror of death to drive home the stakes and the reality of what these situations are like. In the case of the game, it is about telling the player that there is chaos all around them, despite the original release's inability to render thousands of dead and dying all around. In the case of the film, over and over again it makes the point that there is a real human element to war. People die, and sometimes they die together, and sometimes they die alone. People fail in the face of an engine that uses them up like meat, and the sounds of that process drag us down into the depths.
For that game and that film, the sounds of death are not shorthand. They are the things we are supposed to be paying attention to. Those sounds are supposed to grab us and keep us. They're meant to haunt us beyond all reason and thought, and they work, at least for me. I haven't been able to get Giovanni Ribisi's plaintive wailing out of my head for nearly 20 years.
Hyper Light Drifter is another game that uses the sound of suffering in a way that puts you in a particular place and a particular mindset. After boss battles, and sometimes for no reason at all, the protagonist character will cough. They're deep, difficult coughs that make the screen blink and generate little pools of blood on the ground.
The sound, especially as it fills up a pair of headphones, imprinted on me. I can hear it right now, despite having not played that game since release. It's a sound that is full of emotive capacity, and that game rightly lets you sit with the sound. It means something; the chronic illness-toward-death that the character is experiencing frames the significance and the importance of Hyper Light Drifter's plot. One cannot take the ephemeral story seriously without listening to, and having sympathy for, that terrible cough.
The sounds of suffering, the sounds of death, and a musical score written from the depths of loss and tragedy shouldn't just be marketing shorthand. In marketing, there has long been this idea of "effective frequency," or how many times you have to see or hear about a product before it latches into your being and you need to buy it. Estimates and studies vary on that number, but the important thing is that there is some number. There is a place of advertising exposure where you begin to see something and you think you might be interested in it.
The Call of Duty: WWII trailer is using the sonic capacity of human death and suffering for its capacity to work as effective frequency. If you hear the dying screams enough times, you might buy into the idea that you can fix them. You might think that you can march across Europe and right a couple wrongs. And I wonder if the best use of those sounds and the music that comes to grips with them might be sitting with them and paying attention to them instead of draining them for some advertising excitement factor.