I came across a debate recently about whether audio should be pristine (exclusively present the game elements recorded as nicely as possible), or if it should be more “realistic”. In the real world, there is a tremendous amount of background noise, for example.
Because brains have mechanisms for focusing on sounds to the exclusion of other sounds (see “cocktail party effect”), it seems to me that background noise can be kept pretty minimal without disturbing the sense of realism. I don’t know the specifics of how this happens (I recall terms like “gamma system,” “reticular formation & habituation,” “lateral inhibition” – terms I came across back in the years I was studying cognitive psychology and audio perception at UC Berkeley), but in effect, our auditory system can to some extent turn down the perceived amplitude of some sounds and bring up the volume of others. Biggest component may be if you can link to a visual correlate to the audio source. The visual reinforcement helps the brain synch to the target audio and select it for cognitive amplification/focus.
At the same time, background sound can add a lot of texture and sense of place, as well as have an emotional influence. So it should often be a good idea to make it part of the sound design. But most of the time, background sounds are ignored and/or not even noticed, so maybe it is more “real” to have them be very quiet or at subliminal volumes, whatever that means. (Example, people are able to sleep in a busy city, even with lots of noisy traffic 24 hours a day. The brain habituates to the noise, recognizes it as not important and dials it down.)
The new thought, for me, was that the amplitude of the background sounds could be linked to a “health” or “fatigue” reading. I think most agree that as we get more tired, it often becomes harder to focus or concentrate. Introducing additional distracting elements or just making the background noise louder relative to more important sound content could simulate the effect of being tired. An avatar, upon waking, could have the background effects be quieter and less attention grabbing.
There might be ways to also do this visually. Somehow, the graphical representation of the world would have to be something where you could modulate how busy or cluttered the look is, while ostensibly keeping the appearance the same. For example, irrelevant texture details on a surface might get progressively more contrast or edge enhancement with fatigue.
I’m wondering if there are games where this is done and how useful this might be as a design idea.
Another component might be adding a bit of lag and/or introducing an additional lack of precision to the GUI controls for movement. Reaction times do get worse with tiredness. But this could easily be overdone and result in something that is just not fun anymore.
Kind of a weird notion when I first came across it, that in effect we have faders in our brains that we don’t even know we are using.