We are so often so inundated with sound that being in a genuinely quiet environment is a strangely potent experience. Right now, the weight of the silence is sufficient enough that I feel obtrusive by tapping at the keyboard, and am muting my typing as best as I am able, but there’s still a quiet distant roar outside like a waterfall almost out of hearing, and faint dog barks, and the quiet hum of my laptop. This is what passes for silence for me. It’s not much but it’s a start.
Silence is an intimidating choice to make, artistically. In films, making part of the film completely silent means that you will hear your fellow audience members, each cough or wheeze or murmur or fart. It can ruin the kind of tense moment that filmmakers usually reserve such silence for. There, too, we often hear a degree of that abstract distant roar, wind or traffic or water in the pipes, that seems to frequently accompany us, just to cover up the obnoxious practicalities a human audience brings. Silence means that whatever you present needs to stand up on its own merits, with no recourse to the cheap poeticism of speech, to the hollow thunder of faked up explosions, to the tawdry manipulations of an orchestral score or to the undirected impulse of a beat.
Making the choice of silence in games is even rarer. Many games avoid forgoing even their musical backing for any length of time, constantly playing musical phrases until they become wrung out and bereft of meaning. Even those which are comfortable with a more sparse musical accompaniment rarely have situations of oppressive silence: Because sound is a fundamental feedback mechanism to let the player know what they’re doing, it’s problematic to have any situation where the player would be incapable of breaking the silence. It’s unusual to even present the player with a silence to be broken, to have a space in the game muted, virginal: To make it seem an uncomfortable violation when the player character actually makes a sound, a footstep or a grunt, and shatters that vast mute.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be unable to hear, to have these mountainous ranges of silence and cacophony constricted to a single band. People often think of the blind man forced to compensate by increased sensitivity to sound and touch, but I wonder if the deaf might sometimes, inured to the manipulations of the Foley artist and composer, see things a bit more clearly. So often, every single channel of information is used to tell and to amplify an emotionally manipulative lie– if one of those channels cuts out, does that lie become more feeble and begin to topple?
Well, perhaps, but there’s more than one way to cast a sin, and people do so love being manipulated that any ground made up would quickly be lost again. Given my druthers, I’d ruther risk the pitfalls of manipulation than be edified by disability.
It would be terrible to never know what silence sounds like.