There’s arguably no form of home entertainment in which the user craves immersion more than in video games. When we buy a game, we are seeking an experience, and whether we prioritize outright challenge, engaging storytelling, or incredible renderings and music, it’s all about diving into a new world to explore and enjoy.
For the amateur gamer, headphones might provide a getaway from others in the household, preventing the competing sounds of other media, appliances, traffic, or someone’s voice saying, “When are you gonna get off that game and go outside?” I will admit, I occasionally need that sort of nudge to remind me that I’ve been playing long enough for the day.
I started playing games in the days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. That’s right, the one with cartridges that tested your lung capacity as you struggled to blow the dust out of the contacts, which we all now know was quite pointless. In those days, games utilized 8-bit audio chips that could simulate about six different types of sound using square, triangular, or sawtooth-shaped wave signals. Hence why most games from the era have a similar sound vibe, like they’re all played by the same band.
Now, games have live orchestras recording their music, voice actors performing dialogue, and sampled sound effects that are true to life. While a single speaker with less than ten “voices” could cut it during the early days of Mario Bros. (for those that remember, that’s before they were Super), technology now has a much larger gap to clear in order to deliver the audio content of games as-designed. But does a quality set of headphones hooked into your controller or computer go far enough?
For me, gaming progressed from Nintendo, to N64, to Playstation 1 & 2, then to Xbox, and now back to Sony’s PS4. (By the way, anybody have word on the PS5 restock date? Asking for a friend.)
My favorite gaming franchises to date, in the order I discovered them, have been as follows:
The Legend of Zelda
The Elder Scrolls
Dark Souls & Elden Ring
You might see a theme here: the action/RPG. Our protagonist is thrust into a world in crisis, and they must learn about the world and optimize their approach against various types of enemies, across numerous environments. Learning is the theme for the player and protagonist alike, as the player gets more familiar with different game mechanics and their counterpart avatar gains experience to build themselves into a more powerful adventuring machine. While many of these games utilize a third-person camera angle for their journey of play, the experience is unmistakably first-person.
Games portray visceral conflict: combat, racing, shooting, etc. and all of that should come across with urgency and force. Headphones definitely do that, putting the game right up next to your ears. This can be incredibly immersive for some, but jarring for others who want things a little less “in-your-face,” especially during games with horror elements or high sound contrast. I’ve personally found that even in large, open-world games like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Elden Ring, and Skyrim (yep, it still gets played) there’s a feeling of containment that comes with headphones. In addition, because of headphones’ stereo setup, sound that’s carefully engineered by the game’s designers has to be compressed and overlapped, with each of the two speakers doing a lot of work. I played for a long time on headphones, and I always felt like I was hearing an incredible amount of the game. However, it wasn’t until I took off my headset and let Platin Monaco take over that I realized—despite how much I felt I was hearing, I was missing out on even more.
Recently, I’ve made my way through multiple playthroughs of Elden Ring, and while doing so, I decided to experiment with the way I experienced the world through sound. I’ve traditionally played games with headphones. However, after getting a look at the expansive environments presented in Limgrave, Liurnia of the Lakes, and above the Grand Lift of Dectus as I ventured into Leyndell in search of the next great weapon or Ash of War, I decided to take off the headset and see what the world was like in surround sound through my Platin Monaco system.
In short: I felt like an Arabian princess on a magic carpet ride.
Journeying through The Lands Between is a massive endeavor, and with the aid of spatial audio, the world finally felt as massive as it looked. Not to mention, those little scarabs that provide flask charges, some of the game's best spells, or unique ashes of war? It’s a lot easier to track them down with 360-degree audio helping me zero in on their hiding spots. Boss fights became more intimidating and intense with a subwoofer lending its power to the bosses’ movements and attacks. The sounds of wildlife, weather, and the wind-infused attacks so commonly seen among the guards at Stormveil Castle were fantastic. The creeping ambient sounds in the claustrophobic dungeons and corridors of Volcano Manor made me look at the walls of my own living room differently.
When I first started Elden Ring, my fondness for its Dark Souls predecessors made the music stick out like a sore thumb. No longer with Platin, as it blended more seamlessly than my headset had been capable, becoming a character of its own that seemed to finally balance itself into the soundscape of the game. When the music is on a headset, I lose a level of immersion as I'm listening to music in my headphones while playing a game. When the music comes from the entire room, it puts me in the shoes of the Tarnished, and everything--even dying over and over again--is a little more enjoyable. And of course, when the music from the opening menu finally plays as you approach a certain endgame boss, that moment hit my living room like a train. I loved it.
Mystery and grandeur are the best words to describe what I felt when playing Elden Ring augmented by Platin Monaco’s surround sound, and I think that’s arguably what Miyazaki and the crew at FromSoft had in mind when designing the game. The same has been true for all my favorite titles when I’ve played them with spatial surround sound. The worlds got bigger, even in close-quarters levels and cramped areas, because the texture of the sound finally matched the visual art being presented. The expanse beyond each wall and the depth of every chasm becomes clearer, more real. The environment truly stands as a character in the story, as important as my protagonist or their opponents.