Maybe you’re playing a game and you’ve just finished a boss fight. There’s a cut scene waiting, but it needs a little loading. The screen goes black for a second, and the loading doohickey starts to turn or sparkle or flutter in a corner. Listen carefully. There’s a good chance you might hear a ghost sound.
Ghost sounds is my own terminology, but I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about. They’re sounds that leak through from the ether inside games when loading or transitions are happening. I love ghost sounds. I love spotting them. I love the way they suggest that a game is so complex and unwieldy that it almost feels like a huge theatrical production with bumps and creaks going on in the wings whenever things have to change.
Where do these ghost sounds come from? Often they’re sound effects played seemingly out of sequence. Often they’re something from the scene that’s just departed or the scene that’s to come. One of the greatest things about ghost sounds is that they often give you the DNA of a game – they reveal what a game feels is most important. Shadow Complex was filled with ghost sounds whenever you loaded into an old save. You save in Shadow Complex in specific rooms on the map – rooms which often have items stocked to replenish health and ammo. The ghost sounds were always wonderfully item-replenishy, with a spritz of super-soldier over the top. As the screen went black and the logo appeared, as you settled in and prepared to play, you’d hear ammo clips rattling or maybe a bag being purposefully zipped. I am pretty sure these ghost sounds were an accident, but even so they frequently spoke of readiness, of a belief, borne out by the rest of the game, that all of life’s problems could be solved if you were just sufficiently tooled-up and wore clothes with a lot of pockets.
I’m playing Shattered – Tale of the Forgotten King at the moment. It’s a French Soulsalike that’s in early access and so far it’s pretty wonderful: gloomy and poetic and atmospheric, and a bit too wordy in just the right way. It is a little buggy too, and buggy games are the games that ghost sounds most like to haunt. I loaded into a new area for the first time a few minutes ago and the screen went black and then a bunch of numbers appeared. For a moment I thought the game was broken. Then I suspected the numbers might have meaning and I should have been paying more attention to the lore. Then I started to think the game was broken again, and then the silence was broken by a ghost sound: a grinding, rumbling, cavernous kind of ghost sound, suggesting the world was hollow and dark and just the right kind of glitchy.
Then, as quickly as it began, the rumbling abruptly cut off, and I was back in the game.