I’ve turned over this idea a lot over the last several years of my work in game design — what is the best way to express sound in game mechanics? It’s a stranger problem than it might seem.

We have tropes like “Talking is a Free Action” floating around — and often enough “language barriers” prove to be flat, uninspired binary toggles bogging down gameplay. But language is neither here nor there at the moment.

Really, I first started thinking about the problem of sound when I started working with Inform 7 — a software tool for creating Interactive Fiction. I read through a number of the sample games, and wanted to incorporate as many of the basic senses as I could into a piece of IF — it seemed like it would be awesome.

I realized that sight and sound serve largely redundant purposes in-game — they alert a player to the presence of a game element. Whether it’s a babbling brook or a sneaky, back-stabbing thief, the point is that both represent a kind of detection.

Video games obviously make far greater use of graphics, and thus “sight.”

The problem really, and hence the redundancy, really is where the presence of both in a game represents a sort of double jeopardy. If a character is not both invisible and silent, they may be detected.

While this may add to realism, it bogs down the game at the table.

As people are far more visually-oriented in general, I think that for the sake of simplicity and ease, that detection should be primarily based on sight — I’m not saying that descriptions of sounds can’t or shouldn’t be given for elements of the game world, only that sight and sound need not be tracked independently.

If a thing can be seen it will likely be heard, and vice-versa.

Additionally, a game system need not include conditions or “status effects” concerned with both blinding and/or deafening a creature or character — one or the other ought to be sufficient to render both senses useless.

While this might seem an oversimplification, it’s probably Truth In Television — our brains process information from both senses to inform us of our surroundings, and the sorts of things that impair one sense — bright flashes of light and loud sounds — will often impair the functioning of both.