Gaming

Sony's PS5 3D audio brings the atmosphere in Resident Evil Village and Returnal

The Sony audio team explains how spatial audio could lay groundwork for games and VR down the road.

Returnal on PS5 leans heavily on atmospherics, especially immersive sound.
Housemarque

I'm easily terrified. Horror games don't need to do much to push me over the edge. Audio can ramp up that freaked-out feeling quickly, especially when I have headphones on. Maybe it's no surprise that two of the PlayStation 5's most recent games, Returnal and Resident Evil Village, lean on 3D audio for some extra environmental punch.

Not everyone plays games with headphones on, but it seems like Sony is hoping you will. The PS5's support for 3D audio was emphasized at the console's launch last year, but it's not a guarantee you'll ever use it. Unlike the also-immersive and vibrationally enhanced DualSense controller, headphones are always optional.

The PlayStation VR originally led the way for Sony to explore spatial audio. While the newest PSVR for PS5 isn't here yet, it seems like 3D audio-supported games could be leading the way for how VR re-enters the picture for Sony's console next year or further in the future. 

I asked Kenichi Imai, Deputy Head of the Software Engineering Group, Sony Interactive Entertainment, and audio designers for the recent games Returnal and Resident Evil Village, for more insight as to what's going on.

"PS5 deploys hundreds of virtual speakers, which provides improved audio resolution." says Sony's Imai of the PS5's 3D audio capabilities. "It also allows the creation of soundscapes that completely surround the player, amongst other things, so I think it will add a number of important elements to the game design process."

It's similar in spirit to what the PSVR did on PS4, but more dedicated. "There are differences between 3D audio on PS5 and PS VR, such as the number of supported sound sources and the audio resolution, but the goal is the same: to make games more immersive," Imai says. "VR takes up the player's entire field of vision, so it's essential that sounds correspond to that. Our starting point for PS5, however, was that we wanted to use 3D audio to elevate the level of immersion in all games, not just VR titles. I think that's a key difference."

Recent games are dipping into the capabilities, mainly for atmospheric purposes. But also, to some degree, for an added sense of navigation.

Mother Miranda in Resident Evil Village

Resident Evil Village uses 3D audio: the last Resident Evil game was in VR, too.

Capcom

"I had previously worked with 3D audio technology with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, since we created it to support PlayStation VR," says Wataru Hachisako, audio director for Resident Evil Village. "Some of the basic philosophies were the same between the two, especially in terms of evoking fear and tension. However, when I first checked out the PlayStation 5's 3D audio, I was both pleasantly surprised and shocked at how much the resolution had increased."

"I absolutely think it's a natural fit for the horror genre." Hachisako says of 3D audio. "We have the option of setting 3D audio as an environmental component or tying it to a specific object, such as a rock." There are some ways the audio is used for navigation or orientation, too. "With 3D audio, players will have a better sense of where enemies are coming from, even before they lay eyes on them," he adds. "Of course, this may sound like a less scary experience, because you know where something is coming from, but the anticipation actually adds to the scare factor."

Loic Couthier, audio lead for Returnal at Sony Interactive Entertainment, adds "The envelopment makes you feel like you are "there," and the positioning gives you pinpoint precision as to where things are. So it can most definitely help you locate things in-game." 

The biggest challenge for making the PS5's 3D audio feel essential, though, is that it's optional. Not everyone's going to wear headphones, unlike the DualSense controller. I also find it strange that using headphones and the PS5 DualSense together ends up removing one of the immersive qualities of the controller: its own speaker, which sometimes plays in-game effects of its own.

But it does suggest that the PS5's native 3D audio support can cross over to VR more fluidly, including maybe for games that flip back and forth between VR and non-VR play options. Sony's next-gen PSVR hardware isn't going to arrive this year, but 3D audio and DualSense interactions in games could be paving the way for how that future headset will interact.

I don't need a headset for horror games, though. Headphones are immersive enough.