Most of the comments in my blog about Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus were from people who wanted to talk about Sly 2. I'm playing through that game and will have thoughts when I finish, but one thing that has really stood out to me is the sound. The game has fantastic music, but it also has really impressive use of surround sound. I bought a surround sound set up a little over a year ago, mostly for gaming, and I've found it pretty disappointing to be honest. There are a few games that have good separation and make use of the rear speakers, but the vast majority don't do anything special with it. Most games are set by default to surround sound (when I used TV speakers I remember having to go in and change the setting on almost every game until that became a console wide thing) but they don't do anything of note with it. Sometimes you'll hear sound effects like gunfire from the rear speakers or what have you, but it's often indistinct in the mix.
Sony is now pushing 3D sound where it's separated vertically with their new headset, and sound coming out of a speaker in your controller (Destruction Allstars was traumatic) but I feel like those things are gimmicks and can't be trusted when even basic surround sound is used so sparingly.
In Sly 2 (and I've seen some buzz that this may have been altered for the PS3 version, though the PS2 version had surround sound too as far as I can tell) the surround sound stuff is clear and notable. Not only do ambient noises come from the rear speakers, which helps to immerse you in the game, but sound effects often come from them too, and there's even an in game use because enemies and collectables make lots of noise and you can locate them using surround sound. I was able to find a hidden guard with a key in one level by tracking him with my surrounds. The bottles you pick up clink when you're near them, and you can use your surrounds to track them down.
This is awesome!
Not everyone has surround sound so of course you can't put key game functions into it, but you can add little extras like these that really add to a game. In addition, the vast majority of people do have sound of some sort, so adding gameplay sound cues like collectables that make noise is great. Some people are hearing impaired, or just play with sound off, but you can add accessibility options to add visual cues for those players.
Sound in games seems much less developed than graphics. There are a number of reasons for this but I feel like there's a lot of opportunity to innovate there. I know that there have been sound only games, and plenty of games that used sound in interesting ways, but to play this 2004 platformer and be consistently blown away by how it uses sound is just wild to me. It really brings into focus how neglected sound has been in so many games. Lots of games don't even bother with decent sound mixing; making dialogue impossible to hear because they don't turn down music and sound effects when people are talking. I remember that Dirt 5 tried to do something interesting with surround sound audio by having the music play out of virtual speakers on the track when you drove by them, and it just made it impossible to hear the music. Close but no cigar.
Sound can be even more immersive than visuals, especially with surround sound, because the fidelity is closer to life. You always know you're looking at a game on a screen, but with the right sound mix and positional audio you can actually mistake game sound for real life sound. We've all heard the phone ringing in a movie and thought it was in real life. Sound has reached the level of near perfect replication, and yet it's so neglected.
Sly 2 has aged badly in a lot of ways but its sound design not only stands up to modern games but exceeds most of them. As game graphics get more and more expensive and reach a point of diminishing returns there's lots of opportunity to improve sound, and Sly 2 shows that you don't need cutting edge tech to do it, just a little thoughtfulness and effort.
Given how many games I have to turn subtitles on in just to understand the dialog, there's a long way to go.