The above video is what you hear and see when booting Sony’s PlayStation 5 (PS5) video game console for the first time. At the time of writing, I don’t own this machine – this is video captured on YouTube. Yet when I hear this opening, I feel uncomfortable. The music to me is eerie and strange – ethereal, even. I’m entranced. It’s open dissonances are a stark departure from the guitar-inducing, welcoming PlayStation 4 (PS4):
For the PS5, the blue seemingly of the PS4 morphs, swirls and disintegrates, culminating in an explosion of light subsiding into glimmering amber and white sparks against the darkness. After the chaos, a lone light from above – from heaven? – shines directly on the PS5 console. As one YouTube commenter puts it: this is “the big bang of gaming”.1
Others have also remarked on Sony’s dramatic departure in sound. Kotaku’s Alice Clarke and Ethan Gach have classified the PS5’s system music as “calmly unsettled” or “morbidly intriguing, even grimly inspiring” respectively.2 A Reddit post on PS5’s system music features responses ranging from “an eerie kind of anxiety” to sounding “like you are in heaven… So ethereal and angelic”.3 Comments on YouTube videos which focus on PS5’s music range from “very relaxing and ambient” to creating a “dystopia vibe”.4
When we think of music and images, we often conjure emotional description. In audiovisual scholarship, despite great lengths in focusing on the factual, the objective, it is frequently deeply personal descriptions that dominate, capturing our senses in written works or video essays.
But I would add an amendment to Lauren Cramer’s claim that the conversation about audiovisual media has become quite personal. Opinions have long been central to the experience of media. Between family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues and strangers, it is our own narratives that shape conversations about characters, events and symbolism. To share information about media is to share stories about what we individually and collectively have been through.
Moreover, video games, unlike linear audiovisual media like films and TV series, force us as academics to break with objectivity, with assuming that every part of the audience sees and hears the same. Gaming, by its modular, dynamic nature, demands every player to experience their game in their own, unique way. When one academic controls a character to go left, the second academic stalls, if only by a second, and triggers in the game engine a very different audiovisual cue. In one moment of hesitation, the game is changed. Now consider all the multiple variations – each one by a different player, a different person in the audience.
First time start up sequences can of course function as intended. That is, as instructions to complete setup or confirmation that the game will work properly. Fundamentally, game consoles are first moments into play. They serve as the first breath of life for the video game experience; the invitation required – and accepted, of course – to play in whatever world we wish.
Beyond the game, system music for a game console is deeply personal depending on who is playing, watching and listening. From gaming to social media, there are many scholars who are increasingly breaking the shackles on impersonal accounts, favouring honesty and personal accountability. One sound can mean so much to any of us. One sound - with so many meanings, all at once. Only in dialogue – with one another - can we fully understand what media means to us.
Thank you, Raymond. I absolutely agree the conversation about the sensuous encounter with sound and image has always been personal and affective. I’m particularly interested in the way these descriptions take on the language of interpersonal relationships (e.g. the “marriage” of sound and image). In this case, I’m interested in the relationship between these ethereal sounds and the life cycles rendered in gaming (the life of the console beginning at the first start or the avatars in the game).