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Things That Go Bump in the Night: How Games Design the Sound of Horror

From indies like Stifled to Sylvio, to triple-A like Dead Space, horror games have redefined how we hear horror.

Feature by Caty McCarthy, .

As a kid, you always remember what goes bump in the night. Whether it was the monster under your bed, or whatever was hiding in your closet. If you heard something in otherwise pure silence, your mind would jump to the worst conclusions. Your hearing suddenly focused, like you were an impromptu Spider-Man or something. Usually it was nothing.

The best sorts of horror games prey on those fears. Not in the seen, but in the unseen. In what might be under your bed, or behind that closet door. They prey on what we hear and sense through other means. What frightens us psychologically, not what pops out to jump scare us for just a moment. The best horror games are the ones about things that go bump in the night, the ones whose sounds still haunts us.

Some horror games don't focus enough on sound, or in another sense only utilize sound as an audio cue, like when a menace is lurking close by. There are other games that throw a lot of their weight in the eeriness of sound. From big budget titles like Dead Space and Alien: Isolation to smaller indies, like Sylvio and the new VR horror Stifled. In all of these, sound does more than just urge you to be cautious. Sound is horror in itself.

Recording ghosts is key to Sylvio.

Trailing The Sounds of Horror

The Sylvio games—the first game released in 2015, its sequel Sylvio 2 earlier this year—are horror games about tracking ghosts. In both games, you play as Juliette Waters, a ghost recorder. The game isn't scary in the jump scare sense, but purely as an audio experience. You listen in on ghosts and other mysterious sounds, as it quietly consumes you.

Before founding the small horror game studio Stroboskop, developer Niklas Swanberg was a fan of ghosts. Or more specifically, the phenomena of ghost recording. While Swanberg isn't quick to say he personally believes in ghosts, he does note that he believes that there are more layers to our reality than we're aware of, and that's part of the exciting thing about listening to ghost recordings. Sounds happen for a reason; like a tree falling by its lonesome in an empty forest.

So Swanberg made a game about those very sounds.

"All real fear comes from stillness. Jump scares, gore, scary monsters, it’s all just effect in my opinion. It kicks the player out of the immersion," Swanberg wrote to me over email. Alternatively, Swanberg wants his players to feel focused and safe, at least safe in some respect. "The recorder in Sylvio is a safe haven for the player, it’s a place where they can analyze and understand what was just spoken to them. Try to retake control over the weird noises they were just exposed to. But understanding the words doesn’t necessarily mean they retake control, it's more like a rabbit hole into a deeper context they know nothing about. So their attempts to retake control just digs them deeper. The sound and music is constantly telling them something is wrong, but they have no way of knowing what it is. I want it a bit to be like being lost in the woods. Everything is so still, peaceful and beautiful, yet you’re running around in total panic, because you can’t get out."

Despite the horrific setting, Sylvio is a quiet sort of game. Players explore haunted spaces, geared only with a gun that can cram little scraps into as makeshift bullets, and a recorder, armed with a rewind and record feature so players can follow every sound that permeates through the air. You'll never come across a ghastly foe by complete surprise in Sylvio, only the sounds that surround you and make you wary of what ghost lurks in a far off place. Sylvio is deeply unsettling to actively play, because you're in direct control of what you hear, how you hear, and how much you want to decode it. It forces you closer to the action.

Sylvio 2 brings a video recorder into the mix.

"To me, horror is all about not having control of your surroundings, and to find the contrasts that make the player lose that control," wrote Swanberg. "Sound is the perfect tool for that. We are constantly aware of what we see, but what we hear is perceived on a much more unconscious level." Swanberg's horror influences range from Stephen King, Hideo Nakata, to David Lynch, specifically citing Lynch's ability of pairing "small abstract noises to powerful images." Playing Sylvio, these influences crystallize in focus.

Contrary to the first game, Sylvio 2 takes place primarily indoors. Players are also given a movie camera rather than just a lone recorder, allowing them to watch the ghosts interact with one another, in addition to hearing them as usual. By shifting the player's location to largely indoors, Swanberg tried to convey a heightened sense of claustrophobia and loneliness.

In the new VR title Stifled, developers Gattai Games took an uncharacteristic approach for horror games in the virtual reality space. Instead of sight and embodiment being a player's greatest fear, sound became it. In Stifled, players are trapped within a pitch black space. By making sounds in real-life, an echo reveals objects in their vicinity and pathways to move. But players must be careful: because sound also alerts their locations to monsters nearby. As Bryan Teo, Stifled's audio director told me over email, sound's not only your only resource, but incidentally, it's your greatest enemy too.

"It lies in making the normal uncomfortable. We take sounds that occur in the real world and make subtle changes so they sound right, but not quite," Teo said. "In some sense, we're subverting your natural understanding of audio. We also take a 'less is more' approach in general to our production, the game is visually simple to put emphasis on sound, and the soundscape is light but creates an ambiance of constant discomfort, making every stinger, and scare even more intense."

In Stifled, your echoing voice is your guide—and your worst enemy.

Stifled got its start as just an experimental project called Lurking. It was a student made game by just three members of the team three years ago. The project wasn't inspired by horror at all, but by another student project: an animated short of a blind girl exploring her world through sound, directed by three students from the National Taiwan University of Arts in 2010. By marrying that core concept with horror elements, Stifled was eventually born.

Learning How to Emit Fear

The horror games that inspired the team at Gattai Games are probably familiar if you traipse through the horror genre: Amnesia: The Dark Descent, SOMA, and one of the greatest modern survival-horror classics: Dead Space. The studio that created Dead Space, Visceral Games, was shuttered by EA just a couple weeks ago, but the core horror game's legacy lives on. Most specifically, in how it invigorated the horror genre during its time with its dynamic use of sound.

For those unfamiliar, in Dead Space players navigated an eerie space station, they were constantly haunted by sound. Called "fear emitters," the sound in the game was wholly dynamic; heightening when foes were near, dying down when the player moved past the terror. Fear emitters were pinned against doors and locations too. It struck tension in players.

Audio director Don Veca, who now works at Sledgehammer Games, told Game Informer in 2010 about his time directing audio for the horror game. "I got this little portable recorder,” Veca told the magazine. “It’s just a small Sony recorder, it's no big deal, but I can carry it anywhere. You never know when you might be sitting in a bar or a restroom or something and hear this kind of bubbling on the pipes that you want to capture. Believe it or not, a lot of the sounds in Dead Space were just from when I was walking down the hall somewhere."

Dead Space won several awards for its audio design. From GameSpot, the British Academy Video Game Awards, the Game Developer's Choice Awards, and the 12th DICE Awards, Veca's innovative work was at the forefront of all of them.

Dead Space is well-regarded for its sound design.

But when the team began concepting Dead Space, their question in terms of sound was a simple one: how could they make the music and sound hit points like in linear horror movies, or as Veca himself said in an interview with the sound design blog Original Sound Version, "'build up to the boo.'" In video games, players are typically in full control; in a sense, they control the horror, they aren't guided to it like in a movie.

"It occurred to me that the “reason” the music swells in horror movies is because things are getting “scarier”; that is, the amount of “fear” that the movie is attempting to evoke is always increasing or decreasing throughout the entire production," Veca told the blog. "It’s the composer/sound designer’s job to support and emphasize this emotional flow with the appropriate audio. So it occurred to me that we already have the ability to emit point-source or global sound and light in our game, for instance, and all we needed was a way to emit fear. This was the birth of the [game's] “fear emitter,” which is simply a first-class game object that designers can place in the world or attach to other objects, most notably, the enemy alien creatures. Fear emitters are simply a 'sphere of influence.'"

Other games, such as 2014's Alien: Isolation, took cues from Dead Space's sound-addled horror. In Alien: Isolation, players also had to pay attention to sound, because it told players when the single xenomorph stalking around the station was close by. In an interview with PC Gamer, Alien: Isolation audio director Jeff van Dyck directly cites Dead Space as a core influence, also noting that protagonist Amanda Ripley's heavy breathing, squeaky sneakers, and rustling backpack were all packed with intent: every noise could spell Ripley's doom, and was essential. In Alien: Isolation, a player's own personhood can be the source of terror—because in the worst situations, it can give you away.

Audio in horror games has only grown more compelling in recent years, evidenced by the existence of indie horror games like Stifled and Sylvio. For big budget games, Dead Space was a crown jewel in designing horror games a bit more like horror films. Alien: Isolation took note of it, and it likely won't be the last.

Games are likely the closest we'll ever get to feeling as scared as kids who hear something they don't understand. Whether they put us in control or strip us of all control, the real terror will always lie in what we can never see; or what we sense is just around the corner.

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