When Jason Graves started scoring Dead Space in 2006, he did not realise he will become a part of a big endeavour and his name will be associated with this game series the most. Dead Space was a huge success and to this day it still is one of the best and scariest horror games ever both for the critics and the players. In my opinion there are two amazing games coming from that age – Dead Space and BioShock. They both have outstanding orchestral soundtracks, which are unnerving and full of dissonances. However it is the former which is definitely scary, since BioShock is not a horror game.
The music, the whole audio plays the fundamental role in building this tension.
The adventures of the space engineer Isaac Clarke, exploring the huge spaceship full of deadly creatures called the Necromorphs is an unforgettable experience. As we walk through the dark, metal corridors listening to distant, eerie sounds echoing the walls – metal against metal, screaming, monsters shrieking – we feel the constant tension, not to mention the enemy encounters. The music, the whole audio plays the fundamental role in building this tension.
While scoring the game, Jason Graves had a lot of freedom given by the devs. The only requirement was that it had to be the scariest soundtrack ever written. Jason began working on an orchestral score, inspired by Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and horror movie classics like The Exorcist or The Shining. After studying numerous contemporary scores he had in mind what it should be like.
The main problem was the audio engine of the game. It was designed to play up to four layers of music simultaneously, mixing them together regarding of what happens in the game. So for the music sequence which last two minutes there were actually eight minutes of music. This would make the recording session four times longer. The developers could not afford such a long session with the live orchestra. This is why Jason decided to record groups of instruments in short fragments, then put them together and process them in the studio, creating a score from them. So it was like sound mining, making a musical Necromorph, as he mentions.
The only requirement was that it had to be the scariest soundtrack ever written.
This term really fits to the Dead Space soundtrack, also considering its frightening effect on the listener. It is a hole with lot of scary scores in it. They are unsettling, brutal, aleatoric, full of awesome clusters and dissonances. For a common listener such music might be unpleasant. But to me, as I love musical experiments and dissonant sounds, it is a perfect accompaniment to what we deal with in the game. Dead Space OST flawlessly merges with the gore stylistics of this production. According to Jason, the musicians had lots of fun during the recording sessions, since playing all those abstract sounds is not what classically trained musicians do every day.
Another interesting thing about the audio engine of Dead Space is the so-called fear meter. Basically it determined which of those four layers of music (plus stingers when the enemy confronts you) is being played whether the danger is nearby or not. It also adjusted the dynamic of each layer. Pretty simple, but innovative those days. And it looks like the audio team at EA considered the interactive music as important long before that issue was brought up by some composers and audio people from the industry.
For Dead Space 2, the composer also made a terrifying soundtrack. Yet he enriched it with two beautiful, heart melting string quartet pieces – Canonical Aside and its expansion Lacrimosa. They illustrate Isaac Clarke’s personal problems and struggle. The music still scares the player and the fun fact is that the two themes (for Isaac and the Necromorphs) were built on four sounds: D, E, A, D, yes – dead. Quite a wink to musically oriented gamers which reminds the one the narrative designers did with the titles of the first installment’s chapters. The first letters of each one were forming a phrase “Nicole is dead”.
Dead Space OST flawlessly merges with the gore stylistics of this production.
The third part of the franchise was more action-oriented but it is still a good game to me. The game was dedicated to the wider group of gamers, it also required a more Hollywood-like, epic score which had its great moments. But Jason Graves wanted to make even more scary soundtrack than he did for the first game. Sadly that did not happen because of the constant changes on the Audio Director post and the overall EA’s vision of the entire game. The composer had to follow that vision. It is quite disappointing that we will never know what he had prepared. Still the game and the score, which was co-composed with James Hannigan, are really enjoyable.
The Dead Space soundtrack created a new path in the video game horror scoring, that is for sure. Jason Graves did a lot of hard work to bring it to life. Even if that musical Necromorph became weaker at the final installment of the game, it still can smash the player into pieces. Beware when one of your mutated colleagues is trying to behead you accompanied by The Necromorphs Attack.