It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since the original Dead Space came out. With the 2023 remake, I’m so excited that an entirely new generation of players are getting the chance to experience all the chills and thrills of visiting the USS Ishimura for the first time!
A few years later, I curiously found myself running through a series of genre-specific titles every year or so.
Come take a stroll with me down memory lane as I wax poetic about musical anxiety, actual anxiety, musical Necromorphs and the delicate art of creating the world’s worst sounding major scale.
I started working in games in the late 1990’s with a few local game publishers, throwing in music for the UNC Planetarium and local politicians for good measure. A few years later, I curiously found myself running through a series of genre-specific titles every year or so. Starting with children’s titles (Curious George, Dora the Explorer), moving through medieval worlds (Joan of Arc, The Hobbit, Rise and Fall, Gauntlet) and eventually to tried and true WWII genre (Blazing Angles, Silent Hunter, Hour of Victory). All this time, I was also frequenting the ever-present “movie-based game” tropes (Zathura, Transformers, King Arthur, Star Trek, Star Wars, Flushed Away) as well as pleeeenty of Ubisoft children’s games (Tim Power, Horsez, Babyz, Imagine).
I curiously found myself running through a series of genre-specific titles every year or so.
Ok, so lots of different genres. Lots of music. You get it. However, what’s the one genre you don’t see mentioned at all? Yep. Horror. Why? No specific reason, other than I just hadn’t been presented the opportunity yet. YES, that’s right, even with my last name. And also, YES, that is actually my last name. It’s not a stage name I took in order to better appeal to horror developers. Or to make myself seem, somehow, “moodier.” I’m moody enough!
I only mention this because I was definitely not gearing up for any kind of horror score. I didn’t even consider it as an option to strive for. I think it’s important for each of us to realize we only have so much control over what is presented to us as opportunity. And, as I recently stated online, I truly believe that a lot of hard work can make up for lack of talent.
No one had approached me about scoring a single horror title before 2006. In fact, beyond my tender student studies at USC’s film music program in Los Angeles, I hadn’t written a single horror cue since 1997. Fast forward nine years later to 2006. Electronic Arts issued a demo call out for a new horror game. They weren’t specific about the overall genre, but I did learn after the fact that EA at least reached out to a few film composers and didn’t receive replies. Oh, how the times have changed!
Traditionally speaking, I’m a classically trained composer – my background is 20th-century music and Percussion Performance. I had some pre-existing live music from my student reel at USC that was fairly horror-based from my studies with Christopher Young. A little dated, but better than nothing. I also put together one custom cue with samples, although the 2006 sample world was grossly devoid of any horror textures. But that new, original cue was the one that got me the gig. The Audio Director, Don Veca, called me, raving about how it was exactly what he was looking for.
The original Dead Space creative direction mandated a very specific music vibe – “modern, Hollywood action music with some horror thrown in.” So that’s what I did for the initial gameplay tests. Everyone seemed pleased. Don came back to me a few months later and said the music needed to change from “Hey, look at you, tough guy, you got this!” to “Guess what you are going to die ANY SECOND NOW.”
I was given a very open-ended music directive – “just create the scariest soundtrack the world has ever heard.” Seriously, those were his exact words, including the “just” at the beginning, like it was a simple matter of sheer will to force this new, horrifying music in existence. But, he did not specify genre. It could be industrial, electronic, music concrete, heavy metal…I was given complete freedom to choose! And a proper live music recording budget to back it up. So my task was to figure out #1 the style of music I wanted to compose and #2 how to record it all in a way that it could easily be dropped into the game as an interactive, four layer score.
But what kind of music would be the “scariest music the world has ever heard?” Great question. I knew there was a general push for a heavy metal, guitar-based score from upper management. But Don assured me I had the freedom to choose whatever style I wanted. I also had a few months before EA needed more music, which gave me time to think.
We didn’t have enough live budget to record two hours worth of orchestral music.
Now, stick with me here. Kubrick is famous for implementing classical recordings in his films. His use of Pendercki’s music in The Shining was my “light bulb” moment for Dead Space. I stumbled across the “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typewriter scene one evening on tv and thought “THAT’S what the score needs to sounds like!” It was natural and acoustic – a normal orchestra performing their instruments – but the techniques they were playing made the instruments sound other-worldly. Like musical Necromorphs (Dead Space’s once-human, organically-mutulated enemies).
In a turn of extreme coincidence, Don saw the exact same showing of The Shining that evening. When I called him with a tentative pitch of Penderecki-style, aleatoric music, we were already on the same page, which was a great relief! But one problem still remained – we didn’t have enough live budget to record two hours worth of orchestral music in four distinct, separate layers. That would literally be an eight hour score. But we definitely needed those four layers to maximize the horror experience with EA’s bespoke music engine.
And another issue remained – even if we could record eight hours of live orchestra (which we couldn’t), how in the world would I write the demos for approval before the actual recording session? There were no sample libraries that supported that style of writing. So I couldn’t do any demos at all. But what if I built my own orchestral sample library, with all of the textures and gestures I wanted to use in the final score? That could work. But there would be no demos, no approvals before the recording sessions. I would literally be spending all of the live budget in hopes of having enough material to build a two-plus hour score, after the recording sessions. A score that worked the way EA wanted. Four layers of interactive stems. Married to the on-screen action of the game. Scariest music every written.
Knowing full well that EA would never in their right mind approve this lunacy, I half-laughed my silly proposition to Don. “The way only I can compose this style of music, with the control we need, is for you to give me the entire recording budget now. I record a bunch of different sounds. Then go back to my studio and use those sounds to compose cues…eventually. No demos. No previews.” I was completely ready for the “well then it’s time to talk about the heavy metal music direction” conversation. But no. He replied, very simply, “Ok, let’s do that.” Gulp.
The key to this sound was musical chance, or aleatoric techniques. I spent many, many months pouring over scores from the mid 20th century and studying their techniques, convinced that this aleatoric sound of cacophony and confusion was the key to unlocking the “scariest music the world has ever heard.” After all, what is normal-sounding music but comforting repetition, proper form, tonal balance and tuned, enjoyable sounds? If you take away, quite literally, ALL those things, you are robbing the listener of every core value that makes music comforting and pleasurable. Nothing repeats, there is no tonal center – it’s literally every man and woman (in the orchestra) for themselves!
These kinds of directions are incredibly fun for the musicians.
And it’s, rather ironically, proper fun to perform these kinds of techniques. But the point of aleatoric music is giving the player the freedom to decide what to play within a given set of instructions – “play highest note as loud as possible,” “play random open string harmonic very quietly” or “play these 5 notes as quickly and loudly as you can.” These kinds of directions are incredibly fun for the musicians. They are, quite literally, back in grade school again!
I had several takes worth of room “ring out” (silence at the end of a take to let the sound decay in the 2.5 second long reverb tail of the sound stage) ruined by laughing at the end. And there were constant “put those down and stop fiddling” comments from me on the podium between takes. I had brought string-bow-sized wooden dowels for all the rhythmic effects – saving the string players from using their own, very expensive bows – and they couldn’t help but use them to tap their music stands, chairs, the floor and even each other between every take. They even wrote “From the Dead Space String Section” on one and every player signed it. Obviously, the dowels were a hit!
One of the reasons I think Dead Space (and Dead Space 2) are such memorable experiences is that when we started on the first game, there were 15 of us, all working together to create a very memorable and visceral game that people could enjoy. There were no marketing angles or impending release dates, we were just left to our own devices. We went through a few iterations, where certain things worked, musically, and certain things didn’t work. Certain lighting choices worked and some did not. When we finally had what is called a vertical slice game, where you have a playable version, it was a good eighteen months into development. I started working on Dead Space in 2006 and it came out in 2008. Even when we went wide, after we had that vertical slice and were finishing the game, we were still left to our own devices.
I had built up a tolerance to musical cacophony and disonnance. The solution? EVEN SCARIER.
The very first thing I decided was that we would have two smaller sessions instead of one big one. I could learn from my mistakes and hopefully not completely waste the entire budget. I bugged Don every week with ideas. After a few calls, he said, “Hey, I know it’s going to be great. I’ll see you at the recording session…I trust you and think whatever you decide will sound amazing.” Basically enough creative rope to hang myself! I felt a lot of pressure to make the music as scary as possible. Over time, newer cues just didn’t feel that scary anymore. I had built up a tolerance to musical cacophony and disonnance. The solution? EVEN SCARIER. More dissonance. More crazy time changes. More insane textures. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. About five times over the course of eighteen months.
Probably the most readily available memory I have of working on Dead Space was just the sheer amount of time I spent on the score. I was simply working on it all the time, regardless of whatever else was going on. Riding in the back seat of a truck on the way to a gig with a band? Working on the game on my laptop – usually prepping scores for recording. At a huge game conference on the other side of the world? Ducking back to my hotel room every chance I get to edit recording session audio. And the list goes on! It was literally all I thought about. Basically for fear of complete failure. Not to mention letting the entire Dead Space team down.
Even the cues themselves posed an existential threat to my mental state. A typical day went like this – spend the morning building a new Kontakt instrument with a new (hopefully, to EA) amazing technique that I hadn’t used yet. Sometimes this stretched into the afternoon. The rest of the day was spent composing a two minute cue showcasing this new technique in a (hopefully, to EA) brilliant and creatively horrorific way. That also supported the gameplay. And functioned in four separate layers.
I devoted almost two years of my life planning, recording and editing what eneding up amounting to over nine hours of recorded techniques from each individual section of the orchestra. It was important to record the orchestra in small sections – I needed control over as many parts as possible in order to be able to compose music that would play back in the game properly. The game engine controls when the orchestra gets louds and bombastic or very quiet and creepy, all based on what the player is doing in the game.
It was very important that these “gestures” or “techniques” I recorded were extremely granular. A bulk of the recording time was spent on single, short notes. They were all recorded individually, one at a time, with three separate dynamic layers, spanning the entire register of the instrument. In fact, the only difference between my sessions and what would be considered a “normal” sampling session for orchestra is that everything I was recording was intentionally dissonant and atonal. I wanted to be able to play a simple major scale with any of these new instruments, at any tempo and any dynamic, and have it sound like the crunchiest, most horrible scale ever played. It was very important that I had this kind of control over the samples in order to properly compose with them, not just layer a bunch of audio files on top of each other.
I visited EA and played the game constantly. This kind of music implementation hadn’t been done in games before. EA was using their own proprietary music engine and really pushing the limits of what music could do in an interactive experience. Being able to see and hear the final results, in-game, were paramount to what I decided to do for the next cue. But that’s also the way I like to work – very hands-on with both the game and the developers’ ideas and feedback. Games are an extremely creative and iterative process that I enjoy tremendously.
You’re like, “Um, I’m not going to do that” and you stop.
A lot of the interactive aspect of the music is owed to the original implementation – the music is four discrete, streaming stems. The closer the player approaches a physical “fear emitter” in a physical location in the game, like a door at the end of a really long hallway, the more frenetic and crazy the music gets as you approach the door. Say you’re walking down a long hallway towards a closed door. The music is implemented so the closer you get, the scarier the music is. You’re like, “Um, I’m not going to do that” and you stop.
The music is still playing, but the intensity is pausing with your distance from the door. Then you turn around and walk away from the door. The music continues, but gradually ramps back down with you. It’s really an interactive system that allows seamless integration. A very popular implementation is placing a fear emitter with a Necromorph that’s walking around. Even if you’re standing still, the closer it gets to you, the more intense the music becomes.
Compositionally speaking, I used a two-tiered approach for the score. The quieter, creepy music is composed in a few separate layers, knowing that they’re going to be stacked on top of each other in an additive way to build suspense. The more layers added, the creepier and more suspenseful it gets. Then the second tier, combat music, comes in when you’re fighting. Everything depends on gameplay, but the combat music kicks in when something is actually attacking you and that also has varying degrees.
There’s a very simple technique I came up with that, to me, musically illustrated Isaac’s emotional state. You can hear it in the very beginning of track four on the OST, “Fly Me To The Aegis Seven Moon” and it’s used throughout the entire score. It’s a slowly wavering, single note. Very anxious-sounding. That note builds and expands as the rest of the orchestra slowly dominates and overpowers it. I expanded on that same idea at the very beginning of “Lacrimosa,” my string quartet piece written for Dead Space 2.
Nicole’s Theme was one of the first things I composed for the game. I thought it was important to have some sort of emotional touchstone for our main character. And, more importantly, for the players to have a sense of a musical home base. After all, she’s the only reason Isaac is on this ship in the first place. So we begin our journey with some tried and true, “proper” music (expected harmony, straightforward rhythms) before throwing out the rulebook and completely annihilating it all.
At the time, I assumed the game would do relatively well and thought the music would simply be lost to obscurity. For no other reason that it was simply so brutal, so visceral and non-musical. Perfect for the game, but not necessarily something that would play well as a standalone soundtrack experience. As it turns out, all those attributes I assumed were negative were actually very positive. It’s so great so many people enjoy being scared!
I was given complete autonomy over the music.
I think it’s important to stress that games are incredible, cooperative, team-building, experiences. The origins of Dead Space started with a small team of 12-15 people, including myself, who were given a fair amount of latitude by EA over several years time. The music I composed is a direct result of the amazing guidance and creative thinking of that core team, most notably the Audio Director, Don Veca. He literally gave me free reign to write whatever kind of music I thought was the most appropriate for the game. I like to acknowledge and thank Don and the rest of the core team for all their support and, most importantly, their creative vision. It’s an honor and a privilege to be associated with the original Dead Space!
I think all creative people have their “trial by fire” moments in their careers. The kinds of work that transformed not only how they worked at that time, but how they creatively process and work from that point forward. That’s what Dead Space did for me. It had such a personal impact because I was given complete autonomy over the music. Literally, every decision about the score – conception, genre, recording techniques, musicians, recording studios and implementation were, for better or worse, was up to me. But I think that’s how you grow as an artist – constantly try new things and push boundaries.