The sounds and music are what makes a horror game scary, along with the monsters and disturbing images. However, in this article I will write not about dissonant orchestral passages but the music which is way creepier in my opinion – ambient music and drones. The unsettling synthesizer sounds are a true playground for composers and sound designers, and a great experience for the players. Let me present to you a couple of examples of games with the most interesting and hair-raising electronic audio.
I recommend paying strong attention to what can be heard in the background when you are playing a horror game.
The first game that came to my mind (and also the first one that introduced me into video game culture and music) is Quake. As a teenager, I used to be a diehard fan of Nine Inch Nails, so obviously I had to check the score for Quake, even if I was not interested in gaming back then. This soundtrack is the one of my all-time favorites; its dark ambient creepiness is simply spine-tingling. Listen to it and imagine yourself traversing the claustrophobic corridors full of monsters from your worst nightmares, and you will be in that exact mood.
Since I mentioned Quake, I could not miss another two milestones of mine in horror game music – F.E.A.R. and Condemned: Criminal Origins. Both titles are by Monolith studio, and both scored by Nathan Grigg. The similarities in texturing (Condemned looks a bit dirtier, though) go well with both soundtracks, especially when you compare the ambient cues of Condemned with the second installment of F.E.A.R. Yet the first F.E.A.R. game is the one containing the audio that gives you most of the chills. Unsettling synth patterns, reversed heartbeat and whispering combined with great storytelling in a thick atmosphere is what makes that unobvious FPS an unforgettable experience.
Of course when talking about drones and dark ambient we cannot forget the Silent Hill series. The genius of Akira Yamaoka is shown for me particularly in one scene in Silent Hill 2. When James Sunderland enters the room full of butterflies, a creepy bass loop drone is being played, yet actually nothing happens there. We expect something about to attack us yet just nothing happens. It’s merely an abandoned apartment with butterfly cages.
The sounds and music are what makes a horror game scary.
Another game that is an actual independent gem filled with lots of creepy drones and ambients is Cry of Fear. It is free, made by a small group of dedicated people, based on the first Half-Life (hence the famous Half-Life jump), it is very depressing which makes it a decent successor of the Silent Hill franchise, especially Silent Hill 2. And it is scary as hell, mainly thanks to its audio. Fair enough, when we encounter enemies they make actually no sound, only while attacking – so it is like they come out of nowhere, often in a complete darkness. Listen to the soundtrack made by the creator of the game, Andreas Rönnberg.
And here is what I prepared for you as a finale – Get Even. This underrated game is top notch both in sound design and scoring. Olivier Deriviere, along with sound designers at the Farm 51 studio, did an amazing job. This is easily confirmed by the short video I took at one of the corridors, capturing one of the low drones. Not to mention that almost every lightbulb in the game emits its own frequency sound. Olivier Deriviere also released a video showing a drone building up when doing progress in the first chapter of Get Even. The use of diegetic sounds (like breathing or train sounds) makes this game simply amazing in terms of audio design.
The unsettling synthesizer sounds are a true playground for composers and sound designers.
The games I mentioned are only a few examples of interesting and creative use of drones and ambient music. There are many more games containing them in their audio design, like the great horror production from this year – Martha is Dead (I highly recommend playing this game). I also recommend paying strong attention to what can be heard in the background when you are playing a horror game. You may never know what might be lurking nearby – or not – when you hear some creepy audio cues accompanying your gaming experience.