An old, gloomy, mysterious psychiatric hospital. Somewhere deep in the woods, in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere. Narrow, paneled corridors, piles of furniture and documents, some computers, telephones. Severed heads sitting on the shelves like trophies. Mutilated bodies: hanging from the ceilings, laying on the ground, sitting in front of computer screens. Puddles of half-clotted blood. You can smell its overwhelming stench, and the only thing you now care about is staying alive and getting out of this mess, in which, led by your reporter’s curiosity, you stepped into. Also using your camera to record everything on the way. Outlast is a game that defined a new dimension of horror, and so did its soundtrack.
My sensitivity to fear, stress, and anxiety led me to create the music for Outlast. – Samuel Laflamme
“Are you a gamer?” “No.” “Are you a horror fan?” “No.” That is how the first conversation between the Red Barrels Games co-owner Philippe Morin and composer Samuel Laflamme started. The developers of the game were looking for someone whose music can represent the story and conduct an enormous load of emotions that accompanies this story to the player – crippling fear, repulsion, helplessness. Despite Laflamme’s negative answers to above questions, he and Morin agreed to the term of a role of a soundtrack in a video game – it has to tell the story and reflect the protagonist’s feelings. That is how the composer started his adventure with creating video game scores.
“My work is to express an emotion in the most honest and unique way.” – he claims in one of the interviews. „My sensitivity to fear, stress, and anxiety led me to create the music for Outlast.” Listening to the effects of that sensitivity, I can say that this is one of the most interactive, fitting the game and affecting the player’s emotions soundtracks I have ever heard. According to Laflamme, during the composing process he was looking for a specific feeling of fear; the state in which the gamer can feel the danger close to him or her. To achieve this, he used a chamber music ensemble. Orchestral arrangements do well in horror and thriller films (e.g. The Shining, Hellraiser, Alien); in this case the composer explored the field of contemporary music which let him perfectly represent the feeling of anxiety and make the player feel disturbed, unsettled, and scared. This music genre becomes a limitless tool for affecting the listener’s psyche, as well as a wide field for sound experimentation.
The main goal is to make the player suffer. – Samuel Laflamme
Scientists studying the influence of sound on human psychology claim that the sounds below and above human voice range are perceived by humans as a threat. This primal feature of our brain used to help us in the past times, defining the high-pitched sounds as a minor threat (i.e. insects, birds of prey), while the low-pitched ones as a major threat (large predators), telling us to run. Laflamme emphasizes that as well so that is why we can hear a lot of sounds belonging to the mentioned range in the Outlast OST. Some parts of the soundtrack are outstandingly beautiful and captivating; some bring the feelings of disturbance and annoyance even to me, a person who loves dissonance and disharmony. It is not an allegation because that was a planned effect. “The main goal is to make the player suffer.” – the composer explains.
The starting point of the score was a high pitched, disturbing sound resembling the human scream. It was made by rubbing a cymbal with a violin bow. The sound was also used to create the main boss’ scream and it is one of the most frightening and unique sound effects I have ever heard. Unnerving, earsplitting tremolo of violins sounding like the swarm of insects, accompanying the scene where the protagonist’s fingers are being cut off. Pizzicato of violins and clusters of prepared piano when we have to sneak around. Tuba sounds causing shivers when danger is nearby. Unsettling, atonal choir parts, percussion strikes, grinding of various object rubbed with a violin bow (Laflamme emphasizes how he likes using the bow against different surfaces and instruments) – all of these build up such a deep atmosphere of fear that it is almost palpable.
What is really interesting in video game is that I play with the player’s mind. – Samuel Laflamme
When combined with the horrors that can be seen on the screen, the result is striking and makes us fully immersed in the world of the game. The effect is intensified by the perfect sound design which splendidly matches the score; sometimes it is hard to tell whether a particular sound is a sound effect or a part of the soundtrack – for example the main enemy’s scream mentioned before. The spasmodic breath of the main character, the grim howling of the wind, the screeching of the boards, the perfect storm sounds or the terrifying voice acting – these make the players feel as if they really crawled in the dark corridors of a psychiatric hospital full of insane victims of some cruel experiment. As if they pass the puddles of blood, land on a pile of rotting corpses after falling and suffer along with the madmen, empathize with them. Laflamme also mentions the importance of interaction with the player. “The music foreshadows players in some directions. I tell them to run or to hide.”
While talking about suffering, the composer without a doubt did not only have in mind the sound experience that is unpleasant for a common listener. He wanted the player to immerse into his story, to feel the decay, horror, pain, and helplessness, but also the purest relief and affection after finally escaping that God-forsaken place in the Whistleblower DLC. “What is really interesting in video game is that I play with the player’s mind. Storytelling is really important.” Nothing more to add. The Outlast composer is being recognizable in gaming industry and so I can already tell that a wonderful career in that industry is in front of him.