Video games from the survival horror genre are scary not only because of the visuals. The sound working is as equal part of them as the graphic matter. In modern video games, the role of the sound is highly important; it is a key element along with the graphics needed to make the player feel fully immersed in the world of the game. In horror productions, the audio has an additional function – to trigger off fear and tension into the player. In this article I will describe a couple of games from the genre which I think deal well with that function.

Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly)

This science fiction horror, published in 2014, is a very well done part of the universe of the iconic saga about the Xenomorphs. The detail oriented presentation of the represented world, implementation of the original score, and the collaboration with the cast of the Alien movie are the main advantages of this production. The game is brilliantly sound designed – and what is more important, it is one of the very few games in which relying on hearing is the strategy for survival. The main enemy, that is Alien, is not scripted so it can appear anywhere and anytime. It can be alerted by noise, too. Because it cannot be killed or fled from, listening to the sounds it makes is necessary in an attempt to localize its position. And it makes plenty of diverse and frightening sounds. You can hear it crawling in the vent shafts, you can hear its steps on the metal floors while it walks around the dark corridors. It roars and shrieks, and if something disturbs it, it makes a spine-tingling hiss, which is a sign for the player that danger is coming and it is time to hide immediately. All of these keeps the player in unbearable tension and makes Alien: Isolation a really bloodcurdling experience.

Dead Space (Visceral Games/ EA Redwood Shore)

Another science fiction horror, which takes place on the spaceship named USG Ishimura that is possessed by alien creatures. There are three installments of this game, however the first one deserves to be called a horror game the most. The game is full of scary and disturbing scenes and sounds. The metal structure of the large ship transmits every sound easily, even the distant one. That means in the game we can hear metal objects falling, horrible screams far away, radio transmissions and whispers spreading in the ventilation ducts. At the moments when the lights suddenly go out, the sounds of the creatures crawling nearby make the skin crawl. The disturbing scenes mentioned before are for example a horrifying female scream echoing a room the player enters, an insane chuckle of a woman cutting a live man apart, a man committing suicide by banging his head against the wall… Dead Space makes the player feel overwhelmed and the sound design takes a great part in that. Wise use of reverb intensifies this feeling, making the player feel lost in the dark corridors of Ishimura.

In horror productions, the audio has an additional function – to trigger off fear and tension into the player.

SOMA (Frictional Games)

We are going from the outer space to the bottom of the ocean, for in the game created by Frictional Games, known for the highly acclaimed Amnesia, the player gets into a mysterious underwater research complex. The fact that we are under the water makes us feel uncomfortable. The ocean in SOMA is not a bright lighted, peaceful place known from the BioShock series. It is dark and inhospitable, and the perfect sound design makes us feel overwhelmed by the cold mass of water, full of mutated sea life and hostile machines. The sounds of the surroundings are very well crafted – the sounds of the machines, water dripping in the rooms and surrounding the main character’s body, water currents – and the close attention deserve the sounds of the monsters. Most of them are mutated and deformed humans wandering around the complex, screaming and shrieking in excruciating pain. The player has to avoid them moving very quietly, and in some cases he cannot even look at the creatures. Their proximity also causes electromagnetic interference that disrupts the main character’s vision. All of these combined with terrifying sounds make the gameplay intense and heavy. In my opinion SOMA is the best sound designed game made by this studio. It is also one of the most frightening and tense horror games.

Outlast (Red Barrels)

Outlast is a game that scares with its soundtrack. A gloomy, Victorian building of a psychiatric hospital, where some cruel experiments on patients are being performed, is a good but somewhat worn horror scenery. In this case though an interesting story is accompanied with a disturbing soundtrack by Samuel Laflamme which makes the scenery less cliched. The score is unpleasant and contains plenty of hair raising moments that follow the player in his journey through the terrifying hospital. Unsettling tuba sounds, prepared piano clusters, earsplitting violins – all of these is a perfect illustration of what we experience during the gameplay. A very good sound design makes the sound of the game whole. The perfect sounds of the storm, the walls and wooden planks screeching, the patients mumbling and screaming makes us immersed in this insane world.

Video games from the survival horror genre are scary not only because of the visuals.

F.E.A.R. and F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin (Monolith)

F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) is a shooter in a survival horror mood which came out in 2005. A story of a mission of a military squad specialized in dealing with paranormal threats, along with a heartbreaking story of a girl named Alma who is a victim of experiments makes this game not a typical shooter. The main character is extremely sensitive to paranormal activity, which is very interesting in terms of sound design. Every time we receive an odd signal, we hear a distinctive clicking in the communication system. This is a “message of an unknown origin”. Sometimes the clicking reveals harmless anomalies like the broken lights but most of the time it accompanies the manifestation of Alma’s ghost or some other ghosts connected to her story. In the continuation published four years later, the clicking was replaced with an unpleasant noise, which made her presence even more uncomfortable. Considering the fact that Alma is able to kill a human with the power of her mind, leaving nothing but a bloody skeleton, and in the second installment of the game she physically attacks the protagonist, the sonic manifestation of her appearing is unpleasantly breathtaking. Despite that, we can hear her whispering, chuckling and trying to communicate with the player, which makes the feeling even more terrifying, and also shows how tragic that character is.

The sound in horror games is an interesting matter, as the graphic design in these productions is only half the battle. To successfully scare the player, both parts need to be skillfully merged.

Executive Editor

Izabela Besztocha

Independent games enthusiast, mainly horror games, paying close attention to sound design. Dreaming of becoming a sound designer. Dissonance, distortion and other unpleasant sounds is what she enjoys to listen to most.