If you paid close attention to the hot-off-the-presses The Callisto Protocol, the spiritual successor of the cult classic Dead Space and made by, well, its co-creator Glen Schofield, it’s likely that you heard something Glen was particularly keen on us being excited about: the game’s audio direction is heavily inspired by a strange little box called ‘The Apprehension Engine.’ Or, as Brian Eno, the legendary British composer-ambient genre founder dubbed it: “the most terrifying musical instrument of all time.”
The Callisto Protocol is followed by blood-curdling sounds.
If you got a chance to try the game yourself, the director’s hype about this peculiar instrument, full of weird knobs and strips of metal jutting out in every possible direction, isn’t unjustified: every step (jump-scare, too) in The Callisto Protocol is followed by blood-curdling sounds that make seem like Black Iron Prison and the planet itself is alive in the most intimidating way.
The cost of these thrills doesn’t come cheap – and we aren’t talking about the price of the Apprehension Engine ($10,000) either. “It’s a very difficult tool to learn to play well,” explains Brian Lee White of Finishing Move Inc., the award-winning composer team that was responsible for the skin-crawling score of The Callisto Protocol, via a Zoom call from Los Angeles.
“If you stood next to it and listened to it dry,” White says, “it doesn’t sound that scary.” Something which echoes the comments of Wes Keltner, a colleague video composer who recently revealed picking up the devilish instrument for Gun Interactive’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre game.
Brian Trifon, White’s partner in crime and the second half of Finishing Move Inc., says what most coverages of the “engine” forget to emphasize is its complex nature. “It’s not scoring anybody’s film or game. You’re gonna play it completely differently when you’re listening to it through a bunch of reverb or a different pitch effect,” Trifon tells us. “I think that’s where real opportunities are.”
And this definitely shows. Dissecting one of the tracks simply titled “Infection,” you can certainly hear how Finishing Move Inc. amped up sound recordings of your standard everyday sounds, like a blade of grass being blown or shifting frozen lakes, to turn them into a growling, terrifying symphony. Combine that with the Apprehension Engine and you got yourself a track that wouldn’t feel out of place in the best A24 studio’s horror films (notably, “The Witch” for which the mad-scientist-like concoction was made for by film composer Mark Korven and guitar-maker Tony Duggan-Smith).
“A lot of times really big sounds come from stuff that is not necessarily big,” Trifon says. “Recently, there was an Amazon package that came and it had these little protective cardboard things taped together. Drop it and it makes a really big clack sound because they don’t all hit at the same time. Of course, I recorded it.”
Just like the infected, humans that were disfigured by the deadly alien biophage.
It’s hard to tell if the sound recording made it to the game’s cutting room, but it’s evident infection is part of the mantra when you’re working on The Callisto Protocol. Just like the infected, humans that were disfigured by the deadly alien biophage (think Clickers from The Last of Us or Necromorphs from Dead Space), nothing in Brians’ soundtrack sounds as it naturally should. As the Finishing Move Inc. duo perfectly summed it up in the Rolling Stone interview: “Ripping the sounds apart and rebuilding with granular synthesis, degrading with distortion, mangling and manipulation with Eurorack modules, stretching and slowing down into vast reverbs and FX chains until only a fragment of the original sound remains.”
Part of the reason why Trifon and White, who previously scored games like Borderlands 3 and Halo Wars 2, not to mention Hudson Soft’s forgotten horror title Calling for Nintendo Wii, had to rely on organic mutilated sounds lies in the direction Callisto Protocol was going for. “One of the first lists we got after we turned in a cue that had guitars in it, said ‘no guitar’ on the entire soundtrack,” White remembers. “That was a big hit to us because we’re both guitar players. That’s where we started.”
Seeing that Finishing Move duo was thrown out of their comfort zone, just like Callisto Protocol’s rolling-with-the-punches protagonist Jacob, they took this as an opportunity to level up. “One of the biggest challenges of being a media composer – one of the biggest rewards too – is that you’re sort of given guidelines you’ve got to be creative within,” Trifon says, “it challenges you to try new things.” Besides digging deep into the roots of aleatoric music, also known as ‘chance music’ for its loose structure, Trifon and White started off by bringing in another session musician named Yair Elazar Glatman. “He does a lot of extended techniques on the double bass that doesn’t sound anything like a normal double base,” White explains, describing Glatman’s style as ‘crazy vibrating textures.’
Having Glatman’s input as a starting point, composers then went great lengths to extract more of the same kind. Besides commissioning and coming up with custom instruments themselves, including the so-called ‘metal sculpture’ which is essentially a big metal plate with tines sticking out of it, Trifon and White made sure that the tracks they’ve composed would be unlike anything players heard before. “The only rule,” they say, “it’s got to be scary. It’s got to be intense, new.”
For all we know, having the most terrifying musical instruments in their arsenal and a knack for signature sounds, Finishing Move succeeded in making sure Callisto Protocol, Striking Distance Studios’ debut game, stands out from the competition. If not for the concept, then at least from the number of ways it tests us in resisting the urge to press ‘Escape’ button while playing it. And we mean that in the best way possible.
What were your formative horror experiences?
Brian Lee White: Silent Hill. Obviously Resident Evil games. They’ve always done a really good job of doing more with less in terms of interactivity. Like you think it’s super interactive, but it’s all really just in your head because of the way that they cleverly use (or don’t use) sound. In certain places where you’re in a corridor, you hear a little thing and your brain kinda wonders ‘what is happening? Am I making this up or is this actually happening?’.
Brian Trifon: Not quite as scary, but has something in common in a very mild way – Metroid for the NES. It was one of my first games. And even for the Super Nintendo, The Super Metroid where it’s definitely more sci-fi, it had some mysterious, scary music. It’s still something I think about a lot.
From what I understand, Callisto Protocol is your first horror game project that uses adaptive audio systems. Did you find it difficult to get the hang of it?
Brian Lee White: In terms of interactive systems, the stuff that we’re trying to do with them, whether it’s horror or action – I think the limitations and opportunities are very similar. Of course, there are unique things in horror, like building tension or doing jump scares – things that require you to be creative with the tools you have.
How do we make this even scarier? How do we make this more? – Brian Lee White
In Callisto, there’s this idea of the enemies getting infected – if you don’t kill them in a certain amount of time, they start sprouting tentacles and become even harder to kill. In terms of interactive music, we’ve faced similar challenges in the past. But with horror, of course, the biggest puzzle is ‘how do we make this even scarier? How do we make this more?’ With Callisto, one of the biggest challenges was actually getting a sound palette for the music that worked with the sound design because there’s so much gore sounds in it, like cutting, punching, stabbing gunshots, blood going everywhere.
Brian Trifon: The big challenge with a game like Callisto comes from sound design. Because the gore sound design in a horror game is huge. We want to hear bones crunching, blood splattering – you can’t just turn it down to have the music come up. Like here’s a cue that sounds really cool. You can play it against combat and it sounds super engaging.
You can push the envelope of sound and music. – Brian Trifon
But then the sound design gets mixed in and it’s like, ‘maybe we need to go back to some of the ‘STEM’ elements and think about where we’re using frequency range.’ Frequency-wise, it’s like a puzzle basically. We experimented a lot and succeeded with things like pulling away busier elements as stuff got more intense and focusing more on tension and dread. Sustaining elements that would act as the supporting backdrop to action.
What do you love about working in horror projects?
Brian Lee White & Brian Trifon: One of the biggest things about horror that we love is that it allows for experimentation in the musical sound design that is not allowed in most other genres. You can push the envelope of sound and music. Ponder what is tonal and what is atonal? It’s really cool for us because we can just sort of make new instruments, create new sounds that you’ve never heard before. And I think in horror, just as a playground for people who really appreciate custom sounds – the sky is the limit. The only rule is it’s got to be frightening.