OWhat does “horror” mean to you? Is it the slow beating of a heartbeat, which gradually quickens as adrenaline and cortisol begin to flood the nervous system? Is it the damp shock of meat on metal as something, somewhere, tears apart? Or is it more discreet – a soft whisper in your ear when you least expect it, half-heard shuffling footsteps, the suggestion of a breeze when the air is supposed to be perfectly still?
Dead Space, the horror game from EA and Visceral that launched for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC in 2008, managed to get inside your head and under your skin. Complementing the game’s alien body horror, à la Cronenberg, was the mental deterioration of protagonist Isaac Clarke; an engineer stranded aboard the USG Ishimura. He’s not a warrior. He’s not a soldier. He’s just a guy, on a ship full of hostile alien lifeforms, whose poor little brain is starting to unravel. During the entire game, you never leave his heavy bloody boots.
“I found a very simple technique that, for me, musically illustrated Isaac’s emotional state,” says Dead Space composer Jason Graves. “You can hear it at the very beginning of the soundtrack’s fourth track, Fly Me To The Aegis Seven Moon, and it’s used throughout the score. It’s a single, slowly flickering note. Very anxious. This note builds and expands as the rest of the orchestra slowly dominates and dominates it.
Graves’ technique of getting you to sympathize with Isaac mimicked what sound engineers did with the rest of the game’s sound. Dead Space used breathing sound effects and a thumping heartbeat in the background to keep you physically in tune with Issac. The lower your health, the more irregular your breathing became. The closer you were to death, the faster your heart beat. You may not have noticed these things consciously…but chances are your body has.
Dead Space’s goal was to expand the boundaries of an in-game horror experience, taking all the action beats of Resident Evil and Silent Hill and complementing them with the psychological thriller aspects of cinema. “Kubrick is famous for implementing classic recordings in his films,” says Graves. “His use of Penderecki’s music in The Shining was my highlight moment for Dead Space. I came across the “all work and no play makes Jack a boring boy” typewriter scene one night on TV and thought “it is what the score should look like!”
Graves explains the allure of the scene; it was a natural acoustic sound – a normal orchestra playing their instruments – but the techniques they used made the instruments sound otherworldly. “Like musical necromorphs,” he laughs. “The key to this sound was musical chance or random techniques.”
“The purpose of random music is to give the player the freedom to decide what to play within a given set of instructions. This can be “play the highest note as loud as possible”, “play random open string harmonics very softly” or “play those five notes as fast and hard as you can”. Those kind of directions are incredibly fun for musicians. They act like they’re back in school. I’ve had several takes spoiled with a laugh at the end.
As inaudible as random music sounds, it made perfect sense to apply the technique to a horror game. Mostly a horror game with the aim of presenting the scariest soundtrack the world has ever heard. “I spent many, many months poring over mid-twentieth century sheet music and studying their techniques, convinced that this random sound of cacophony and confusion was the key to unlocking pure terror in musical form.” said Graves. “After all, what is normal-sounding music if not comforting repetition, proper form, tonal balance, and sounds in tune and pleasing? If you take all those things away, you rob the listener to all the core values that make music comforting and enjoyable.
Graves intended to make you, the player, as uncomfortable as possible. This wasn’t going to be your traditional score; the original brief he received, which called for “modern Hollywood action music with a bit of horror”, had been scrapped. It was now a cold new boundary: “nothing repeats, there is no tonal center – it’s literally every man and woman (in the orchestra) for themselves.”
Dead Space was a passion project for Graves. He devoted more than two years of his life to it, and came away with “more than nine hours of recorded technique from each individual section of the orchestra”. Controlling every element was key to the sound of the final product and how the music would feed into the game engine. “This kind of music implementation had never been done in games before,” he recalls . “EA used their own proprietary music engine and really pushed the envelope.”
Was it easy? No. Was it effective? Absolutely. Dead Space remains one of the most essential horror games – influential enough to warrant a remake, which will be released next week.
“All creatives have their ‘trial by fire’ moments,” Graves says. “Projects that transform the way they process and work creatively from then on. That’s what Dead Space did for me. Literally every decision regarding the score – design, recording techniques, musicians, recording studios and implementation – was, for better or worse, mine… Constantly trying new things and pushing the boundaries , that’s how you grow as an artist.
The end result is an unsettling triumph, a player-driven exercise in tension and technique designed to get inside your head and stay there long after you’re done playing.