Sounds scary: why horror game music is the key to unlocking true fear

Slime, bees and death whistles: the composers of Resident Evil, The Dark Pictures Anthology, and A Plague Tale spill their secrets.

The dark corridor ahead is empty. A lamp is lit, breaking up the gloom. There is nothing here, only creaking floorboards. Then why do you feel like this? Like your heart has grown three times in size and every step forward might just be a step closer to an imminent demise? What’s tickling the hairs on the back of your neck? You strain to listen. Is that a violin? It’s not like one you’ve ever heard before.

Horror would be nothing without a soundtrack to match. Halloween director and composer John Carpenter famously showed an early cut of his 1978 classic without music to a 20th Century Fox executive. She wasn’t impressed. And, most importantly, she wasn’t afraid. It’s not a spoiler to say he sorted it with one of the most infamous horror scores of all time.

Switch from movies to video games and horror music is no less vital for our favourite scary experiences. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach to building terror, and the genre is bursting gorily with different types of fear. One thing is clear, though: game composers masterfully tap into a part of our brains in a way that’s impossible to fight. And they all have their favourite ways to leave us a quivering wreck… including something as simple as tapping into our own physiology.

“I tend to like the simpler side of horror soundtracks, I think they work better if they’re not too complicated,” explains composer Nick D. Brewer, the man behind the joyously schlocky synthy score of VHS B-movie throwback Zombie Army 4: Dead War.

“If you think about John Carpenter’s own music for his movies, in particular, the Halloween theme. It’s just that same run of notes again and again. I think it’s the bass lines in a lot of those old horror movies that they’re all meant to mimic the repetition of the human heartbeat. They’re really simplistic in the fact that they tend to be a few notes played on a bass guitar or played on a synth – maybe even just beaten on a series of tuned drums – and just slowly rolling away, giving you that sense of your heart beating as you’re being chased by whoever the guy with a machete is.”

But we’re not always being chased. So much of our time in horror games are actually the moments in between. By the very fact we’re aware we’re playing in the genre, we have a certain expectation of what’s to come – so for games to manage to terrify us even in their moments of downtime, it’s a true achievement. And it’s all about balance.

“I think as modern people, we’ve been trained to understand when things get quiet, it’s because something’s going to be loud,” explains composer Jason Graves, whose horror scores include the Dead Space games, Until Dawn and The Dark Pictures Anthology. “But there’s a psychological reason behind that being scary, because if you were in the woods and you’ve got all these noises and then all the crickets stopped and the birds stop and everything gets completely silent you’d be like, ‘That’s not right’. Everyone’s being quiet for a reason because there’s something around the corner or in the woods…”

“So you’ve got the silence and then all the other little things that you can add, you know, the strings, a one-string sustain that’s just not right and slowly starts bending back and forth… The things that just sort of make you tilt your head a little bit and go, “um no, no, no”. And of course you have to keep walking down the hall. So it’s that additive sort of anxiety that is not necessarily easy to do in an interactive situation like a video game. But when it’s done well, it just pays off in spades.”

And when it comes to those noises that will make you tilt your head in fear, horror composers gleefully turn our expectations upside down. For his Dead Space score, Graves wanted to match the idea of the Necromorphs once being human with an unnatural orchestral score. In turn, giving us an instrumental soundtrack we understand and twisting it into a nightmare.

“There’s a vaguely human element to everything, so you can kind of see the original source. You can see that it used to be human, but now it’s not,” he says. “So I thought, ‘let’s take the orchestra and do the same thing. I’m going to have them play their instruments in very unconventional ways.’ There are very non-musical, almost rhythmic, bestial bass kinds of elements where it doesn’t necessarily sound like an orchestra and it doesn’t necessarily sound like music. It just sounds like tones or even like screams or bugs or whispers. You can have them play all these really fun techniques that sound absolutely terrifying. And when I say fun techniques, it’s fun for the players. They love doing different things, and I’ve ruined many takes with players giggling at the end of something because they just had so much fun.”

Horror composers also have no qualms about leaving natural sounds behind to sear themselves into our brains. Cris Velasco’s horror CV includes monster murder sim Carrion, as well as Bloodborne, and an intimidating slew of triple-A games, but Resident Evil 7 gave him an all-new technique for fear.

“[Capcom] just wanted it to be super scary and super weird,” he grins. “We used a technique called Music Concrete. There’s a very famous Japanese musician, Takemitsu, who brought this style and made it very popular in Japan. It’s taking a lot of different sounds that aren’t necessarily musical and recording them to tape, and then just doing an edit job. So cutting out bits of tape and being like, ‘OK, I’ve got this thing that’s like a creaky door, and this is like some electronic strings. And what if I have the strings go here?’ But then with tape, you know, it’s, ‘Oh, I’ll reverse it, or I’ll stretch the tape out and slow it down’. Now, of course, we can do all these things digitally, but Music Concrete was our inspiration for Resident Evil 7.”

To build this disturbing audio experience, as if the Bakers weren’t enough to send you cowering, Velasco and the team went much further than just adding creaking doors. “One of my favourite things was recording a beehive just swarming with bees, which can really trigger fear in people if you hear swarming bees,” he chuckles. “And I had a friend of mine do vocals as well. We went to the studio and I had him take a big sip of water and then make sounds as if he was drowning. It’s all horrific noises that I mixed into the music. So besides just being kind of scary music it’s also these sounds that should really trigger like fight or flight.”

Resident Evil truly pulls out all the stops. Composer Brian D’Oliveira worked on both Resident Evil 7 and Village, and is gleefully in pursuit of absolute nightmare fuel with his composition work.

“Going into sort of the darker side of creating sounds and music that gets you in that to me it means a lot of freedom, actually,” he says. “It’s freedom to just explore. I’m really big into studying ancient cultures and how they connected with the Earth and with nature. And music is sort of a direct connection into that world, into the past, and also into our sort of Reptilian minds. As you know, doing the right sounds can affect you way more than just an image. There’s no horror without a good soundtrack to it.”

As well as composing for games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, D’Oliveira specialises in the world of virtual instruments and is a leader in the field of unique sounds. This was something that Resident Evil took advantage of. Capcom composers Shusaku Uchiyama and Nao Sato had a list of the kind of sounds they wanted to bring to the world of Village and D’Oliveira provided.

“I understood the aesthetic they were going for but then I kind of started bringing in my own things and like, ‘Oh, you want some bent metal and some giant sheets?’,” he laughs. “We started building an actual virtual instrument that we put all the sounds into. I built a whole engine just to make these sounds work in the way that I had envisioned it for them to be able to use as an actual horror instrument.”

Specifically, D’Oliveira has a passion for what are known as ‘death whistles’, Aztec instruments with an unearthly cry that brings the hairs up on your arms – I should know, he played them on our Zoom.

“I started this in Resident Evil 7. You know, there’s a lot of like just dark spirits in a sense,” he grins. “I’d already been working with death whistles because I work with Tomb Raider as well. And those are some of the scariest sounds. They used to use them in war, to create a hoarse sound to actually psychologically scare their enemies. So it’s good enough for what we’re doing now.“

D’Oliveira then constructs these into full digital instruments of horror for use in games. “I build them into this living, breathing almost little sound being. You can play and be expressive with it, and then you start pitching it down and pitching up, and then they become these creatures of sound.”

It’s important to note though that it’s not all drowning and death whistles. There is light amidst the darkness when it comes to sound sampling for horror games. When Cris Velasco was working on monster sidescroller Carrion, he realised he had found his signature sound in an unlikely place.

“My friend’s kids were going through this phase where they just loved slime,” he grins. “I saw them playing with it and I was like ‘does that make a noise?’ And my friend’s daughter squished it, I was like, ‘Huh, OK.’ And so we scheduled a whole sampling session at the studio where we just got this slime and got it nice and wet and were just squishing slime in front of a microphone for four hours. Squishing it in rhythm and throwing it on things and just letting it fall into your hands…. But yeah, I created a whole sample library of just slime sounds that I then processed and manipulated. And that slime is the foundation of almost every cue. You didn’t even know…”

But it’s not all spooky things that go bump in the night that deliver true horror. In order to be genuinely afraid, we must also be aware of our own humanity. This is something that composer Olivier Deriviere constantly keeps in mind, whether it’s with his heartfelt cello-led work on A Plague Tale: Innocence, the dark sounds of Vampyr, or even the upcoming Dying Light 2.

“All the horror games that I’ve been doing. If you look at the second layer it’s not really about, you know, the gameplay, or horrific moments but more about this story, about the people, the characters. It’s never about horror, but about human condition, always. It’s through our horror in terms of genre that we talk,” he explains.

“So if you look at A Plague Tale, for instance, yes, it’s horrific. The game is horrific for the rats and it’s the Dark Age and you have those two kids that are lost… And you know, it’s going through a lot of very difficult times. But the beauty of the game is the love, the bond between the sister and the brother. And this is what we went for. It’s the contrast that was interesting, the contrast between the horror. There is this moment in the game where you see a battlefield, you see corpses all around. You see crows and everything, and you could play music that goes like, ‘bleeeugh this is horrible’. But no, what we did is we did something very warm, very almost beautiful. Not beautiful in the sense, like ‘wow’ but more in the sense that they’re together.”

Deriviere is passionate about music design, and the way game music specifically reacts dynamically to be such a core part of our experience. The open world of Dying Light 2 is giving him a chance to really play by balancing his heartfelt horror with a more open experience and letting the music tell the story. “That was the biggest achievement, I think, of my career and also the biggest, you know, ‘I don’t know how to do this thing. Let’s try it!’,” he enthuses. “Dying Light 2 is a fun game. The music once again is not about, you know, spooky things, although there is that, but it’s a merge between a very electronic, gritty, dirty sounds for the infected, an orchestra for the people and the main character. And then, you know, some very special instruments for the storyline and everything is integrated.”

Horror then, is everywhere: it lies in slime, in unnatural strings, in the beauty of humanity amidst the infected, and – always, thanks to horror composers – in our ears as we brave the darkness. And they know just what to do to make you oh-so afraid. Just mind the death whistles.

Louise Blain is an NME contributor, hosts BBC Radio 3’s Sound of Gaming show, and is an all-around horror aficionado. You can follow her on Twitter.

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