Sound is scary

Friday, November 7, 2008
Playing Dead Space has taught me a few things. First, space is scary. It's big, it's cold and you can't breathe in it. Second, necromorphs find me tasty. Third, sound is scarier than anything in the world (except maybe Hitler with a chainsaw arm and cybernetic limbs. That's pretty scary.)

I didn't think I'd ever see a game in the Hitchcockian style. What I mean to say is that Dead Space knows that what we can't see is much scarier than what we can see. What's stomping around out in the dark? You don't know, it could be ANYTHING! It could be Hitler with a chainsaw arm and cybernetic limbs, who knows! Run you fool!

If I had to compare, I'd say the moments without sound are probably the most frightening. I'd be hearing clanks and clangs, I'd have killed a dozen or so necromorphs then I'd round a corner into a hallway that was completely silent. Not one undead peep. That's when I'd moisten my engineering rig.

It's rare for a game to focus so heavily on sound design. It's rarer still to find a game that puts all that hard work to good use. I don't know what twisted mind they put to work on the sounds for Dead Space, but they found the most nerve shattering ambient noises I've ever heard. Every little noise is put there to make you feel ill at ease.

While the look and the movement of the necromorphs are very creepy, it all comes down to the sounds they make. A shrill scream, the wet smack of bloodied limbs on metal, the scraping of claws on industrial flooring. Euch. I shudder a bit just thinking about it.

I wish more games took advantage of sound's ability to trigger emotional reactions. Take a cue from Dead Space and spend some of that development time putting together a detailed auditory experience . If our glorious past time is to evolve, developers have to start thinking of better, more visceral ways of making us experience the game.

Sound is a largely untapped field and one that with a little work can make all the difference in the end. We gamers may not know exactly what the Ripper would sound like, but we can think of a rough composite. Use more "real thing" sound recording instead of pre-recorded 40 year old foley sound. Play with environmental effects such as echoes and rings. We hear these things in our lives, now bring them to our games. Trust me, you'll thank me later.