In the last edition of Music for the Mind, I reminisced about Metal Gear Solid. This time, I’ll be speaking on a game that holds a special place in my heart, simply because of the genre it fits into. Well, it’s technically two games, but I’m grouping them together because they both add up to one phenomenal experience, especially in regards to music and audio.

I’m a huge horror fan, and an even bigger sci-fi horror fan. The problem is that there aren’t many good ones to be found these days. To this day, Alien is still one of my favorite films, and that was made in 1979; it’s been over 30 years and nothing has truly surpassed it, in my opinion. What makes a good horror film? Is it the “jump-at-you-suddenly-and-try-to-scare-the-pants-off-you” tactic? I don’t think so, as many horror films and games try to do that now and fail miserably. Perhaps it’s the setting in which the horror film/game takes place? Perhaps, though that can be very subjective – where one may find realistic situational horror better, another may find monster-driven horror more appealing. Is there a universal component to making a great horror film or game?

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Hey there, beautiful…how about a decent video game?

Music and audio are key. Whether the horror takes place on a far away planet or within a familiar setting like a suburban home, the musical cues and audio usage make or break a horror film/game. This is where the Dead Space games truly shine, making it one the best horror franchises you’ll find. When I first played the original Dead Space, I hadn’t been that disturbingly creeped out since Silent Hill. I legitimately couldn’t play the game in the dark by myself; all the lights were turned on in the room. It is one of the few games that I would go out of my way to play with headphones on as well, since I didn’t have a surround sound system that would be worthy of the audio found within the game.

There are too many moments to pick from between Dead Space 1 and 2, so I want to focus on a few ways the developers utilized the audio to convey a sense of horror, essentially making these games what they are. Though there are many topics to discuss, I will be analyzing a few larger aspects behind the audio of Dead Space: musical cues and dynamics, the mix of music and in-game sounds, and the usage of specific instruments. To start this analysis off on the right foot, just have a listen to this version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” that is used in the game, as well as for promotion when the game was released.

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The creepy Dead Space promotional trailer sets the mood for the game.

The opening scene indicates how crucial the musical cues are in this game. Our protagonist, Isaac Clarke, finishes watching a broken up video message from his significant other, who is stationed on the USG Ishimura – the biggest “planet cracker” in the system. The camera pans out and we see that Isaac is part of a small crew navigating what appears to be a meteorite field. After some dialogue, bringing the player up to speed with the current situation, we get our first look at the USG Ishimura. As the ship flies past a hunk of floating planet, the music swells suddenly into a grandiose moment of music, reflecting just how big the Ishimura truly is. These musical cues are found throughout the entirety of each game; reflecting the significance of each situation the player finds him or herself in.

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Majestic music for a majestic view.

These musical cues help to convey several different messages to the player. SPOILERS AHEAD! The first moment you see the necromorphs rip apart your crew while you stand outside the room watching, the music jumps suddenly, causing the player to jump unexpectedly. The fast-paced strings section and booming rhythm swell even louder as one of your crew yells, “Run Isaac! They’re coming for you!” I get a sense of panic every time I play this part: turning and running down a corridor, the shadows of the necromorphs on the walls, chasing close behind me, and the music and audio so loud that I can’t even think or plan my route. All the player can do is keep running. That sense of panic and urgency is all due to the heightened volume of necromorph snarls and “screeching” orchestral strings.

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A necromorph grabs Isaac in the vacuum of space.

This usage of volume and way the strings are played is an example of musical dynamics. Dynamics are found throughout all types of music, though they differ from composition to composition. A song may start really loud with every instrument being played, then drop off for a verse, or gradually grow in volume as the chorus approaches. Perhaps the “feel” of the song is never meant to be loud and eclectic, so the dynamics reflect the mellow instrumentation and composition; never getting past a specific decibel level, or the instruments are played in a different way (e.g., playing guitar with fingers as opposed to a pick, or softly playing keys on a piano rather than pushing down hard and suddenly). Dynamics make a composition flow, and fights aural fatigue (basically, your ears “getting tired”). I won’t go too much more technical, as most might find this a little boring, but if you take away one thing from this article, it’s this: dynamics make the music flow, and in video games, dynamics help the music to flow with the gameplay and story.

The first two Dead Space games utilize dynamics superbly. If an enemy attacks you (especially if it sneaks up on you from behind), the music quickly bursts to the forefront of the audio and the necromorph’s snarl startles the player. You may walk into a room that is completely dark, and you just know something is going to happen, all while violins play high pitched notes very softly in the background, building the tension. You can even just stand around and hear this; the music becomes more ethereal and settles in the background, pipes crash somewhere close by, a distant snarl reminds you that there are necromorphs everywhere, and you can even hear the ship creaking and moving. These audio cues and usage create a living world within the game, immersing the player even further into the game itself. Just have a listen for yourself:

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Even standing around doing nothing is interesting in this game.

This leads me to the splendid mixing of music and audio. The above video is a perfect example of blended music and various audio clips. This is used in several ways within the Dead Space series. In this section of the game, the music acts almost as a drone, which begins to numb the awareness of the player, so that when a sudden crash of steel pipe falling in the distance occurs, the player is startled. Other musical and audio cues later in the game are used in the complete opposite way – the music builds a ridiculous amount of tension while there is no other audio being played to fill in the space other than Isaac’s footsteps.

You’ve probably run into this problem before: you’re playing a game in which you can’t hear what a character is saying because the music and other audio is too loud, so you have to turn down the music. Perhaps even after doing so, you still have a hard time hearing what’s being said. This is extremely frustrating to me. I shouldn’t have to do that; the music and audio should be blended well. Perhaps you’ve had a bland musical/audio experience with a game because there were no dynamics or variations, causing aural fatigue. For instance, hearing the same music repeatedly, all at the same volume level the entire time. The music and gameplay must flow together coherently, otherwise the player will get inadvertently bored and want to move on. Just have a listen to this scene from Dead Space 2, and pay close attention to the slow build up of music, then the excellent blend between music and audio clips (distorted scream-like sound) towards the end of the scene:

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The visuals and music make this hallucination feel very real.

This is excellent blending of music and audio recordings because it flows so incredibly well that you don’t notice the transition from music to a sound clip. You get a sense of being uncomfortably creeped out while the hallucination of Nicole screams at Isaac, partly caused by the disturbing image of a dead Nicole with intense light radiating from her eyes and mouth, but mostly due to the audible sensory overload happening. This is an example of musical dynamics blended with audio recordings and voice overs at its best.

Dynamics and blending can greatly affect a composition for better or worse, but there is one other component that can greatly affect your gaming experience. The choice of instrumentation can completely change the tonal quality of a composition. A song played with a harmonica will not have the same tonal quality as the same song played with a harp. You can apply this to instrument choice in games as well. Dead Space would be a completely different experience if the music were more electric-guitar centered. The sound engineer has a very important role to fill, and the engineer for the Dead Space series made the right choice.

The music that haunts the entirety of the Dead Space series has a foundational string section – violins, cello, bass, and viola – surrounded by an orchestral accompaniment. When something is lurking in the dark or out of sight, the cello creeps in to tell you “watch out.” If you enter a dimly-lit room full of hiding places for creeping monsters, the violins come in with a high E minor, played staccato (think of the famous shower scene in Psycho, but toned down and played much quicker). The choice to use strings as the foundation in a game like this was a risk, as it could have been a little thin for such an atmospheric game, but, in the end, the risk paid off.

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Dead Space is all about atmosphere, and it demands appropriate music.  Strings were an excellent choice.

The way the strings are used isn’t novel, but it is brilliant, nonetheless. Most of the strings section are usually playing in the upper register, which by itself wouldn’t be enough to fill the space between the audio (e.g., footsteps, crashes of pipe in the distance, etc). How do they “fix” this problem? They use counterpoint along with much lower notes, predominately played by the cello and bass, to give the compositions girth and depth. The beauty of this is that the average gamer will usually only hear the high strings, as those are meant to stand out from the rest of the instrumentation, but what is truly gripping them and enhancing the experience are the lower tones. The lower register instruments fill the space so that the player perhaps even feels a sense of claustrophobia, since there is no room remaining (musically speaking) in the audio. This method also really accentuates when the music has died out; the player has a sense of tension or imminent danger, as the music that has been filling up the aural senses abruptly stopped for some reason.

The Dead Space series is one of my favorites of all time, with 1 and 2 being in my top 5 games. Not only do the games deliver solid gameplay that set the standard for other titles in the genre, but the magnificent blend of music and audio is so well done that it genuinely affects the player’s experience with the games. I highly recommend these games, and when you do play through them, remember to keep an ear open for the audio treat you’ll receive. To finish, I’ll leave you with this lovely clip that may very well make you squirm in your seat. Remember to really turn up the volume!

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Cross your heart and hope to die…you know the rest.

~Michael

About The Author

Mike Bowerman

A father, husband, and gamer, Michael has been gaming since he was five. A lover of all things video games related with a special place in his heart for Nintendo. Also the editor/writer for The Nintendo Objective. Twitter: @BowerTendo Website: The Nintendo Objective

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  • I very much enjoyed this article Mike. I only played the first Dead Space but you hit the nail on the head with how the music is a crucial part of why that game was so successful. Well done!

  • Thank you! :)