Hey Dead Pixels readers, Jonathan Barkan from the BD Music Section was lucky enough to get a chance to interview Dead Space 2’s audio director Andrew Boyd! Read on!
I don’t know about all of you readers, but I love a good video game. Laying back with an engaging game for an hour or two is a great way for me to relax. Add to that my love of horror, and basically any survival horror game that comes out is bound to end up on my shelf at some point. For all of you survival horror fans out there, you know how important sound and music is in creating the proper atmosphere and the original Dead Space was no exception. To those of you who have played it, you know that it has very engaging and ominous music as well as some masterfully crafted sound effects. So how will the sequel compare? Well, after the jump, you can read Audio Director Andrew Boyd’s take on the music and sound of Dead Space 2!
1) The music of Dead Space 1 relied more on strings and orchestrations rather than synthetic or processed sounds, giving a more organic feel to a very mechanical ship. It’s very Cronenberg-esque, in a way, the idea of mixing organic with mechanical. Can players expect something along the same lines with the Dead Space 2 soundtrack?
AB: Absolutely, and we’re taking it even farther. In Dead Space 2 we delve deeper into Isaac’s psyche, and the music is a key part of this. He’s a tortured soul in a great deal of pain, and he’s got a real sense of humanity and vulnerability. At the same time he’s tough and possessed of a grim resolve as he undertakes the actions in the game. The music explores these themes using the same kind of orchestral palette as in the first game but with some new twists. It’s still just as tense and horrific, but now paints with a somewhat more nuanced emotional bush, and the contrast between the organic nature of the music and harsh mechanical, technological world around Isaac is even more striking.
2) The music of Dead Space 1, in my opinion, was very reminiscent of the music from Aliens. This helped my enjoyment of the game greatly as Aliens was, and still is, one of my favorite movies. By feeling a similarity, I associated the thrills and excitement of Aliens with Dead Space. Is this feeling something that you are hoping to achieve with the music in Dead Space 2?
AB: A successful soundtrack will always evoke powerful associations in the audience, while still being unique and original. We always hope that a scary cue will immediately conjure horrifying images of other scary things you’ve experienced, or an exciting cue will pump you up with memories of other exciting moments. What’s great about this is that while every listener is hearing the same cue, he or she brings a different set of experiences and memories and associations along with them. By tapping into this great well of experience, we can lend the game a great deal of richness and depth.
But note, this isn’t about being derivative – quite the opposite. It’s about respecting and honoring the established tools and techniques of the genre, and then pushing the boundaries and creating something unique and memorable within them. If we’re doing it right, in ten years someone will ask a very similar question, but it will be about how the thing they’re discussing is reminiscent of Dead Space!
3) In the Dead Space 2 Developer Walkthrough video that has been out for a little while, Steve Papoutsis talked about how the Ishimura was mainly a series of very confined spaces while the Sprawl will have more open areas. Will the change in physical space also be represented in musically?
AB: Yes, in a couple ways. As I mentioned, we’re opening up the character of the music a bit, introducing some new content to broaden the emotional experience. And this also helps support the larger scale of Dead Space 2’s environments by giving the soundtrack a little more room to work. We’re also taking advantage of opportunities for diagetic music in various locations in the Sprawl. It’s a big place that had a lot of people living in it, and while it’s having a real bad time right now, we still want it to feel alive – but barely – with a haunting sense of what was pretty recently a bustling community.
4) As the player proceeds in Dead Space, the Church of Unitology becomes a bigger and bigger character in the plot. In the previously mentioned video, the demo footage takes place within the Church itself. Being that Church and religious music have certain identifiable traits, will these sounds or motifs come up as an influence?
AB: We’ve created a unique thematic approach for Unitology that’s not exactly what one might think of as traditionally “religious,” but that feels right – meditative and spiritual, but creepy, dark, foreboding. It’s woven thematically through the soundtrack in such a way as to tie together the Unitology threads. It’s subtle, but I think the attentive listener will notice, and get the chills!
1) The sound in any survival horror is incredibly important. In a game such as Dead Space, there is a great amount of creative freedom when it comes to sound design as the locations in the game are completely original and built from the ground up. What was the approach in creating some of the more mechanical sounds of the Sprawl?
AB: Machines in Dead Space are often very threatening things: enormous pistons ready to crush you, huge gears that can grind you to pulp, giant shooting jets of flames, industrial fans on the verge of slicing you to pieces. And of course, Isaac often finds himself having to directly interact with these instruments of terrible death. So when designing these sorts of mechanical elements, we always start with: what is it doing, and why? And we begin to design a sound that represents a believable physical interaction. But then we add the menace: maybe it’s a high-frequency whine that cuts through the ambience like a dentist’s drill, or maybe a queasy ultra-low-frequency subwoofer rumble that sets you on edge. Or maybe both! Sometimes the threat comes from making the machine sound rickety, like it might fly apart at any moment. Or sometimes it’s just the opposite: a robotic arm whose only job is to load cryogenically frozen coffins into a storage crypt is most menacing by being simple, and coldly efficient about its work.
The Sprawl environment offers a great opportunity for contrast, too. Riding an elevator in the church is creepy because it’s quiet, smooth, and clean, whereas riding an elevator in the infrastructure is creepy because it’s loud, rattly, and almost decrepit. One of the signature mechanical sounds in the Sprawl comes in an infrastructure room that provides air filtration for the station. The machines are huge bags which are slowly inflating and deflating, pumping the air around. If you stop and listen, they sound almost wheezy, exhausted and sick. Like the station itself is gasping for its last breath. It’s an especially creepy moment.
2) The Necromorphs of Dead Space are the mutated, infected bodies of the dead. By being rooted in humanity, where does one approach the concept of building the sounds of these creatures? How do you build the sound of a Necromorph in rage versus one in pain?
AB: Fundamentally, the Necromorphs were human at some point, so they need to be expressive in a way that reflects that. We as humans are extremely sensitive to this kind of expression from other humans, as well as a pretty wide range of other animals that vocalize – we’re well attuned to the threat of a lion’s roar, for instance. And we have no trouble telling the difference between the aggressiveness of a dog’s bark versus the pain of its whimpering. There are fundamental characteristics to these kinds of sounds that we apply as the basis of the Necromorphs’ sounds. They are grounded in our sense of what a creature like this might sound like based on our experiences.
But obviously Necromorphs are also hideous monsters out do you as much harm as possible. We like to think of them on a continuum, with some recognizably human in nature and others much farther out onto the monster side. But even the ones that are most like humans still sound twisted, bizarre, horrifying. We take all that grounded sense of reality, and turn it on its head. And this is where the scariness comes from as well. Sure we know a lion’s roar is threatening. But what was that roar? It was shaped like a threatening roar, but I’ve never heard any animal sound like that!
Finally, it’s important that they articulate believably – that doesn’t mean realistic, necessarily (what’s a “realistic” Necromorph sound like?), but believable. Do they make a sound that matches what they look like, how they move? Is the sound actually something this creature could make? We go so far as to change the sounds contextually – if you decapitate a growling enemy, he’ll no longer be able to growl, even if he continues to attack. He doesn’t have an apparatus for growling anymore!
3) One of the biggest enticements of the Dead Space series is the Zero Gravity experience. One of the most famous taglines in sci-fi/horror history is the tagline for Alien: “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream”. However, Dead Space has created a fully believable and incredibly immersive auditory experience when one enters Zero G. How was that created and how has that been improved for Dead Space 2?
AB: A key element to Dead Space’s ability to create horror is that as fantastic as some of its elements are, they’re still grounded in reality. The airless moments are a great example: you may be on a space station in the distant future surrounded by amazing yet-to-be-invented technology, but the basic laws of physics haven’t changed. Sound doesn’t travel through a vacuum. But it does travel through physical objects. So Isaac can “hear” muffled sounds that are being transmitted through touch to his suit. This kind of grounding in reality helps anchor Isaac’s experiences and make them that much more scary for the player.
But anyway, in airless areas, he mostly just hears his own breath and heartbeat. This creates a terrifically tense and claustrophobic feeling which we expand even further in Dead Space 2. As Isaac now has the ability to fly free in zero-gravity, he can maneuver around in the vast emptiness of space, and it’s a great contrast between all that openness and the tight confines of his suit and the tension of his limited air supply. He’s also able to get himself into some pretty precarious situations, and we take advantage of making these as scary as possible – when he flies too near a giant energy beam, for instance, it causes his suit to rattle and resonate in a very disturbing way. You’re not “hearing” the energy beam, your hearing it’s frightening interaction with your suit, your only protection.
4) The weaponry of Dead Space 2 is also very unique and very original. While we have seen that some of the fan favorites are sticking around, there are also new weapons being thrown into the mix. How do you design the sound of these weapons not only in terms of being fired, but also in reloading, switching to the alternate fire, etc…
AB: Keep in mind that the “weapons” in Dead Space are by-and-large actually meant to be mining or engineering tools; Isaac just wields them in ways the occupational-safety folks might not approve of. So it’s important that the sounds have a real sense of physical weight and believability and a certain lack of adornment – they’re not pretty, but they’re powerful and effective. You’ll notice a lot of secondary motions (guards and shields deploying and retracting, pneumatic cylinders bleeding and recharging, servos and gears and levers and so on), and the firing sounds are not your typical “gun” sounds but are rather more evocative of how the tool might have been intended to be used. And the animators and visual effects artists have done an amazing job giving each of the weapons a unique character which we’ve tried to support and enhance with the sounds. You should be able to tell what weapon you’re wielding without looking, just by the sound it makes when you equip it, and certainly when you fire it. This is important – Isaac is an engineer, he knows his tools, trusts them, and to him, they each actually have a character.