The horror genre is a popular choice for video games, and there’s many ways to enhance the game’s frightening scenes and atmosphere with a scary soundtrack. You can creep, you can spook, you can spine-tingle, you can jump-out, you can gross-out, the ways to do so are as endless as there are horror films.
While there’s a lot more than these two paths forward for the audio design of a horror game, in this entry, I will be comparing and contrasting two different approaches to a possible soundtrack.
How scary is scary
While it’s true there’s plenty of ways to frighten, what it may really boil down to is if we are looking to be serious when we do so. The soundtrack to Silent Hill is gritty, harsh, and horrific at times. Sometimes the use of grinding metals set me very on edge, working perfect for the game design. But your game may be directed more towards the casual market, such as facebook or mobile games, where your soundtrack needs to be more on the cute, or goofy side, such as a Halloween update. For example, the Nightmare before Christmas has a "spooky" athmosphere, but isn't quite as much scary as it is whimsical. The difference again boils down to how serious is your game, and how much do you really want to fright, add tension, and set your players on edge.
Instruments to Fright with
For the serious and horrific, use music instruments that are less "orchestral instruments" and more sound effects and synths. Chains, prepared pianos, percussion hits, screeches and wails – distorted and electronic distortions.
For the cartoony, whimsical, cute, use pizzicato strings, orchestral chimes, xylophones, vibraphones, and most importantly the pipe organ. These instruments all hint at the morbid and frightful, but don’t push it over the edge as much in a seriously scary track.
For a truly horrific game, focus less on melody and more about setting the mood. Repeating noises, staggering in your composition effects from soft to loud, keeping the player’s ears guessing and tense is important. Sustained strings, tremolo or otherwise, and in clusters is important. Brass clusters and effects are also great to use interspersed in this soundscape, again trying to keep away from melodies and more for noises and effects. This is very different than the musicality in a “spooky” or friendly-fright game. Melody is key here, as we’re not trying to set tension levels with ambient soundscapes. Some comical jump-out moments will benefit from nodding towards the more serious and tension-filled games, by using some of those audio cues found in other media. Strings played in clusters, loud percussion bangs, evil fanfares, you name it! Just make sure the rest of the audio is more playful, otherwise you'll have a strange juxtoposition going on with your art design.
Parting thoughts… from beyond the grave…
There’s a lot of different ways to go about a great soundscape for a horror game. Most importantly, decide how to move forward with the design of the project. A more grown-up game aiming to horrify will have different soundtrack than that aiming to be spooky and a bit cute, but there’s a fair amount of crossover. What works best is to peruse the art design doc and play a prototype build when it’s available. Have discussions with the leads about your opinions, and always keep your target audience in mind. The best advice is to find which style is going to work best for the game and listen to a bunch of different tracks from similar sources. Hear the commonalities for yourself and keep in a pile the types that may work for your game’s audio design. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources!
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. For examples of his latest work and samples, visit www.harrymack.com.