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The Musical Box #17: Silent horror

The Musical Box features 30 articles focusing on game music production and implementation. Edition #17: Dead Space 2

Dead Space is an astonishing survival horror/action game that grabbed the attention of the media and fans of the genre when it released back in 2008. It features a claustrophobic and frightening ambience, unforgiving challenges and spectacular production values. This edition of The Musical Box will explore a very special moment in Dead Space 2 (2011), and, surprisingly, it's one of the most silent moments you'll ever hear in a AAA game.

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Game: Dead Space 2
Released: 2011
Platform: PS3, XBOX 360 and Windows
Developer: Visceral Games/Electronic Arts
Composer: Jason Graves

The Set-Up

Despite popular belief, there is absolutely no sound in space, zero. There's no air, so it's impossible for the sound waves to travel. But since watching a spaceship exploding without sound would be the most boring moment in the entertainment industry, sound designers cleverly ignored this scientific fact.

Apparently, the developers of Dead Space 2 are well aware of this, and they wanted to create something special. There are moments in the game when the players float in outer space, and there is almost no sound being produced. The player can hear muffled sounds of the main character's breathing, heartbeat and, of course, some explosions, but everything is very discreet.

The lack of music and sound effects makes this moment one of the most impressive of the current generation. It's not just a matter of seeking different approaches to sound design. The lack of sound simply fits perfectly with the theme and the genre, and it greatly enhances the feeling of tension.

The Moment

Check out the special, almost mute, moment below:

The Impact

The most important aspect here is the duality of silent and loud moments. If the game were silent the whole time, the player wouldn't feel the impact of the silence when exposed to it. But because there are extremely loud moments and screaming mutated aliens lurking at every corner, the introduction of a silent moment may have two sensorial results:

1. Physically, it helps our ears to rest. After long periods of explosion and screaming, one starts to become stressed due to excessive exposition to loud sounds.

But, at the same time:

2. Silent moments are weird and uncommon in videogames, especially in action games. The players would think to themselves: "This is too silent and calm. Something bad is going to happen!" So, even though the players are resting their ears, they still feel the tension.

Visceral games and composer Jason Graves raised the bar of sound design and sensorial results with this game. There are not a lot of developers who understand that sparse use of sound may be a powerful tool if used correctly. Fortunately, the ones that do understand this are able to create memorable pieces of electronic art.

If you liked this approach, check out what Rockstar did in Red Dead Redemption.

Special thanks: Gilliard Lopes, Rafael Kuhnen, Fernando Secco, and Sandro Tomasetti.

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