Until we introduce scratch and sniff cards, with players waiting with bated breath for the on-screen prompt to stop playing the game and begin furiously revealing the smell that the developers intended to accompany a specific moment or place in the game. Or better yet, jelly beans with specific flavours we’re encouraged to snack on, along with a car wash array of devices to pinch, tickle and spray you, we’re restricted (at the moment) to two senses when playing video games (three if you want to count controller vibrations).
Audio accomplishes a similar goal to the visuals of a game: they’re both trying to communicate the idea of a world that the developers intend and working in a symbiotic way to achieve this. They both employ similar techniques within their own realms.
Foreshadowing is especially prevalent in horror. You want to give glimpses of what the player will have to encounter in the probable near future. This puts the player on edge, warning them to be extra vigilant. While the game will visually present you with disturbing or frightening imagery to accomplish this, music might swell upon the discovery and continue to permeate throughout.
Until that music stops, you are not safe.
This kind of Pavlovian conditioning can also be turned on its heels however. Conditioning a fear response specifically to musical cues means that you can surprise them more effectively when a chase or enemy encounter arrives without warning.
When you’re stripped of a sense, the other senses tend to compensate to allow for a greater chance of survival.
Outlast 2 introduces a new gadget to the player’s arsenal: the camera microphone. There’s a stealth sequence where you’re tasked with crossing a corn field while roaming enemies try to find you. You cannot see anything, and by the time a flashlight beam pierces through the corn in your direction, the enemy is most likely too close for comfort. The game has restricted one of your senses, but the microphone let’s you hear enemies’ relative positions (the audio level meter on the left-hand side also visually confirming this). It was even later patched by Red Barrels to consume no batteries, incentivizing players to use it more liberally, which I absolutely did.
This concept can also be generalized to whenever you can use audio to estimate an enemy’s location in a space without needing to see them. Listening for Jack’s taunts in Resident Evil 7 from around a corner, letting you know you should double back and attempt a different route for instance. Audio stingers can also be implemented to let the players know they’ve been spotted even if they are looking the other way, like in Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
So far, audio in horror games can be used as a form of communication to the player on two levels: both as a Pavlovian mechanic of inducing fear, as well as providing a different source of contextual information besides visual. The next one is self-explanatory: atmosphere.
There’s a reason that Yamaoka’s Silent Hill scores involve the duality of rust and ash, as well as existentialism, paranoia and nostalgia. Alien: Isolation’s faithful recreation of the late 70s visual and sonic palette, as well as the stomach-churning sound of the alien travelling through the vents, creates a phenomenal atmosphere. Amnesia’s score grounding you in its Gothic aesthetic, while distant and hallucinatory audio flashbacks leave you unsettled. Or the sudden isolation one feels from the jarringly quiet school sequences of Outlast 2, suddenly craving for the raving crickets and crazed cultist’s ramblings. Crafting an ambiance that sounds realistic and yet otherworldly in its emphasis on unpleasant frequencies and sounds,along with the visuals, can create an atmosphere that the player wants to desperately leave not out of boredom, but out of fear.
In the case of atmosphere, knowing when to use music and when to let the ambiance breathe is a difficult and precise process. Outlast 2 for instance, has excellent moments where you’re just listening to the Arizonian desert. Additionally, some of the music cues that play while your record disturbing events, along with the frenetic chase sequences, are also effective. There are cases where I find the music is a bit too loud during some stealth sections however and robs the player of immersion. Granted, there are some games that manage to have wall to wall music effectively: Yamaoka’s scores for Silent Hill are iconic for this reason, and Rule of Rose’s string quartets contribute to the strange ambiance that the game puts forth. The opposite is true as well, Silent Hill P.T. uses music extremely sparingly, employing an ambient track to foreshadow certain moments only. Every game has its own genetics and figuring out the right dose of music and ambiance is going to be different for each one.
These three concepts represent but a fraction of how audio is important to horror games, but I thought they were important to outline. Horror is a fascinating genre to explore in interactive media, because it requires a lot of fine tuning and experimentation to arrive at the most effective result. The ebb and flow of knowing when to actively scare the player versus letting the dread accumulate is tricky, but it is a welcome exercise.