“I’ve always thought that great sound is something that isn’t really noticed.”
That’s Byron Bullock, sound designer on Alien: Isolation. In my time interviewing and discussing sound with video game engineers, I’ve heard multiple different variations of this same statement. Good sound should wash over you. It should be a seamless part of an experience you can verbalise. You shouldn’t notice. It rings true. It makes sense. It sounds about right.
But I’m sorry Byron, with Alien: Isolation I noticed. I totally noticed.
How did I notice? When did I notice? I sat crouched underneath a table for five straight minutes, rooted to the spot. That’s how I noticed. That’s when I noticed.
Terrified to the point where I literally could not move, all I could do was listen, acutely aware of the sound. Trying to parse the aural information being drip fed into my earholes. I couldn’t see the Alien, I could only hear it. Temporary paralysis. That was the very real result.
According to the game's Creative Director Al Hope, this is Alien: Isolation’s little secret -- its audio. A “shortcut to tell you what to think and feel on a subconscious level”.
In Alien Isolation sound is important. Whether you notice it or not.
I asked Byron to sum up Alien: Isolation’s audio in one word. He gave me three: ‘authentic’, ‘haunting’, ‘immersive’.
Great audio is rarely something you notice; Byron’s already established that. But with horror, more than in any other genre, sound is centre stage. It’s paramount, the end result of that visceral, primal reaction horror elicits.
“We always try to subconsciously stir up emotion and transport the player into the world we are creating,” explains Byron. “This is especially true when dealing with the horror genre and is something visuals alone struggle to convey.”
I remember moments hidden beneath tables, squished into lockers. I remember moments when I had to actively listen to aural cues. That’s what I remember, but that represents such a small portion of what sound actually achieves. Byron uses the simple example of a dark empty corridor:
“Sure, the player feels anxious as they walk, wondering what lies ahead. But, as soon as you start to add the sound of movement, creaks, groans, hisses, uneasy drones and throbs the feeling becomes that much more real and intense.”
I don’t remember that sound. But I sure won’t be able to forget that feeling of dread.
The world of Alien is a claustrophobic one. It’s a space where pressure is constant. In that sense it’s a dream project for Audio Engineers like Byron; a chance to explore what makes a movie like Alien: Isolation tick, a chance to learn those lessons and apply them to a whole new set of circumstances.
When the audio team learned it was working on the Alien franchise, their first step was to acquire the 8-track recordings used on in the original movie. Step two was licensing the original score by Jerry Goldsmith. Part of this was functional -- obviously Alien: Isolation would need to use some of those familiar sound, and integrate the most famous motifs -- but it was also an attempt to get underneath the skin of the original, to get a unique view into the sound of Alien.
Because, simply put, Byron and his colleagues would have to replicate that sound and expand upon it.
“With Alien Isolation this involved researching the film, dissecting it, taking it apart and asking ourselves, what makes the film sound like Alien?” Says Byron. “We quickly realised we would need a lot more material. We [did] a lot of recording!”
“For Alien: Isolation we recorded things like explosions, metal impacts, dry ice on metal, mechanisms, large industrial machinery, animals, humans, fruit and vegetables, old analogue computers, old toys and we even used special microphones to capture electromagnetic information, that’s just scratching the surface.”
Alien is essentially a 1970s version of the future. In order to remain authentic, this was a mindset the entire team had to embrace.
“We dubbed it Lofi Scifi,” explains Byron. “The world is one of a gritty, mechanical push button nature, so everything had to fit into that aesthetic.”
Lofi Scifi is a catch-all term. Think about the look of Alien, with its flickering CRTs, it’s clunky interfaces, the switches, the cabling. When we think about the future, in 2014, we think about touch interfaces, we think about a clean, clutter-free environments. That’s not Alien. That’s about as far from Alien as you can possibly imagine. Alien is about the flicker of decaying technology and the clickity-clack of physical, manual switches. And the sound has to reflect that.
I tell Byron about my own experience with Alien: Isolation. I tell him that, as a result of his sound design, I sat completely still in his video game, afraid to move.
“The fact that you were too terrified to move for 5 minutes makes me smile,” he laughs.
Alien: Isolation’s success in this regard, he says, is a result of good game design backed up with great audio and visuals.
“Those three elements coming together at the right time create a really immersive experience.”
It’s augmented by an audio system that dynamically reacts to what the player is doing, a system that reads the threat the player is under and reacts accordingly. If you’re hiding in a locker, for example, and the Alien comes to investigate, the music will change (“The idea is to make the situation feel more tense”).
Incredibly, the sound mix itself reacts to to the player’s play-style and approach.
“Our mix engine can react to how stealthy the player is being,” says Byron. “So as the player moves slowly past the Alien the sound mix will change, and adapt, favouring Amanda's sounds --footsteps and clothing -- and the alien. Other less important sounds become lower as if you are focusing in on you and the alien.”
It’ll probably all occur without you noticing.
And, if you ask Byron Bullock, that’s exactly how it should be.