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MIGS 09: Dead Space: A Musical Post Mortem

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Jason Graves, composer for Dead Space, has a very interesting background. A drummer musically he had an interest in training in working with an orchestra as a composer and trained with TV and film industry veterans.

He worked with greats in the industry, including Jerry Goldsmith who worked on many classic films such as Alien, Poltergeist and Chinatown. Graves recognized early that suspense and horror films have most of their impact from the audio, nearly 50% according to research studies.

click to view larger imageWhen EA began work on Dead Space, Graves was very interested, he submitted an eight minute pitch piece to try and impress the Audio Director Don Veca. The demo tracks worked, in fact part was used note-for-note in the end credits of the game. In reality the demo worked too well, Graves threw every tool he had into the moody atmospheric and bass filled track and Veca wanted hours of this.

Graves had a challenge ahead of him, he had to plan the general sound and then determine how to implement it. He and Veca had many days of brainstorming sessions where they listened to numerous soundtracks from Aliens, to the Exorcist to older European horror. They eventually settled on the tone and theme they wanted.

Dead Space was interesting in how it was approved, EA wanted a 15 minute slice of the game to decide if they wanted to proceed. A fully realized 15 minute game with music, graphics and gameplay complete had to be generated. Graves composed the music needed and based on his perceptions it was manic, energetic and tense and the game was approved. Don Veca was happy, but he wanted the music different, he wanted the player to not have hope, to not feel like they were winning and the music was key to this.

click to view larger imageGraves realized that the music needed to be grungy and visceral and would not have a concurrent theme. The music had to be dynamic, feel textured and have scare moments that could be triggered and scale. He, with Veca, came up with an idea of generating music in four layers, each layer grows in intensity and power and simulates the feelings of the scenes.

The base layer is the ambient music, all music is triggered by fear emitters. An object that can be placed anywhere and proximity triggers the transitions to increasing the layers. Walking down a corpse-strewn corridor starts with low ambiance, then the rumble is overlayed, then frantic staccato bursts and low groans. Finally you are chased and the fourth layer is applied in a cacophony of noise causing you to feel emotion and react to what you are hearing as much as to the action onscreen.

click to view larger imageNow that they had the method of delivering the audio they needed to create it. Graves had two different sessions with Orchestras recording instruments individually based on his compositions. These had to be very extreme playstyles, at times loud, other times as fast as they could play. At the end he had used 200 instruments and recorded 8000 sounds.

Once he had amassed 12 hours of audio he cut all the sections and logged them into his keyboard. Graves was then able to work with the layering tool and record distinct layers that would then be added to the game and tagged to the emitters. He also massed a large pool of sounds he called 'stingers', quick bursts of sound that could be used as 'boo' moments. By having this pool of stingers the team could dynamically source a sound to scare the player when a moment occurred.

The end result was an organic sound experience. The audio was layered and could be triggered on and off dynamically with overlayed stingers the audio always sounded unique and fresh.

Graves goal was to create a textured audio experience that immersed the player into the game, filling them with tension and fear.  For anyone who has played Dead Space I think all agree he achieved this goal to amazing effect.

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About Michael Prince

Looking at all things Geek - news, rants and updates from the worlds of gaming, tech, blu-ray, novels, and music.