Can a game be scarier than a film, and how can adaptive sound effects and music help to create a sense of horror?
Creating a sense of horror in a computer game has always been a task not taken lightly by any games development company, just look at Team Silent in Japan. This is because creating the perfect blend of horror and suspense is key to keeping the player on the edge of their seat for the duration of the game. There have been many horror games that have surfaced in the past and have lacked this perfect blend and have eventually evolved into an action game rather than a horror, Resident Evil 5 is a perfect example of this. However, games designers have many other assets that must be perfectly constructed and implemented if they wish to compliment and fuel the horror and suspense they are attempting to create.
One asset that is just as important, if not more, to master than the others is the games musical score and accompanying sound effects. This is because sound gives the game a new dimension of horror that not been seen, and that can be used to trick or startle the player. Mastering all these elements and executing them perfect which has been many games downfalls. For example, if you play a horror game with the headphones on you are more likely to startle easier than you would if you played the game with the headphones off. Now if you were to turn the audio off within that game and play the game with no sound whatsoever, you will find that half of the scare factor of that game has been removed. Like I said before this is because the use of sound and audio gives the game a new dimension of horror. Because of this many have asked in the past whether or not it is even possible for a game to be a scarier than a classic horror film, a question that I am going to discuss and attempt to answer.
So you may ask yourself what is really the difference between a computer game and film, they are both still a form of entertainment. Yes you are correct, they are both a form of entertainment but they are two completely different kinds. In a film you (the audience) have a non-interactive role, you are a third party to the scenario or scenarios, and you see things from other people’s points of views and experiences. You have no role to play; you have no interaction with the world and characters portrayed within it. Where as a computer game gives the audience an interactive role within the scenarios and overall narrative, unlike a film you are in complete control of your character (within reason). Your actions will directly influence the outcome and repercussions of situations that a film viewer would have influence in. This then makes a computer game player has an interactive role within a narrative, they are always going to feel more immersed within the story and overall experience.
Like I mentioned earlier in the past there have been horror games that have failed to scare audiences because of an incorrect blend of elements. However there have been titles in the past that have stood the test of time (in my opinion). This is not because the developers played safely or by the rules, but because they were willing to take risks and attempt new techniques and styles of game play. Using perfect blends of suspense, shocks and horror coupled with well implemented sound effects and music and an even darker and shocking story to fuel the tension, these two games in my opinion are horror classics for very different reasons.
Doom 3 was a game that many had been waiting years for after the doom franchise went stagnant, and some even believed was at an end. Unlike its previous Doom titles, id Software worked hard to make a worthy reboot to the classic series, they accomplished this and then some. What made the game so scary was the fact the games graphics were so good and every step of the game was painstakingly planned out with twists and elements to keep the player on the edge of their seat. New technology was used to create realistic real-time rendering lighting and effects, coupled with complex animations and dense coding. One of the main reasons the game scared me was because there was little or no lighting in most areas of the game and the threat of ambushes was around most corners. Your only source of illumination was a flashlight that had to be unequipped to use your weapon meaning that you were shooting in the dark. Adding to all this tension was the audio and sound effects that made you feel like you were never quite alone the darkness.
Silent Hill 2 was a survival horror game that actually had the ability to give its players nightmares. Like the first game it relied heavily on strong horror themes and a dark and shocking story to push the suspense and tension. With a large array of flawed and vulnerable characters as well as a varied cast of monsters, each with different strengths and weaknesses, Silent Hill 2 could at times be a truly unnerving game to play. True to the survival horror genre there were fewer weapons, ammunition, save points and health. With all these odds weighting up against the player it make you feel less empowered that you would do playing any other game. What made Silent Hill 2 more of a tense experience was that the developer understood that audio would play a large part in creating the overall atmosphere, so they worked hard to create a musical piece to emphasise this. As well as this Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill 2’s musical composer) understood that sometimes silence could be as useful an asset when attempting to create an unsettling environment and atmosphere, he stated “selecting moments of silence is another way of producing sound.” In all, Silent Hill 2’s blends of horror and suspense merged with unnerving audio created a truly frightening experience for most gamers that played it.
As I mentioned earlier sound does play a large part in any game or film but it is especially important in a horror production. Using the correct sound effects and transitions can be critical to creating the atmosphere that a developer is hoping to achieve. In all modern computer games sound effects and musical scores can be adaptive to the environments and situations that the player may have to encounter. Using music that can adapt to certain scenarios can be used to create tension, and can help to alert players to the presence of enemies, which in some cases can make the encounter even scarier. For example, Silent Hill 2 gave the player a pocket radio that would give off loud static when the character would come close to an enemy. Although this was a valuable tool that had to used in order to survive, it didn’t let you know how many enemies the character was about to encounter. For this reason when the radio started to give off its static discharge, most players would be on edge at the thought that they could be hopelessly outnumbered. As well as the radio, Silent Hill 2 used a wide range of abstract and strange sound effects and transitions. These sound effects ranged from metallic scratches to something that resembled animals be slaughtered. Another good example of adaptive music and sound samplings in a video game would be Dead Space, which relied intensely on sound effects and sound transitions. A perfect example to create a sense of tension and horror was when the main character (Isaac Clarke) has encountered his first few monsters and is battling for his life, in the short moments of peace between the encountering outnumbering enemies the character enters a long and dark corridor. In the distance you clearly hear a small child singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. This was probability one of the most unsettling experiences of the game, because when you imagine that song you think of children and their innocence. Elements like this were commonly used in Dead Space to play on the emotions and with the minds of the gamers who played it.
When all these elements and factors are taken into account and consideration, it is obvious to assume that computer games have the power to scare an audience more than a film. The player will always have an interactive role and will always be in complete control of the character, where their own personal actions can have a direct impact in the world around them and they will in turn, feel more immersed within the narrative and the situations and scenarios that it will present. With the proper use of adaptive audio and a perfect blend of horror and suspense, an audience can share more of an experience with a computer game, and take more of an experience away from it. Although there are more horror films in the world than there are games, the few games that are well made and implemented correctly can stand up to horror classics that have been popular for years, and in many cases beat them hands down with their scare-factor.
My own personal opinion on the matter is that as computer software and technology continues to improve and evolve the power that the games developers and the games themselves have to keep and audience engrossed and immersed will also strengthen. As technology evolves and improves games will also evolve with them, and in years to come computer games will become an even more frightening experience for the audience.