Dead Space — How sound design can re-imagine survival horror games

Luca Petrillo
9 min readOct 13, 2020

Dead space is one of the best survival horrors of the last decades. It excels in providing a sense of unease and fear in the player that not so many games did it properly.

The main aspect is the sound design. It supports the narrative, as it is the main function, but it serves as a guide to the player during his passage through the wicked spaceship.

Here, you play as an engineer Isaac Clarke as he navigates through the mining spaceship and fights deadly monsters called Necromorphs, while struggling with growing psychosis. Gameplay has Isaac exploring different areas through its chapter-based narrative, solving environmental puzzles and finding ammunition and equipment to survive.

The sound design was a particular focus during production with the score by Jason Graves designed to evoke tension and unease.

- Gameplay -

A complete lack of HUD icons also keeps you focused on the environment. Isaac’s suit, the RIG, displays all information relevant to Isaac’s condition with a health bar running up his spine. The map and inventory are displayed in a window in front of him, projected from the suit, in real-time.

-Main Character -

The movements and the presence of Isaac are unsettling. He is dressed with a big suit including the mask. The player can’t ever see his face so in some ways you can think him as not being human. Also the sounds he makes are filtered through the helmet, in a kind of radio transmission. This gives to the player an uncomfortable situation even from the very beginning when just controlling the main character.

- Sound Design -

The main focus is placed on the conjunction between music and sound design to promote the horror atmosphere. The sound work was led by Don Veca and the team included Andrew Lackey, Dave Feise and Dave Swenson. Each member’s work often overlapped with others.

Feise, the first member to join, mostly worked on weapon designs and the HUD elements. Swenson worked on a wide array of elements and in particular he created impact sounds and handled the more scripted linear sections. Lackey’s contributions focused on boss fights and the opening sections. For one of the areas in the game, which had no enemies but relied on sound and lighting, audio director Don Veca used sounds recorded from a Bay Area Rapid Transit train; the results were described by Schofield as a “horrible sound”. The monster noises used a base of human noises; as an example, for the small Lurker enemies they used human baby sounds as a base mixed in other noises such as panther growls.

As with other elements of production, the team wanted to emphasise realism. When it came to zero-G environments, they muted and filtered any sound focusing mainly on noises from within Isaac’s suit, as the same way it works in a space vacuum. The sounds played into gameplay, as the team wanted players to use sound cues to help anticipate enemy attacks while also stoking their fear. The team wanted to recreate the scripted sound design of linear horror films in an interactive environment. They watched their favorite horror films, noting their use of sound effects and music, and implementing them into Dead Space. One of the constant issues was optimising the limited amount of RAM the team had for both music and sound effects, which partly inspired the development of specific tools rather than using popular sound design systems.

- The Rooms -

In some rooms there is so much happening for a sound point of view that the player became worried and begin to ask himself: “Am I going to be able to hear the sounds of anything that is threatening me?” Am I going to be able to actually predict or be prewarned by things that are threatening me?”

A good example of this process is in the big empty rooms. They are enormous, dark and they can be terrifying. They are in the potential of what’s there. We hear creacking sounds in the distance, odd screams, cries and moans often in the distance. The reason such a huge space is threatening and scary or potentially scary is because larger spaces allow larger and more dangerous creatures to hide. So by realising you are going to move into this enormous empty cavern you got this understanding of “What is going to be in there?” “What is it that I’m hearing”? “What is it that I’m going to encounter when I have to move through it”.

Even some rooms can be themselves a threat for the player. For example the room with all the flames that are coming from the pipes. The presence and the sound of these flames are exaggerated in an hyper-realistic way that you will understand and feel them as a threat. The sound here is more like a long explosion with distorted low frequencies instead of a normal fire sound.

Instead the sound design in quiet passages supports the idea that you’re getting closer to a threat, but the closer you get and the longer you go without the threat actually manifesting the more nervous the player will get.

In the entire game only a few times when the player opens a door he will find a creature on the other side. When it happens that creature will run away. This is incredible for a couple of reasons: first because they broke so many of the lazy cliches of survival horror games, second because then that creature runs away from you and runs down the cargo into the corner all the sudden the player is starting to be nervous, asking himself: “where is he gone? Is he coming back?”.

From a sound point of view, he becomes hyper-alert about the threat. He will listen to the noises in the background and react with it. This is a good example of how trigger sounds can lead the player to the goal or bring him in disorder, confusing him. Most often the scariest moments are where nothing happens because then the expectations are increased.

-Dialogue in story-telling-

The recorded dialogue excels in this game and it’s used as a popular and common format. The story is told by little snippets of information that are presented to you only by recorded dialogue whether it’s a recording or whether it’s just somebody talking to you by the radio. Quite often the story elements are presented to you just purely in dialogue within not being any physical character there.

This format allows you to have the story presented to you in an efficient way while you’re just still exploring the world. You don’t have to sit still while somebody talks to you.

In this game those snippets of story build up exactly the sense of anxiety as the events are going through and they give you enough information to disturb the player but not enough information to fully understand the story so this leads the player to increase his expectation the more deep he plays. The story elements combine with the environment in which you’re trying to get things done.

Dead Space has a very good habit of giving you things that are there that you can’t engage with and you won’t engage them but it’s the uncertainty of if these creatures will come back or not that is the issue.

The dialogue and voice implementation was handled by Andrea Plastas and Jason Heffel. The voice audio was recorded during motion capture sessions with the actors. The cast included Tonantzin Carmelo as Kendra, Peter Mensah as Hammond, and Keith Szarabajka as Kyne. Isaac is a masked silent protagonist, so the team worked to incorporate personality into his appearance and movements, with a large number of animations for his various conditions and actions. This approach was based on the portrayal of Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2. A vetoed suggestion from Electronic Arts in early production was that a famous actor should portray Isaac.

-Elevators -

Lifts are an effective use of the environment. You are trapped in those, you can’t get out until it stops somewhere.

To control the sound design elements, the team created custom software tools. One of the tools they created was dubbed “Fear Emitters”, which controlled the volume of music and sound effects based on distance from threats or key events. Other sound tools included “Creepy Ambi Patch”, which acted as a multitrack organiser for the various sound layers and added randomised internal sounds to create a greater sense of dread; “Visual Effects”, which incorporated sound effects naturally into the environment and to specific areas; and “Deadscript”, a scripting language developed as a replacement for a sound language later used for Spore that was taking up too much space in the game’s code.

- Music Composition -

The music for Dead Space was composed by Jason Graves. He had a background in classical music and composition for film and television before debuting in video games through his work on King Arthur. When Veca spoke about their intention for the score, he described their wished-for music as dark and “Aleatoric in style”, ranging from eerie sounds to loud cacophonous sections. Using the available guidelines, Graves put together a sample demo, which both got him the job and greatly impressed Veca.

The entire score was recorded using a live orchestra, but Graves recorded each section separately so the elements could be adjusted based on the in-game situation. Many of the ambient elements were created by Graves having recordings for string or brass sections allowed to each play any note they wanted, then he would take the resultant sounds and mix them. One of the samples played during the game’s credits came from the sample demo which won Graves the job.

The music recording sessions took place at the studio of Skywalker Sound. The music had four different interactive layers prepared, interacting depending on the in-game situation. This element made Graves nervous, as both the sound he was creating and how it was being integrated had not been done before in gaming. At one point, he was afraid that half their recording budget would be spent on elements that could be scrapped as unworkable. The game credited both Graves and Rod Abernethy as composers, but Veca clarified that while Abernethy was involved early on, all the music was composed by Graves. According to Graves, Abernethy helped with the project logistics and was present during the early brainstorming sessions. The final in-game score for Dead Space was three hours long and recorded over five months, several times more than Graves had composed for previous video game titles. Graves described it as the most challenging and enjoyable composing job he had undertaken for a game, praising the amount of freedom he was given by the sound team.

According to an interview with Don Veca, the game’s audio director, the music was composed, conducted and arranged by Jason Graves.

“The plan from the very start was to create mood through overall sound design. We weren’t going for traditional music composition or memorable themes, but instead approached the entire sound-scape as a single unit that would work together to create a dark and eerie vibe. This is not to say that we didn’t use music to help create the atmosphere, because we certainly did; however, the music was used much more texturally than thematically. In this way, Dead Space has really blurred the line between music and sound design. When you get right down to it, music is really just sound design with a lot more rules.”

Although subtle the music can instantly shift to a dissonant arrangement of notes that both supports the action occurring in game and evokes emotional response from the player. This compositional technique gives the listener very few things melodically to orient themselves. For the most part the music lacks melody, harmony, chord progressions and tonality. With the orchestra moving in multiple directions at once it disorients the listener further.

In an interview with Jason Graves he said the following about how to go about creating music for a horror game:

“What sounds scary? Things you don’t recognize. How do you make music unrecognizable to the player? Use contemporary orchestral techniques and make the music as NON-musical as possible”

In its entirety, over three hours of music was composed by Graves for Dead Space, all of which was recorded in just two recording sessions; each individual instrumental section was recorded separately, including the woodwind, string, brass and percussion sections.