How Dead Space Perfected Its Sound Design

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that games that deliver responsive player feedback and brooding atmosphere have also poured significant resources into their sound design. Generally, it’s accepted that gameplay improves when sound design is planned alongside a game’s mechanics from the pre-production stage. When sound is only considered and implemented late in development, the effectiveness of important gameplay elements, such as audio cues, may suffer or be overlooked entirely.

Electronic Arts’ 2008 survival horror Dead Space may not have drawn the original blueprint for sound design in modern AAA games, but it arguably proved the strengths of planning a game’s audio direction from the onset of development. “[For] a lot of games, sound design was sort of the thing that came in last,” the game’s creator Glen Schofield commented to PC Gamer. “But right from the start, we said sound design, music and audio are key”. As a result, Dead Space’s sound design is renowned for how it enhances immersion, creates atmosphere and aids gameplay.

Dead Space’s haunting mood is defined by the industrial sounds of the USG Ishimura, the deep space mining vessel that is the game’s setting. The Ishimura’s nearby screeches and distant roars not only bring the ship to life, they also drive home the game’s full spectrum of solemn and intense gameplay moments. From the player second-guessing every off-screen sound while they navigate the ship’s halls and scrounge for ammo, to keeping a watchful eye out for the alien necromorphs as they growl in the shadows, Dead Space’s sound effects are a masterclass in building a tensioned player experience.

The sounds of the Ishimura are altogether ghostly, stark and cold – including loud, metallic bangs with heavy reverb (allegedly recorded by interns in a dumpster), and long, droning hums imitating a spaceship’s ventilation system (some of which were serendipitously recorded by audio director Don Veca on a portable recording device). These looping environmental sounds combine to keep the player on alert, even if there is no immediate danger.

Rather than featuring an expansive, orchestrated soundtrack, Veca commented to Original Sound Version that Dead Space’s sound design focuses on the game’s texture and mood. Specifically, Dead Space’s audio evolves alongside its action – transitioning from very subtle during the game’s quieter moments to, as Veca describes it, a “blaring dissonant cacophony” when the designers want to create tension. These powerful contrasts are the cornerstone of Dead Space’s moment-to-moment gameplay loop, as they help to build dread and suspense before throwing an unsuspecting player into a combat encounter.

Arguably the most innovative use of sound in Dead Space is a level that almost entirely takes away the player’s sense of sound. This sequence takes place when the player leaves the pressurised confines of the Ishimura and enters zero gravity. The player can only hear the playable character Isaac’s breathing under his helmet and the low frequency thumps of his gunshots and footsteps; all other sounds are muted by the vacuum of space, including enemies, whose high-pitched shrieks are rendered faint and muffled, almost to the point of inaudible. 

An effective contrast is created when the player subsequently returns through the airlock, as they enter what Veca calls “the loudest room in the game”, filled with sharp, metal grinding sounds and the long, deep roar of the Ishimura’s exhaust (which is actually the sound of a San Francisco train). This quick juxtaposition between the eerie silence of space and the abrasive, alien-infested Ishimura drives the player’s fear and stress – despite there being no actual enemy threats in that room.

The player moves from zero gravity back onto the USG Ishimura.

Another one of Dead Space’s sound design innovations are what Veca calls “fear emitters”. Simulating the rising tension before the stinger (or jumpscare) in a horror movie, Veca wanted to ensure as much as possible that these highly dramatic moments weren’t soured by the unpredictability of player control. He devised a solution using an emitting point-source, or “sphere of influence”, which can affect audio elements in any number of ways depending on how close the player is to the point-source. The designers simply needed to attach the fear emitter to whatever they intended to be a point of tension – an enemy, for instance.

The fear emitters play a role in how Dead Space encourages active listening. Specifically, the game’s quieter gameplay sections are characterised by sound effects that may or may not hint that an enemy is about to emerge – for example, the shuffling sounds of movement, or a sharp metal clang. By subverting the player’s expectations (that all sounds must indicate the presence of an enemy), the game encourages players to question everything they hear, and ultimately pay attention more than they otherwise might.

Sound design is also used to underline Dead Space’s science-fiction themes. Dialogue is usually presented through heavy, sometimes unintelligible radio static, with an effect that simulates low bitrate. Similarly, space age computer sounds accompany the game’s hologram-like user interface. According to Veca, the sound design team used “traditional analog synthesizers, funky outboard gear, and synth instrument plugins for the more futuristic sounds”. These sounds work together to create an experience for the player, and to immerse them in the game’s setting.

Veca claims that Dead Space’s sound effects and background noises were almost entirely recorded, with very few open source libraries used during development. This process also involved the employment of foley artists. For instance, the shrieks of the necromorphs were created using five or six animals making strange sounds in unique circumstances, and layering them together.

To create sound effects for dismembering the necromorphs’ limbs, Veca told Game Informer that he personally bought hundreds of dollars of plants, fruits and vegetables. This fresh produce was subsequently destroyed in EA Redwood Shore’s in-house recording studio, and the process was recorded by foley artists. “It reeked for three months. The Sims guys eventually got sick of it and hired a professional cleaner.”

Part of a sound designer’s responsibility is to test their audio in a build of the game. The purpose of these tests is to make necessary changes to the audio mix such as to adjust timing and optimise competing sounds. These tests also ensure that each sound meets its intended purpose, including to direct the player, provide game feedback, or establish a certain mood. For Dead Space, this was the responsibility of sound designer Andrew Lackey, who was brought onto the project at the end of the game’s prototyping phase and the beginning of production.

Lackey described to Wabi Sabi Sound working alongside producers, animators and programmers to create sounds for boss fights. After being briefed on how a boss fight would play out, Lackey created audio cues to reinforce feedback from the game, such as to signal when the player had successfully damaged a boss.

This inter-disciplinary collaboration reflects the design decision to focus on audio as one of Dead Space’s key pillars. Lackey elaborated that the audio team was “tightly integrated” with the development team, and that the sound designers had “ample opportunities to weigh in on design … occasionally [taking] the lead on designing the experience of a section of the game”. Notably, Lackey described having a hand in level design to create dramatic tension, such as when the player receives a new weapon and must use it in combat for the first time.

Dead Space is a prominent example in how paying strong attention to sound design can ultimately benefit a game’s entertainment value. By using sound not only to create mood and influence the player’s emotions, but with respect to the game’s responsiveness to the player and vice versa, sound in video games can be a powerful asset. This is reflected in the game’s accolades, many of which celebrate Dead Space’s achievements in sound design.

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