Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Sound and the Terror – Aural Horror in Dead Space 2

dead-space-2-demoMy high school history teacher had a flair for the dramatic. I entered European History one morning to find the desks – usually a neat evenly-spaced grid – arranged in pods of five or six. Our previous seating arrangements now moot, we each cautiously selected a seat, assessing our squads as we awaited the inevitable explanation. This was a man who once walked us outside on a cold December morning to illustrate Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia.

He handed each group a few gridded pieces of paper and explained that we’d collaborate by coloring in one square and passing it on to the next in our pod. The goal was to color as many as possible. Easy enough, we thought.

Just as we got started, he shut off all the lights and cranked a station-less radio to full volume. As the static roared, he prowled through the classroom, rapping on our desks with a yardstick. The sounds were annoying, frightening, deafening. Coloring a simple grid became an exercise in extreme concentration. Not only was I distracted, I feared for what my teacher might do next.

After ten minutes of hellish kindergarten-like labor, he relented and explained his scheme to simulate early working conditions in the Industrial Revolution. Funny how I remember this with more clarity than anything he taught me about the Thirty Years War.

I was reminded of this aural nightmare by a level in Dead Space 2. Confused yet?

Horror in Your Ears

Dead Space 2, if you haven’t already inferred from the title, is a horror game. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a survivor horror game, as it leans more heavily on action and shooting yadda yadda yadda the headaches involved in genre delineation are a topic for another day. You play as a semi-insane engineer Isaac who wakes up on a mining colony called The Sprawl (on Saturn’s moon Titan – this is the future after all) that is now infested with all of the horrible space zombies you killed in the first Dead Space. Also, you’re haunted(?) by your girlfriend who may or may not be driving you extra crazy. [Close exposition.]

The publisher, Electronic Arts, would like you to be horrified by the game’s dismemberment-centered gameplay. For some reason (I’m sure there’s a wiki for it), these space zombies can only be killed by cutting off their limbs. This makes for incredibly gory gameplay – the kind your mother might not care for. Perhaps I’m desensitized to violence after years of first-person shooters and Jason Statham movies, but this is not where Dead Space 2’s horror lies. Despite all of the glistening blood and guts Dead Space 2 hurls at your eyes, it is your ears that will have trouble sleeping.

ear2The ear is a fascinating piece of engineering. Your eardrum, a small membrane stretched across bone and tissue, communicates invaluable information to the brain. Close your eyes. There are probably at least a handful of distinct sounds occurring where you are. Chances are you can identify almost all of them, ballpark their location, and tune a few of the less interesting ones out (those of you in offices are likely processing the hum of your central air for the first time). Timbre, location, volume: they can all be discerned with incredible speed.

Your brain is also using a bit of shorthand in working all this out. Daniel Levitin writes about this in his excellent book, This Is Your Brain On Music*. Levitin argues that the way our brain processes sound is a form of unconscious inference. We are constantly bombarded with incomplete sensory data, and our brain – for evolutionary reasons – has learned to fill in the gaps.

What does this have to do with Dead Space 2?

We evolved our ability to process sound this way to survive. Locating and identifying sources of sound in the dark wilderness is a stepping stone toward not getting eaten. Dead Space 2 features enemies defined not only by their appearance and behavior but by their sounds. It is possible, in the dim dank corridors, to know what you’re facing before you even see it.

Depending on how you’ve prepared, this aural vocabulary can either be empowering or bloodcurdling. There’s little worse in Dead Space 2 than hearing the birdlike whine of a Stalker racing toward you and realizing you’re in the middle of reloading.

After a few hours, the game’s trained your ear. You can now use these cues to your advantage.  Give yourself room to move if you hear a Slasher roaring. Tread carefully if you hear the groaning and popping of a Cyst. You’ll still have to be a good shot and manage your inventory carefully, but hearing what’s coming can be the tipping point in a tough encounter.

So, why the story about the radio static?

Late in the game, Isaac finds himself riding atop a massive underground drill of sorts. You control him as the drill’s driver attempts to break through solid rock and alien biomass en route to your objective. The whirr of the engines and the grinding of the blades against stone conspire to make an opaque aural fog.

Slasher_DS1Then the monsters show up.

The vehicle’s violent din nullifies all those evolutionary advances I talked about. Like the static storm of my teacher’s faux textile factory, my ear’s having trouble focusing. I can’t pick out the roars of the zombies from the roar of the drill. Creatures appear on rock ledges; they clamber onto the drill with me; they might as well be dropping from the ceiling: I have no idea where they’re coming from or what’s coming next. This is true horror.

Dead Space 2, for all its jumpscares and howling monsters, unnerves me the most when it’s short-circuiting my brain like this. Tritones and dissonance are established tricks at this point. It’s the menacing humming of a generator or the nonstop grinding of a machine that raises the hair on my neck.

This device isn’t unique to Dead Space 2. Limbo’s guttural rumblings lent extra layers of danger to its murderous gray-scale forest. I’ve longed to play Amnesia: The Dark Descent and write about it, but I’ve only managed to play thirteen minutes of it. So unsettling is Amnesia’s ambient sound design – the hurried breathing, the unidentified moaning of the environment – that I find myself quitting moments after I’ve started**.

So oppressive is this kind of sound design, that Dead Space developer Visceral Games wisely uses its absence as a reward, a respite from the awful dread. Because of that, I believe I will be able to finish Dead Space 2. I don’t know that anything can trump the ride on that drill.

* Also, thanks to This Is Your Brain On Music for increasing my understanding of how the ear functions. Try reading that book while listening to music. It’s a trip to actually think about what your brain is accompishing.

** Limbo and Amnesia have both won or been nominated for awards in sound design. I venture to guess Dead Space 2 will at least be nominated for some.