‘Pure terror in musical form’: Dead Space’s composer shares its unsettling secret
Jason Graves explains how the cult horror game’s score began as a modern, Hollywood soundtrack, but ended up drawing on a 20th-century orchestral technique to create something much scarier
What does “horror” sound like to you? Is it the slow thump of a heartbeat, gradually speeding up as adrenaline and cortisol start to flood the nervous system? Is it the wet thwack of meat on metal as something, somewhere, gets rent asunder? Or is it more understated – a soft whisper in the ear when you weren’t expecting it, half-heard shuffling footsteps, the suggestion of a breeze when the air is supposed to be perfectly still?
Dead Space, the horror game from EA and Visceral that launched for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC back in 2008, managed to get into your head, and under your skin. Complementing the game’s extra-terrestrial, Cronenberg-esque body horror was the mental deterioration of protagonist Isaac Clarke; an engineer stranded aboard the USG Ishimura. He’s not a warrior. He’s not a soldier. He’s just some guy, on a ship teeming with hostile alien lifeforms, whose poor little brain is starting to unravel. For the entire game, you never leave his heavy, blood-soaked boots.
“There’s a very simple technique I came up with that, to me, musically illustrated Isaac’s emotional state,” explains Dead Space composer, Jason Graves. “You can hear it in the very beginning of track four on the soundtrack, Fly Me To The Aegis Seven Moon, and it’s used throughout the entire score. It’s a slowly wavering, single note. Very anxious-sounding. That note builds and expands as the rest of the orchestra slowly dominates and overpowers it.”
Graves’ technique for getting you to empathise with Isaac mimicked what the audio engineers were doing with the rest of the game’s sound. Dead Space employed breathing sound effects and a dull heartbeat in the background to keep you physically in-step with Isaac. The lower your health, the more ragged your breathing became. The closer to death you were, the quicker your heart would beat. You might not have noticed these things consciously … but chances are your body did.
Dead Space’s aim was to expand the boundaries of a horror experience in gaming, taking on all the action beats of Resident Evil and Silent Hill and complementing them with the psychological thriller aspects of cinema. “Kubrick is famous for implementing classical recordings in his films,” reflects Graves. “His use of Penderecki’s music in The Shining was my lightbulb moment for Dead Space. I stumbled across the ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ typewriter scene one evening on television and thought ‘that’s what the score needs to sound like!’”
Graves explains the appeal of the scene; it was a natural, acoustic sound – a normal orchestra performing their instruments – but the techniques they were using made the instruments sound otherworldly. “Like musical necromorphs,” he laughs. “The key to this sound was musical chance, or aleatoric techniques.”
“The point of aleatoric music is giving the player the freedom to decide what to play within a given set of instructions. It might be ‘play the highest note as loud as possible,’ ‘play random open string harmonics very quietly’, or ‘play these five notes as quickly and loudly as you can. These kinds of directions are incredibly fun for the musicians. They act like they are back in school. I had several takes ruined by laughing at the end.”
As unlistenable as aleatoric music sounds, it made perfect sense to commit the technique to a horror game. Especially a horror game with the goal of featuring the scariest soundtrack the world has ever heard. “I spent many, many months poring over scores from the mid-20th century and studying their techniques, convinced that this aleatoric sound of cacophony and confusion was the key to unlocking pure terror in musical form.” says Graves. “After all, what is normal-sounding music but comforting repetition, proper form, tonal balance and tuned, enjoyable sounds? If you take away all those things, you are robbing the listener of every core value that makes music comforting and pleasurable.”
Graves was intent on making you, the player, as uncomfortable as you could be. This wasn’t going to be your traditional score; the original brief he received, which asked for “modern, Hollywood action music with some horror thrown in”, had been jettisoned. This was a cold, new frontier now: “nothing repeats, there is no tonal centre – it’s literally every man and woman (in the orchestra) for themselves.”
Dead Space was a passion project for Graves. He devoted more than two years of his life to it, and he came away with “over nine hours of recorded technique from each individual section of the orchestra”. Control over each element was essential for how the final product would sound, and how the music would be fed into the game engine. “This kind of music implementation hadn’t been done in games before,” he recalls. “EA was using its own proprietary music engine and really pushing the limits.”
Was it easy? No. Was it effective? Absolutely. Dead Space remains one of the most essential horror games – influential enough to justify a remake, which will be out next week.
“All creative people have their ‘trial by fire’ moments,” says Graves. “Projects that transform how they creatively process and work from that point forward. That’s what Dead Space did for me. Literally, every decision about the score – conception, recording techniques, musicians, recording studios and implementation – were, for better or worse, up to me … Constantly trying new things and pushing boundaries, that’s how you grow as an artist.”
The end result is an unsettling triumph, a curated, player-driven exercise in tension and technique designed to get in your head and stay there, long after you’ve finished playing.