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In the opening scene of Silent Hill, it’s the first time players finally get to hear the notorious siren. This is probably the sound effect that defined the rest of the Silent Hill franchise and is something even fans today still wince at when they hear it in real life. This is how powerful and mesmerizing sound design can be in a horror game.
First of all, the types of horror games where sound design matters the most is going to be those games that utilize atmospheric horror. Those creepy sounds you hear somewhere on the path ahead of you? Yeah, that’s part of setting the scene for atmospheric horror. Using Silent Hill as probably one of the best examples in early horror gaming, the uncomfortable feeling that makes your skin crawl probably came from the dread of turning the corner and not knowing what you’d find. Or hearing the scuffling of a creature’s feet on the ground coming your way, only you can’t see them yet. Pyramid Head’s sword dragging on the ground? It’s all fantastic and cleverly-designed sound design that truly creates the fear in a horror game.
So why does sound design matter then? I feel like sound design in video games is vastly underappreciated. While we’re hovering over our controllers and drooling over the realistic graphics, do many of us even stop to think about the sound in a game? Probably not. Unfortunately for me, I live with a video games sound designer, so I am forced to consume the knowledge of video game sound design on a daily basis whether I like it or not, and what I’ve learned has made me realize just how important sound design really is in horror games. Knowing what I know, playing through horror games has me listening in a whole different way.
I recently reviewed the game Layers Of Fear back in February or March, for the PS4. It was obvious that in this game, sound was a strong component of gameplay because this is how they formulated their jump-scares—with sudden sounds. Without good sounds, their jump-scares would have been unimpressive. I also recently backed a game on Kickstarter, called Visage, which was overwhelmingly successful in its funding. Watching the gameplay video with headphones on made me realize how important the sound was. It wasn’t cheap thrills like jump-scares, but an ambiance created by small movements and changes in the environment. It could’ve been footsteps or breathing coming from directly behind my head, but the sounds in that game created this heavy atmosphere of dread and it wouldn’t have been the same without it.