Doom, Dead Space & Alien-Isolation Composers Explain How To Create Horror Video Game Scores

The composers behind Doom, Dead Space and Alien-Isolation let us into their world and reveal their creative techniques for creating spine-tingling music for horror video games.

Long gone are the days when you picked up a game just because of its box art. Today, gamers know everything about a release – often months in advance – thanks to streamers, teaser trailers, reddit forums and behind-the-scenes spots. Players are more informed than ever before, aware of a game’s design, its storylines and the team behind it before they’ve even settled down for their first play through. What’s remained the same though is their expectation of what they’re going to play. When it comes to horror, the player is already in the mindset of immersing themselves in a horror environment; they’re prepared for a scary experience before they’ve even pressed start.

Some of the best moments in Alien: Isolation were created by taking music away from a player at the point they were starting to rely on it.

That’s where the composers come in. Taking the player’s preempted psyche, their task is to come up with the surprises and the spooks – bending, shaping and moulding the player’s expectations to create an auditory accompaniment that doesn’t just scare them but guides their experience with a vividness that visuals alone could never achieve. Horror isn’t something that exudes a sole emotion – you can feel frightened, triumphant, empathetic and everything in between in a single session. It’s the job of the composers to illustrate these moments but unlike film or TV, games are non-linear, meaning they won’t always know where the adaptive music system will actually play second-to-second. Something that Alien: Isolation's Audio Director Mark Angus knows all too well.

Alien: Isolation - Mark Angus

“The more you understand how the game will remix your music, the better an experience you can help create,” he explains. “It’s important to be able to compose in a three dimensional way. A lot of horror comes from creating the possibility of danger in the mind of the viewer, and pushing their imagination into overdrive. So music can support gameplay but also create atmosphere – the absence of music can sometimes be as powerful as its presence, upsetting expectations and catching players unawares. Some of the best moments in Alien: Isolation were created by taking music away from a player at the point they were starting to rely on it to help them read the game. Darkness and silence are scary!”

The duo behind Alien: Isolation's arresting audio accompaniment – Joe Henson and Alexis Smith a.k.a. The Flight – used these quieter moments to their full advantage. “Gameplay in Alien: Isolation is very much about listening out for things,” they explain. “So there are points where the music has to be able to come right down to almost nothing. Those quiet moments can be just as tense and scary as loud screeching atonal strings.”

The Ivor Novello award-winning pair describe their intention as ‘taking the player on a journey through the history of horror scores’ with much of its inspiration coming from Jerry Goldsmith’s original, iconic score. “As the game develops, and begins to add new character and settings, we wanted the music to develop too,” they add. “For example: there’s a major part of the game that introduces Seegson’s Working Joe androids, never before seen in the Alien canon. At this point the score starts using a lot of synthesizers, like in many famous late 1970s/80s films. By the end of the game we are in full ‘modern’ mode, a hybrid of orchestra and up to date processing and production techniques. Although this journey may appear subtle to the player, who is mostly kept busy just staying alive, it kept us inspired on a long project!”

They’ve always used Logic Pro on the Apple Mac as their main tool for composing and recording but when it came to Alien: Isolation, they employed a huge variety of instruments, from analogue synths to full orchestras and choirs. “There’s a sound in the original film, right at the beginning, that we called the ‘Alien Whale noise’. We had read in Jerry Goldsmith’s liner notes to that he had used a Superball on the underside of a piano, so we spent a long time trying to replicate that,” they continue. “Later on in the process, we had some of the players in our orchestra who had also played on the original. One of the trumpeters then said that they had used a conch shell instead! We never did try a conch shell, but our Superball piano rubs are all over the score.”

Doom - Mick Gordon

This kind of alternative approach is something that seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to scoring horror games. Melbourne-based Mick Gordon is responsible for Doom’s 2016 soundtrack, which was also just released on CD and vinyl via Laced Records. In previous discussions of his process, Gordon has often referred to his ‘Doom instrument’ – essentially, an amalgamation of digital and analogue equipment run through a compressor that enabled Gordon to create all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds.

“It's the idea of pulsing sound waves and noise and different rhythms and melodies through a massive chain of analogue equipment,” he explains. “It wasn't just pedals – there were also tapes that were running, there was a speaker that was running the signal out again into a microphone and that microphone signal was going back through as well. They're all influencing each other. All that gets rammed into a compressor and what would come out would be the basis of different Doom rhythms that I would then build tracks on.”

“If I run a pure sound wave through some analogue equipment, what happens is that analogue equipment imparts whatever it does onto that pure sound wave. And because it was a pure soundwave that goes into it, you can hear very clearly what that piece of analogue equipment is actually doing to it whereas when you use FX plug-ins and things in a computer, what you're doing is just tweaking the waveform and folding it back onto itself – it's just an algorithm that's doing it,” he continues. “When you're running it through transistors, resistors and circuit boards, you've got energy that's imparting onto this signal.

It's different to just running a guitar through a guitar pedal – everybody's done that before and there's nothing new about that – this was all about very pure sounds through multiple layers of analogue equipment, like 40/50 different things at once. What happens when you're running all of those things together, is they create their own little band – it's their own little orchestra of effects and I ended up piping out four different multiples of whatever the original signal was.”

It's the idea of pulsing sound waves and noise and different rhythms and melodies through a massive chain of analogue equipment,

Gordon credits his obsession with vintage synths and obscure pedals from Soviet Russia for creating the acclaimed, thrash-metal score, naming the Polyvox and Aelita models as particular favourites on this project. “I've got lots of 80s stuff too, so I have an original Marshall Guv'nor and a Jewel Clock Stereo Chorus which is a stereo out but mono in and it's bright hot 80s pink,” he says. “I also have a lot of 70s stuff, like a lot of the old electro-harmonix things that all run on very weird power sources. I’ve got a frequency analyser and a bass microsynth – that tracks the note that you're sending through it and then will generate square waves and soundwaves along with the note. It's made for bass guitarists but if you're running synths through the sound sources, it sort of messes it up and does all sorts of bizarre things through it.

“A lot of the time [the synths] have a design that was made by a designer and then it was handed to a factory but this factory made everything – they made every radio, every car radio, every television – it was all out of the same factory. They'd be handed a schematic for a synthesizer and they'd build it using the best equivalent of what they had at the time, so each one is different. Some of things when you turn them on, you get a great sound happening; you turn it off and turn it back on again and it's totally different, it's got a mind of its own.”

Gordon credits his obsession with vintage synths and obscure pedals from Soviet Russia for creating the acclaimed, thrash-metal score.

While Gordon’s experimental spirit is entirely his own, the kinetic stylings of Doom’s soundtrack is something that his mentor Charles Deenen inspired. “Everything I know I learnt from him,” Gordon declares. “One of the things he drilled into me was: if everything is very action-focused, the kinetic sound energy that's coming through there needs to be matched by the music. So the music itself needs to be kinetic and stabby and clean, so it's not just some big mess of sound.  When you put long-flowing melodies and big string sections over gunshots and explosions, that music just gets sucked into the background and you don't even notice it – you can't even hear the melodies. If all you're doing is just creating more noise in the background, then mute it because it's not adding anything to the experience at all. With Doom, we really tried to push that kinetic, punchy, sharp and quick rhythmical stuff that's very defined and full of heavy transients and solid sub-notes.”

Dead Space - Jason Graves

Someone who used a orchestral approach is the aptly named horror composer Jason Graves, who is behind the Bafta award-winning score for the Dead Space titles as well as Until Dawn, Friday the 13th and more. While the music in Dead Space sounds orchestral in nature, Graves reveals that he didn’t actually record a live orchestra to perform the score the way you hear it in the game. “The reason for that is that it's such an interactive piece of music, there are always four serious streams of music playing throughout the entire game and it's just different levels of intensity,” he explains. “So the bottom layer is so quiet and mellow and spooky but it's playing through the entire game and then as you progress up to the fourth level, that's where you meet the epic crazy horror insanity. In order to be able to do that, we would have had to book an orchestra for six weeks to record all of that music.”

Graves cites Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki as a huge influence for the Dead Space score.

Dead Space’s audio director instructed Graves to come up with sounds that didn’t exist in music libraries or in standard instruments, adding that they also needed to be interactive. “I was tasked with coming up with all of these sounds and textures in a way that I could perform them as a musical performance to the game later on,” he explains. “I had three separate recording sessions through the space of about 18 months and the idea was that I would record all these sounds and every day when I was home, I would pick a new sound and chop it up and put it in the computer so I could play it on the keyboard and I would then write a piece of music with that new sound.”

Graves studied 20th century classical music before diving into the world of gaming and although his background doesn’t necessarily reflect his process, it has offered up a few inspirations. He cites Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki as a huge influence for the Dead Space score, adding that “any music you hear in a horror film can be traced back to a 15 year period of stuff that he wrote.”

“That was my jumping off point for Dead Space and then school gave me the mental acuity and the means to think in an abstract way. I was just geeking out and studied everything I could find on Penderecki for six months before I dove into the score; it was the beginning of my classical music background merging into creating scary music.” In terms of his initial process, Graves takes cues from the game’s storyline, characters and most importantly, time period. When he was creating the music for the Friday the 13th game for example, he steered clear of high-tech sounds and ensured that it would reference the franchise’s existing musical universe. However, with Dead Space, Graves said it was “all technology.”

“The Dead Space score was taking natural instruments and then turning them into something that people wouldn't recognise – the same way that the necromorphs, you don't really recognise them as human – so ultimately, it's my biggest throughput, to get directly to the core of the game is the story, the main character and the surroundings.” This unrecognisable, uncomfortable aspect of the score is something that Graces took directly from Penderecki’s approach. As he explains, “Penderecki wasn't trying to be scary.”

“When I'm watching a scary movie and there's a shadow or a flicker under the bed, that's scary because the unknown is so much scarier than when, two-thirds of the way through the movie, it's revealed that it's a guy in a mask. Once it becomes tangible and fixed in your mind's eye, it becomes a lot less scary to me and I think music is the same way. If you don't recognise that sound, your brain immediately tells you to run away. It's the shark fin in the water, it's hearing the music and then maybe you see a fin, it's all about the build up to the 'boo' itself and that has been my entire philosophy about horror music from the beginning – how unrecognisable is it going to be?

“The extreme would be Dead Space because the orchestra is just churning away and it sounds like this giant musical necromorph monster, there's no keys or rhythm, there's no harmonic structure, it's just complete chaos, and that makes our brains say ‘run away!’ It's that psychological subconscious kind of thing that really you can play up to your greatest potential when you're doing scary music.”

While the scores for Alien: Isolation, Doom and Dead Space are worlds apart, it’s unsurprising that they’ve all become renowned in their own right, thanks to the creative, unconventional approach of The Flight, Gordon and Graves. However, as Graves explains, it’s not just about the composers. “Games are all about relationships and teamwork,” he says. “You need to be able to have the trust and appreciation of the people making them in order for them to invite you into their world.”

More on The Flight –
More on Mick Gordon –
More on Jason Graves –

Learn more about scoring music and sound for video games:

Synthesis 101
The Filter
by Bob Moog Foundation

"Sammy Maine is a freelance writer based in Bristol. Focusing on music, culture and gaming, she writes for the likes of NME and Time Out and has had work published in PC Gamer, The Guardian, Metro, The Telegraph and more. She also wrote a book about all things Lovecraftian for the 2015 Gothic Dreams title 'Necronomicon' and helps to run..." Read More


Awesome topic! Thanks.
RIP Dead Space and Visceral Games.

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