F.E.A.R. Designer Diary #2 - Audio and Music

Monolith and VU Games discuss the music and audio that will be featured in this upcoming horror-themed shooter.


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First-person shooters started out as simplistic arcade-style games in which you ran through corridors, blasting everything that moved, from a first-person perspective. Over the years, the games have grown and changed, and they have become much better and much different from what they once were. Take the upcoming game F.E.A.R., for instance, which will combine the gothic horror of motion pictures like The Ring and the frenetic action of a big-budget action movie like The Matrix. But developer Monolith is hoping that the game's sound will add a great deal to the game's spectacular special effects and remarkably smart and dangerous computer opponents. Monolith's staff weighs in for round two of our designer diaries to discuss the game's audio.

Will the sound in F.E.A.R. frighten you as much as an army of vicious clone soldiers? We'll see.
Will the sound in F.E.A.R. frighten you as much as an army of vicious clone soldiers? We'll see.

Music to your F.E.A.R.s

By Monolith Staff

The challenge in scoring music and creating sound for F.E.A.R. was to build a cohesive style that embraced the principles of its gameplay: cinematic action and Japanese horror. Action movies typically feature deafening effects and epic music, whereas Japanese horror generally features quieter effects and a subdued, ambient approach to music. Nathan Grigg and James Ackley, Monolith's in-house music and sound engineers, were challenged to reconcile these two audio traditions in developing the score.

While video games are on the leading edge of technology, their narrative maturity is behind that of the movie industry. One of the ways that F.E.A.R. is creating a more evolved narrative experience is through sophistication in its sound and music. Technology is now letting us do so much that we have to be concerned with musical relevance; music and sound have to be carefully chosen. For direction, we looked to the film industry. We realized that audiences have been trained to let music subconsciously affect them in a predominantly visual medium. We believe that many cinematic audio techniques could be applied to video games.

Our team decided to abandon cutscenes in favor of a more organic, "filmlike" story progression. Creating a cinematic experience in this manner is a daunting task because players are in command of the perspective. There is no certainty that players will be looking at the right place, at the right time, to capture the story moments as they happen naturally. This necessitated an overhaul of event planning and the development of other cues to highlight story elements. Sound and music emerged as extremely powerful tools in this effort, directing players' attention and influencing the mood of the game. Just as in film, F.E.A.R.'s music serves to seamlessly transition players between scenes and areas, creating a more fluid and dramatic experience.

The game will have plenty of twists and turns, each with its own music and audio cues.
The game will have plenty of twists and turns, each with its own music and audio cues.

Creating music for F.E.A.R. was nontraditional in terms of form; we composed music in reaction to the scenes, instead of creating a formula that would consistently produce music throughout the game. In most games, there is a general formula for music: A certain artificial intelligence type may trigger a change in the music, or transitions between areas will abruptly change the music. In F.E.A.R., the sound designers had to be concerned with avoiding predictability. If they applied formulaic sound and music to the game, there would be no suspense. Listeners are smart. They will recognize your formula quickly and then you won't be able to scare them anymore. In F.E.A.R., the music structure is more cerebral and tailored to each individual event. Sometimes the music is used to ratchet up the tension to toy with players. The music will build to a terrifying crescendo before cutting off without a corresponding event, only to later have the silence shattered by Alma, when players least expect it.

The scary elements of F.E.A.R. are heavily inspired by the Japanese horror legacy and their techniques of creating tension with ambient sound. Sound and music blurred a little bit in this project, as certain team members would switch between composing fully orchestrated work and concentrating on ambient sound. Video games typically use audio cues and music to accent nearly every element in the game, but in F.E.A.R., that formula would have interfered with the mood. Sometimes the absence of sound is the best sound. The blank spaces are some of the most disturbing parts of the game. They allow players to fill in the space, which lets their imagination create their own personal horror.

The sound effects in Japanese horror films are also quite different. American horror films are full of "big monster sounds" that people have grown accustomed to, and therefore find less frightening. Many of the films that defined horror in Japanese cinema were small-budget productions. The financial limitations of the filmmakers demanded that the sound production team be inventive with relatively primitive tools; and from this necessity emerged a unique style. By using inexpensive equipment, they created sounds that are not very scary on their own, but within the eerie context of a movie, they become extremely disturbing. The sounds of Japanese horror are also unsettling because American audiences don't know what they mean, and that creates a tense uncertainty. The F.E.A.R. sound engineers set to work creating an exhaustive library of "raw sounds" (for example, they created sound effects by dragging metal across different surfaces and recording pump sounds). The result is a uniquely frightening sound palette that we hope will linger with players long after they leave the game.

While Japanese horror has influenced many aspects of sound and music, F.E.A.R. is still an action game at heart. The ambient sound and unconventional effects let us use orchestrated events to great effect. Because they are used sparingly, they really jump out at you. The contrast between the ambient and orchestrated segments gave us a powerful tool to punctuate tense or epic moments in the game.

Battles will include lots of different sounds: gunshots, shattering glass, bullet ricochets, and more.
Battles will include lots of different sounds: gunshots, shattering glass, bullet ricochets, and more.

We have also ratcheted up the sound effects to make the action stand out. The weapon effects are loud and grand. Weapon effects are some of the earliest sounds that can be worked on in the development process, so they have been refined to capture that perfect sound. The gunfights in F.E.A.R. are not just weapon discharges and explosions; they are chaotic firefights elevated by a multitude of impact sounds. Shattering glass, splintering wood, and hollow metallic clanks combine into a symphony of violent pandemonium. The amount of impact and collision sounds is staggering, since there are so many surfaces and sounds in this game.

Sound and music in video games are sometimes forgotten, because they provide a subconscious immersion that subtly enriches the gaming experience. F.E.A.R.'s sound and music highlight a balance between subtle moments of tension and chaotic battles of raucous gunfire and jolting explosions. As video games mature and incorporate more sophisticated narrative techniques, the impact of sound and music will continue to grow.

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