February 17th, 2021

Audio is often one of the most overlooked aspects in video games by players.  To some, it comes across as nothing more than window dressing.  It’s hard for a player to ignore the flashy on-screen action and sophisticated mechanics on display, but a game’s audio can disappear into the background of an experience.  Knowing some audiences don’t pay attention to, or completely miss out on the immense amount of work that goes into game audio is truly disappointing.  This is because great game audio has the ability to transform an experience into something you’ll never forget. Made even more intense when paired with a great headset.

Countless genres offer up amazing soundscapes for players to dive into, but horror games may very well be the ones that benefit most.  Your standard racing game can be brought to life with realistic car audio, and a sports game can feel way more intense thanks to the cheering crowd and calls from teammates, but horror games can live or die through their audio presentation.  When a horror game manages to nail the audio side of things, it can result in giving a player a feeling that no other experience has.  Horror audio can take a scary journey and turn it into a nightmare-inducing hellscape.

Take a game like Resident Evil Village, for example.  It’s always going to be a frightening experience to have grotesque creatures jumping out at you.  The thing is, the more often you see a giant vampire woman or hideous monster, the more acclimated you’ll become.  Your first zombie encounter in any Resident Evil game is something you’ll take with you forever, but an hour or two into the adventure and zombies have become commonplace.  Happening upon them no longer scares you, and their attacks become quite predictable.

The importance of audio in a horror game is very much on display in the Resident Evil Village “Maiden” demo.  While the demo is quick, it packs in a ton of spooky set pieces for you to stumble upon.  Truth be told, there’s not much in the way of scares that come from the vampire brood.  You’re left to explore seemingly abandoned environments with dim lighting and dank nooks and crannies.  It’s the demo’s audio that really sells the scariness here.  As you work your way through the unfamiliar setting, you’ll hear the laughs of occupants hiding somewhere in the castle’s walls.  The slamming of doors, the shaking of chains, the screams of the less fortunate.  You never know when these sharp, petrifying audio drops are coming, and they’ll instantly give you chills down your spine.  They heighten the experience to a whole new level, filling you with dread and a general unease for the length of the demo.

The same can be said for The Medium, a psychological horror that just launched for Xbox Series X and S.  This is another game filled to the brim with genre tropes, from unsettling locations to a creepy cast of characters.  Once again though, it’s the audio that’s the star of the show.  You’ll get all the creaky stairs and sudden thuds that you’d expect from a horror game, but The Medium goes a step further.  Paying close attention to the game’s audio can actually help you on your adventure, all while creeping you out at the same time.  The whispers of the dead fill some of the game’s locations, and a few of the things they’re saying will provide clues on what to do next.  No matter how much you don’t want to listen to these whispers, you’re forced to get up-close-and-personal to hear what they have to offer.  It’s a gameplay mechanic that’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, once again proving how important good sound design is.

It’s not all about the smart use of sound effects, though.  Horror games can push your discomfort a step further with chilling music to set the mood.  Ambient tunes can paint a terrifying picture for any location, making it that much harder to accomplish your objectives.  You don’t want to stand around and search for clues when the music playing makes you feel like your demise could be around any corner.  When horror music gets loud and uncomfortable, it can almost become a character in the game itself.  You’re forced to deal with the audio trauma and work through it, all while it gets louder and more imposing.  Sometimes the music can mean an ungodly creature is running upon you, and other times it can be a complete fake-out or a subtle cue.  Not knowing what’s out there is yet another element in horror games that makes the music so much more effective.

Playing a horror game of any kind is never an easy thing to do, but suffering through the audio can make it a million times worse.  You can play with the volume low on your TV or home theater, but if you really want to put yourself through a taxing exposure, grab a set of headphones and go all in.  Every monster will be right next to you, and every distant glass shattering will make your pulse pound.  It’s hard for any other game genre to measure up to horror when it comes to how far the audio can take things.  Don’t shy away from the real frights that await.  Turn off the lights, get real close to the TV, and strap on your headset to truly test your mettle.