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E for Effort: I Get Scared

Before I start let me introduce myself, I am currently in my final year of university studying music, and I have written my dissertation on how music in survival horror video games is able to arouse a sense of fear in its players. In doing this project, it has been interesting to look into how certain games use music to manipulate the emotions of their players. So Iíve decided to share some of my thoughts with you lovely people.

I donít know whether itís the fact that Iím a music student, and so pay particular attention to soundtracks, or the stereotype of being a female gamer that enables me to become so consumed to the point that I can feel my heart pounding in my chest as Iím playing a particularly frightening game. Now I donít want to begin my first blog entry with pissing off the female gaming community by suggesting that women are wimps, I am simply musing as to whether women have gained this stereotype because men are too stubborn to admit that they too have come close to crapping their pants when something has suddenly jumped out at them, and women generally have no shame in admitting to being scared.

For my research project, I looked in detail into the manipulation techniques used in Resident Evil and Silent Hill, which in my opinion were the two most revolutionary survival horror games to be made. The main concept used in these games is the use of audio as a subconscious warning mechanism. The absence of music usually indicates a Ďsafetyí state by which the game is suggesting to the player that there is no real threat ahead (however this is sometimes used to lull the players into a false sense of security). The presence of music, as you may assume, indicates a Ďdangerí state to the player and it may start at the beginning of a sequence or be triggered by the player. In Resident Evil especially, there are crude trigger points that start musical events, which in turn warn the player of the dangers that are approaching. Now when you notice this use of music, I especially get excited, which can sometimes cause an adrenaline rush as I prepare myself for the horde of zombies that I will be required to kill with my depleting supply of ammo. This effect, as you could imagine, would be completely lost if it were not for the use of music to indicate the approaching danger.

The way Silent Hill uses audio is similar and different to Resident Evil. It is similar in the way it uses Ďsafetyí and Ďdangerí states but these points are very rare, only at save points where there is no apparent threat of danger. This is why, in my opinion, Silent Hill is such a scary game, because there are rarely points in the game where there is no music playing, and by music I am referring to the mechanical sound effects, static noise, pulsating bass drones and occasional use of musical instruments. Despite the fact that Akira Yamakoa (composer of SHís soundtrack) has said that he does not see his work as music, it still contains pitch, rhythm and tempo, and works to create an ambient atmosphere, which keeps the player constantly on edge as they walk through the pervasive fog. The only real way, of knowing that an enemy is approaching is to listen to a broken radio that your character carries on their person. This radio emits static noises whenever an enemy is approaching, so the player is given some sort of warning before being attacked, but in most cases this warning is sudden and not enough before the enemy begins to attack.

Resident Evilís interplay between music and silence allow for the player to feel a sense of release after a sequence is complete, however Silent Hill attempts to keep the player in a continuous state of tension and anxiety, which puts the player through emotional turmoil and can cause them to become so engaged with the game that they become blissfully unaware of their surroundings. I know that I have fallen victim to many pranks in the past where I have been concentrating so intently on trying to see through the darkness/fog and listen out for any signs of enemies when housemates or family members have successfully managed to make me jump out of my skin.

As games have progressed over the years, the use of 5.1 digital surround sound has infinitely improved gaming experiences. The concept of virtual audio space within a game world can be used to enhance the immersive qualities of a game, for example the use of sound effects coming from the relative space behind your avatar will instantly cause you to change the position of the camera in order to see where the noise came from. This creates a whole new dimension of fear. Older games have been using this idea of sounds occurring outside the visual frame, but the use of surround sound combined with exquisite audio in newer games makes for a really frightening experience. One example that immediately comes to mind is the entrance of a ĎBig Sisterí in the new Bioshock 2 game. For those of you that cannot relate to this horrific experience, a Big Sister usually comes after you have rescued, or harvested a Little Sister, but you can never be sure, however you can definitely tell when one is close due to the discordant, high-pitched shrill that she emits, you then have roughly 30 seconds to prepare yourself before she hurls her metal-clad body towards you.
This sound effect is generated by an enemy that is not shown on screen, which makes it even scarier than the sound itself because it arouses questions within the player like: What was that? Where is it coming from? Will it attack me? Oh shit Iím going to die because I donít have enough ammo or EVE for me to defeat this bitch!!

So what is it that makes us feel scared when playing games? Is it just the combination of visuals and audio? or is there a deeper psychological connection that we have with the game in terms of player confidence? Are you more likely to feel scared of shooting a horde of zombies if you don't think that you have the capability of successfully doing it without being eaten? I think that for me it is a combination of both - especially when games contain innovative uses of audio, but also in terms of player accuracy because I particularly hate dying, so I subconsciously load on the pressure, arousing a greater sense of tension and anxiety within me as I play particular sequences.

Whatever the reason I know that I love the feelings of fear and adrenaline that these games generate, and I look forward to the creation of more games that will leave my palms sweaty and me having to sleep with the lights on!
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About Becca Robertsone of us since 7:35 AM on 04.24.2010

Audio geek who has a passion for picking apart games audio. I have 2 music degrees and I also do radio thingies. I did lots of gaming related shows for my student radio station. It was fun.

I am an Xbox 360/ steam for mac gamer.

I like scary games and RPGs

Old Games which I still have a soft spot for:

Abe's Oddworld
Final Fantasy VII
Kingdom Hearts
Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines
Xbox LIVE:InfernO189


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