Alien Isolation: Creative Sound Design

The truth be told, I haven’t actually played any computer games for a while and there are several contributing factors to this reason.

First off, I simply haven’t found a game out there to continually maintain my interest long enough to get absorbed within it – like I used to (and I’ve been playing since the original 4-bit sound Game Boy era). This is not to say there aren’t any good enough games out there. In fact, the last game I really got into was the ‘Mass Effect’ series. I loved everything about. How the story unfolds and how you could change the outcome of certain situations or the entire game purely based on the players decision making. And not to mention the futuristic sound design within the game.

masseffect_all_lr2I have found an exclusive interview with the Sound Design Team for ‘Mass Effect 2’, very interesting read for anyone interested:

Other mundane reasoning like ‘growing out of it’ and ‘not having the time to play’ are also valid reasons. In other words, ‘growing up’.

During my studies in Jewel and Esk College in Edinburgh (now known as Edinburgh College) in Sound Production, I had chosen the audio for games brief as I was getting a little tired of recording and mixing bands etc. and wanted to try something new. For some reason, the survival horror genre has also been at the forefront of my gaming memories. So naturally, this genre was decided and immediately began my research. I had chosen three game titles for my games trailer project: ‘The Last of Us’ developed by Naughty Dog, ‘Dead Island 2’ developer Yager Development (still in development) and ‘Alien Isolation’ by Creative Assembly. I had created three game trailers and one game play footage for my presentation, all mixed in 5.1 except the Last of Us trailer.

dead-island-2Dead Island 2:

TheLastofUsPosterThe Last of Us:

1396108606-alien-isolationAlien Isolation:

I had not uploaded the game play footage from ‘Alien Isolation’ as it was purely mixed for 5.1 purpose. I did not see the point in playing back in stereo because the scenes I had chosen specially and that  it will deviate from its intended effect.

Alien Isolation was not yet released during the time of my research. Only articles about the game and couple of Youtube videos were available, which included the 2014 E3 games trailer and interviews with some of the production team. This research of the game alone, was enough to suck me right back into gaming world and inevitable, a pre-order was made for this game. With nostalgia flooding back from the days I would save up my pocket/paper round money for Mega Drive/PlayStation 1 games – and I simply. Could. Not. wait!

In my humble opinion, the predecessor, in terms of effectiveness of utilizing composition music and sound design into full effect are the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series – I believe Resident Evil was the first game to be termed as ‘Survival Horror’. Both of these components definitely heightens the gaming experience to whole to level.  For example, both games rely heavily on the sound design to create a sense of eeriness, anticipation or even claustrophobic. Sequenced music, spot effects, atmosphere tracks, theme music, incidental music and voice-over work (ADR) are also sound elements that helps to achieve this.

hqdefaultIn this clip from Resident Evil, there are no music and we’re forced to focus our intention on the crows, as intended by the developers. Once the gamer has reached certain point, incidental music are introduced and deliberately loud and in-your-face to allow a sense of anticipation of what is going to happen next.

silent-hill2Silent Hill utilize the same formula as Resident Evil but it does have element of music (atmospheric tracks) during game-play which helps to set the tone. The radio is a tool within the game to let the player know if there are enemy near-by using static white noise as the indicator, the white noise will become gradually more unstable as the player gets closer to the monster. For anyone that has played the original will remember dreading every time the radio emitting any kind of noise.


Jeff van Dyck was the audio director on Alien Isolation. His work also includes several of the Total War games under The Creative Assembly. He had chosen to be part of the project because he was a fan of the original movie and his enthusiasm for this project are alluringly evident.

An insightful article in regards to some of the sound concept of the game with Jeff van Dyck:

Alien Isolation is a direct squeal to James Cameron’s 1979 movie ‘Alien’ . Having played the game, the experience from movie to game transition exceeds all expectation and I could not have asked for more being a massive fan of the original ‘Alien’ movie.

The opening sequence of the game-play from Alien Isolation features the protagonist from the movie series Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) narrating. This was obvious attempt by the developer to pull some nostalgic strings from the gamer. And I have to admit, it worked, because Ellen Ripley is the protagonist of the series and it is hard to imagine one without the other, triggering an immediate association and bonds to the game. The simple yet eerie synth and pulsating sound playing behind the narrating helps to set the tone of the game at early stage – a very dark ominous presence and yet celestial sounding.

The ambient sound design varies depending on where you are located in the ship. For example, there is a general engine hum that will you constantly hear but varies in parts of the USCSS Torrens (spaceship) some parts louder than others. It is also worth mentioning that when the alien is close-by, any apparent ambient sound subsides and music changes to quivering violin tremolos, adding the protagonist heavy breathing to intensify the encounters.

Attention to detail makes the experience more believable and memorable. Little touches like her trainers (or sneakers) squeaks as she goes into hiding or running along the corridor, the protagonist subtle breathing, the noises from bumping into objects, the behavior of sound in different locations i.e reverberations and echos, the rustling of clothing from fabric rubbing against each other to the scrapes and tools you have collected stored in your bag jangling from simply moving too fast. All adds authenticity to this title.

Typically, the Music during game play are normally really low pitched for an ominous tone or high for intensity. This is especially true during key moments in the game to elevate the gaming experience.

In more than one occasion, you could hear the alien run above you in the ventilation shaft – which is more than enough to make you run for the hills (even though you really shouldn’t). This game is so well developed, you will find yourself generally asking questions like, am I too loud? was that the alien? why the hell is she breathing so heavily? am I breathing too heavily (I have genuinely caught myself holding my breath a few times during game play)?!

Much like the radio in Silent Hill, the motion tracker can send shiver down the player’s spine. It lets the protagonist know when the alien is close by but the sound characteristic of the motion tracker differs from the movies, with the motion tracker in the movie emitting two consecutive bleeps and in the game only one. Survivability very much depends on paying attention to this tool and the bleeps that emits.  The closer you get to a moving entity, the faster it bleeps. If you move slow enough, you won’t even need to look at the motion tracker to divert away from the alien just by using your ears. Ironically, the very tool that can save your life can also kill you, this is because if you have the motion tracker up when you are hiding right next to the alien, you are a goner.

Apparently, no one can hear you scream in space, but everyone can hear that goddamn tracker!

This is Scott Ng, signing out….


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