There’s a lot of things that need to come together to make a great horror game, from a compelling set of characters to a creepy situation, eerie graphics and great sound design. That last area in particular (and I’m sure all Audio Directors out there will agree) is pretty important for setting the tone and mood, getting your pulse racing when it needs to, and sending a chill of dread down your spine.
We caught up with Barney Pratt, Audio Director at Supermassive Games, to talk about things that go bump in the night and The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope.
TSA: Audio Director isn’t something you can study for at high school. How did you get into this job?
Barney Pratt: A lot of people have slightly winding paths to get into audio, especially for games. There are a few more direct paths in education nowadays, but not in my time.
I started off making music, where I learned all about workstations and plugins. Then I transferred that technical knowledge to support film editors and film sound editors. So I had a short stint in film and then my old Audio Director, who was at EA, gave me a call and asked “Do you want to come and interview for a job in games?” I had that chat, it went well and I’ve not looked back since.
It’s an industry that keeps growing, keeps challenging me and has given me more hands on experience than I think it would have gotten in any of the other industries I’ve been in.
TSA: Where do you begin when creating the sound for a game, do you do research or have a reference board?
Barney: There’s kind of a different answer for each game in The Dark Pictures Anthology because they’re so different narratively, and we usually let the design aesthetic lead the music and overall soundscape choices, but we need a soundtrack that’s going to connect each of the games because they’re within the anthology.
We do that through sharing, changing and repurposing the character motifs and the melodies whenever we can, but because each of the Dark Pictures is so different, with different backdrops, and even in different time zones, we need to create a different aesthetic for each of those games while fulfilling the needs of a player of a horror game, which we achieve by changing the instrumentation choices for each game to reflect its individual design. There’s those same emotional needs, the fear, the dread, the suspense, the jump-scares, but with some completely different sounds that fit each game closely. We have to consider which sounds the narrative offers us in terms of the sound palette, so it’s kind of a chicken and egg scenario.
Take Little Hope as an example, where we looked very closely at the musical instruments used in the late 17th century in north-western America. Not all of these instruments worked, but we discovered very quickly that solo violins and other kinds of stringed instruments really suited the game. After having spoken with our composer, Jason Graves, he really grew this idea and came back with a wider choice of instruments and how he could employ them in the music. But it’s interesting; not all of them worked.
TSA: In terms of recording the sound, is it all done in studio or are you standing in fields capturing the sound of wind rustling through trees?
Barney: Well, we’ll find those kinds of sounds anywhere we can, and we always prefer to record fresh source material, but quite often sounds can be hard to get – they might be maybe only recordable in a different part of the world or with a different season. In those cases we’ll often dip into libraries, but for the most part we’ll be out recording or using our facilities at Supermassive.
Believable characters are vital to The Dark Pictures, and a lot of work goes into the mocap and animation and we’ve got to match that with the audio, so we look really closely at the details, for example the different types of shoe that characters are wearing or clothing material types.
TSA: It’s rare for a video game which has regional dialects from England but apart from Will Poulter, the four other main characters are played by Canadians, so did you have a voice coach to help with the accents?
Barney: Absolutely! As a studio we look at those sorts of things in incredible detail, so we had voice coaches on the shoot. The next game has some even greater distinction in the dialects, but that’s all I can really say right now – we definitely needed a voice coach for that as well.
TSA: That would be House of Ashes, for which there is a trailer, but not many other details have been revealed.
Barney: Well, we can say it’s coming in 2021, we can say it’s next-gen and there’s definitely helicopters. There’s definitely a desert and a cave as well.
TSA: Yes there is a cave in the trailer and something off-screen is making very creepy growling noises, which brings me on to another question. In the film industry there are examples of sounds being repurposed – one that many people know is that the scream of the Xenomorph in Alien is actually an elephant – are there any sounds used in Little Hope which have surprising origins?
Barney: Repurposing animal vocalisations for other creatures is a tried and tested path and works really well. We’re always looking for something unique in our source material, one example I can think of while I was on holiday and I heard the sound of the shower door closing. It made this kind of screeching sound that had a really special mid range component, so I recorded it and it’s been used in the game as part of a scream from one of the creatures.
TSA: Both music and sound effects play a big part in the game, how do you go about combining these together for maximum effect?
Barney: That question has two aspects, mix and tone. We have a prioritised mix system, which allows you to focus certain aspects of the mix, so the dialogue always has highest priority and the music will be decreased by high impact sounds, but still remain very strong in other areas. The sounds have to work with the music, but they need to enhance and fit around the use of music. They’re sort of reinforcing aspects of the music and because they’re atonal, they can work with any kind of key or musical structure that is playing at that time.
TSA: Other than the games you have worked on, which games do you think have great sound design?
Barney: I think I have to pick the game that Jason Graves won a BAFTA for, which was Dead Space. It shows the ability for interactive horror to really tweak you in fear and emotional range in a way that non-interactive formats just kind of can’t do. The first time I played Dead Space was in a dark room with the headphones on, it was getting slightly dusky outside at the same time and I was absolutely scared out of my seat. It was a fantastic experience. I think everything really came together for that game.
TSA: Supermassive have created games for PSVR, are there any differences in designing sound for a VR game?
Barney: We decided as a studio for VR not to have non-diegetic music. So anything we had musically to drive the emotion had to be in-world, which obviously heavily limits the opportunities to push those emotional ranges. This forced us to look at the use of sound effects much more closely. For example, jump scares, we would often take the front end of a sound effect, have it be artificially loud, to create that audio impact, then have the tail at a more sensible level.
Of course, another one of the biggest differences is the spatial audio. When we did the launch games for the PSVR, the binaural encoding tech had not existed for very long so we were very much on that bleeding edge. Thankfully its come a long way since and really helps the VR experience.
TSA: Are you excited about the new generation of consoles?
Barney: Yes, we’re really excited about any advances in audio tech and it’s incredible to have dedicated hardware on consoles that we can use. it’s a massive leap for audio, whether in cinematic or VR. For us, it’s one of the smoothest console transitions we’ve made because the middleware that we’re using already had this expectation of next-gen happening. It’s got the facilities within it already, and a lot of the advanced spatial audio that we’re already using at Supermassive. It’s kind of one of the biggest generational leaps in terms of dedicated audio power, but also one of the smoothest. I think that says a lot about where the technology is at the moment.
TSA: Moving away from the sound design we have to ask – just how awesome is Pip Torrens?
Barney: He’s absolutely awesome! He carries that character of The Curator phenomenally!
TSA: And finally, in the movie ‘We’re the Millers’, Will Poulter is bitten on the testicles by spider. Did anyone suggest you have a similar scene in Little Hope? After all, spiders are scary…
Barney: Brilliant! I must confess I have never seen that film, but I’m gonna give you an answer that completely ignores your question – and say that having Will in Little Hope was fantastic.
Thanks to Barney for taking the time to chat with us. The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope is out for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, and the team at Supermassive are hard at work on the next game in the anthology, House of Ashes, which is due out for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC later this year.