How Alien: Isolation is using audio to manipulate player emotions

How Alien: Isolation is using audio to manipulate player emotions
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

July 16th 2014 at 12:00PM

Sam Cooper discusses the latest sound techniques Creative Assembly is harnessing for the upcoming horror title

Audio plays a hugely important role in how we experience games, immersing players further into the gameplay. One misplaced sound could be the difference between immersion and comedy.

As part of our feature on creating outstanding audio in games, we spoke to Creative Assembly sound designer Sam Cooper, who is working on the hotly anticipated Alien: Isolation, about how the studio is using sound to manipulate player emotions.

How important is quality audio in games, particularly for a game like Alien: Isolation?
Delivering a high quality audio experience is a priority for many games nowadays. It’s important to push the quality of audio as it supports so many elements of the title, and ultimately the quality of any game is the sum of all its parts.
 
For Alien: Isolation we need to deliver an experience that fully supports the emotional and psychological effects of the horrifying situation the player finds themselves in. That’s where things get challenging and interesting.
 
We delve deeply into psychoacoustic phenomena such as conditioning, misdirection and innate or primal responses to certain sounds and frequencies that allow us to profoundly manipulate the tone or emotion of the moment-to-moment gameplay.

Do you have any examples of audio cues you've used in Alien: Isolation to bring out a specific emotion from the player?
The whole soundtrack for Alien: Isolation, from the sound effects to the music, has been carefully crafted to be contextually emotive throughout. Often we use sound that subtly conjures up dark and scary imagery on seemingly mundane objects and taps into our subconscious, in-built fight-or-flight responses to nonlinear sounds, dynamic contrast and the uncanny.
 
We’ve strived to support a world which is extremely tense and unpredictable by creating a soundscape that will force the player to continually second-guess what their ears are telling them.


 
What are some of the latest techniques you're using to create audio effects in games?
We now have fantastic real-time DSP capabilities that raise the bar for audio quality and interactivity. It’s less necessary for us to render DSP into our assets, which means we can mix many processes in real time to create a far more detailed and cinematic mix than would’ve been possible in the past.
 
At Creative Assembly we also have complex and extremely flexible proprietary software and systems that allow us to create very realistic soundscapes and manipulate pretty much any aspect of the audio at run-time.
 
Do new consoles and other technologies allow you to do anything different with audio that you couldn't do before?
With additional processing power and frequently updated middleware, we’re now able to use rich convolution reverbs on new-gen consoles and experiment with emerging DSP such as in-game HRTF/Binaural processing. We’re far less limited by the hardware with new-gen consoles.  
 
I can see real-time synthesis, physical modelling and granular re-synthesis changing how we approach our sound design and implementation in the near future too.
 
What challenges or limitations do you face when recording and implementing audio for games?
The biggest challenges for us are making sure that every second of the soundtrack is as effective as it can be. Horror requires all the elements of a game to come together at precisely the right time and often you can’t make a call on whether a moment of gameplay 'feels right' until it all comes together and you can take stock: timing and cohesion is key, a sound that plays a second or two late can mean the difference between abject horror and catastrophic comedy.
 
For this reason, our process has been very iterative and reactive. The most important thing for us is to create a highly immersive and impactful experience.

You can learn more about sound design at this month's An Audience With... Audio Game-Changers. The free event is strictly invite-only and takes place in London on Tuesday, July 29th – email audiencewith@intentmedia.co.uk to register your interest. More details here.