Cosmic Horror is a subgenre of horror that emphasises the fear of the unknown to create mysterious stories. Pioneered by novelist H.P. Lovecraft, famous for works such as The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness, the genre can be characterised by 3 main elements:
Firstly I watched the film Annihilation directed by Alex Garland. The premise is about a group of explorers who enter a mysterious area known as "The Shimmer" where plant and animal life is constantly being mutated by an extra-terrestrial force, initialising from a meteor landing.
The clip above shows the characters entering “The Shimmer” for the first time. Warped and glitchy sounds can be heard coming from the forcefield structure suggesting an otherworldly quality.
As I watched on in the film, there were some moments of Cosmic Horror where the characters would come across mutated plant and animal life, however from a sound perspective I was disappointed. The sounds of these mutations were very much grounded in reality and while it worked well for this film, did not show the creative strangeness I was looking for.
The above scene shows a moment where an alien entity takes over the body of one of the characters. The visuals of the scene are very striking and the emotion of the scene is portrayed through the use of music which works well. The sound effects for the scene however take a back seat to the music and are almost silenced during the most chaotic moment of the sequence. This works as the score blurs the line between music and sound design with the instruments taking on a variety of strange and glitchy textures.
As I wanted to hear how they tackled the sound effects in this scene, this film was not as useful as I had hoped. The musical approach could work for my project, however I don’t feel as though it captures Cosmic Horror in the way I had envisioned.
Color Out of Space
I decided to watch this film directed by Richard Stanley as it is a modern adaptation of the novel written by H.P. Lovecraft of the same name. It has a similar premise to Annihilation with a meteor falling to earth and causing strange happenings and aberrations. The difference with this one however is, instead of inducing mutations, this phenomenon causes the characters to gradually lose their minds as strange occurrences that can't be comprehended frequently happen. Throughout the film, pink light represents the extent of what the characters can comprehend of the situation. The sounds that this entity makes are very otherworldly and can't really be pinned down as sounding like anything in particular. This works really well for this movie as it reinforces to the audience that this entity is far out of our scope of understanding as humans. I would like to use this approach to tackling the sounds of the enemy in my game by utilising unlikely sound sources to create an otherworldly experience.
(An interesting, non-audio related feature of this film: The colour pink, or magenta, was used to represent the entity because no wavelength of light exists for the colour. We only see it as our brains stitch the frequencies together creating magenta somewhere between violet and red. This is a great way to convey a "new" colour that has never been seen before!)
During one sequence in the film, one of the characters has a vision of what is assumed to be the alien planet that the meteor has come from. The world looks like a planet sizes organism that has millions of tentacle-like arms along its surface. These are accompanied by fittingly squishy sounds along with other unnatural audio drones as the camera sweeps through the landscape. Tentacles and other organic appendages are frequently featured in Lovecraft's works, most notable in his best know story "The Call of Cthulhu" which features a building sized squid-like monster. While my game will not include such visuals due to my limitations in the art department, I will attempt to convey Lovecraft's signature monster features, through sound.
Why are there so few Cosmic Horror Films?
After watching these two films I began to understand why this genre is not very common. Due to the intrinsic nature of the genre itself, conveying something that cannot be comprehended in a visual format is always going to be a challenge. I do however think it could work far better by cleverly utilising and focusing on audio. The mind can easily be tricked by audio and this technique is used by any sound designer on a budget. E.g. cooking bacon can sounds like a crackling fire or snapping celery can sound like a broken leg. By this logic, an offscreen (or invisible in my case) monster can be made to sound unfathomable with the use of interesting layers of incomprehensible sounds to suggest a powerful otherworldly being.
Since my last post I have completed the design of the level and finalised the general gameplay. I created the maze within the tomb of my level and added events to trap the player as well as a way to exit the tomb to complete the game.
I chose to make a very simple maze that, while not particularly challenging to complete on its own, becomes more difficult due to the darkness that can easily cause the player to get lost and disorientated. The addition of the chasing enemy will also give extra complexity and danger to what is in fact a very simple game. The beginning of the maze starts when the player collects the statue towards the entrance of the tomb causing a large boulder to block the exit. I created this effect by making a simple blueprint that would move the rock when the player interacts with the statue using the "E" key. This then makes the statue disappear, suggesting that the character has collected it, and triggers the movement of the boulder. Later in the project I will add audio events for both the statue collection and the boulder movement which will be implemented via the blueprints.
I added various hallways, doorways, false paths and pillars into the maze to hopefully slow down the player as they try to escape from the enemy in the game. Using a similar blueprint to the statue collection, I created a button in one of the rooms that would move another boulder, this time allowing the player to exit the tomb and win the game. I placed this button at the furthest point from the start in order to challenge to the player as they avoid the enemy.
The above image shows a top down view of the whole maze area. The green area on the floor is the NavMesh which represents the area that the enemy can move within and is used to calculate how it should chase the player using pathfinding. Once the enemy senses the player, it will then start chasing the player along the shortest path within the green area.
Setting this up is very important for my game as it not only will allow the enemy to chase correctly, it will also allow me to dynamically impact the audio of this enemy based on how far away it is from the player along the shortest path. If I were to set up my dynamic sounds to be affected only by the distance to my player, there would be unwanted moments where the player is technically close to the enemy but there is a wall in the way. This means that the path to the enemy is much further away, therefore the danger is minimal and the audio should reflect that.
The enemy in the game is currently represented by a large cube that fills the hallways of the game maze. When the player walks near the enemy, it will relentlessly follow them until it either touches them, killing the player and resulting in a game over, or until the player escapes and wins the game. As the player cannot walk around the enemy in the narrow corridors, it will have to be kited around various obstacles to strategically manoeuvre it out of the way.
I am planning for the enemy to be invisible so that the player will have to carefully listen to their surroundings in order to locate it. This concept will need to be thoroughly tested however to ensure that it leads to fun gameplay rather than frustration. As a contingency, if I cannot get it to work as intended while invisible, I will explore other options such as having the enemy be adaptively invisible or a flickering light source.
Or maybe I'll just keep the big terrifying cube!
Through the ideas stage of designing my game level, I decided that I wanted my cave section (where the enemy will reside) to include horror elements. Following this decision, I began to look for inspiration in various media to find out how exactly horror is achieved through audio specifically. I started by research with Layers of Fear by Blooper Team.
In Layers of Fear you play as a disturbed painter trying to complete his most important piece of work, his "Magnum Opus". Due to his mental instability while traversing his home, scary and strange things begin to occur causing frights to the player. The game has simple gameplay where the player mostly walks around a large mansion-style house, interacting with doors and items. While the game doesn't include any sort of the enemies that I am planning for my game, the way the ambience and sparse use of sound effects build tension as you walk through this building is something I am looking to recreate.
The initial area of the game is the porch of the building where the audio is completely diegetic, consisting of muffled rain and thunder sounds from outside and footsteps when the player moves. This grounds the player into the game world, making it feel believable straight away. As soon as you enter the foyer of the building, the peaceful yet slightly unnerving non-diegetic piano music begins. From this point the player is able to explore some of the unlocked rooms in the house at their own pace. As the music is constantly present throughout this section, it gives the player a sense of security in what is a creepy and lonely environment.
The way tension is built is initially showcased when the player makes their way down to the basement. Upon descending into the darkness, the music cuts out completely. This instantly instills dread into the player, causing their senses to heighten as they become very aware of their surroundings. After clambering around in the basement and hearing the odd rustle and squeak of a rat, it is apparent that this moment is ultimately a red herring. After leaving the basement, the music is introduced back into the mix. As an introduction, this is an effective way of putting the player slightly on edge as a taster of what is to come.
When progressing further into the game, the ability to freely explore is taken away as the perceived architecture of the building warps into a more linear experience while the character's mind deteriorates. The music shifts from the coherent classic piano tune, to a more abstract drone based soundtrack. At this point the game uses similar technique to build tension, now with added jump scares to frighten the player. I noticed an audio sequence loop within the general ambience while playing. It would begin with louder environmental diegetic sounds alongside non-diegetic drones in the background. This would then quiet down as the player approaches an interactable such as a door. Once the door is opened there would either be a loud jump scare followed by a scary visual to match, or the soundtrack would revert to the initial state with the drones. This varies the outcome of such events to subvert the player's expectations, attempting to avoid repetitiveness. However, I believe this trick would more often than not lead to a jump scare which I eventually began to anticipate, reducing its effectiveness.
Overall the soundscape of the game is very impressive. I particularly enjoyed the use of silence when approaching uncertainty. Unfortunately the game often has some cliché jump scares and audio assets such as frequent use of dry ice on metal to create screeches, which I personally think is overused in horror. In my project I will take inspiration from the sparse sound design during quiet moments to build a false sense of security, ready for when I need to ramp up the tension.
The main focus of my project is the audio (asset creation, implementation and innovation). With that in mind, I needed to spend as little time as possible on the level and game design elements. I knew that I wanted to have the level begin in a forest area, progress into a cave which would then lead to a hidden temple. For a quick way to generate a game area, I used the landscape tool to generate an area and carved out the gameplay zone with mountains at the edges to be used as the bounds of the level. I then applied a grass material to the landscape and painted on materials to simulate a dirt path and the outline of my cave. Using materials in Unreal Engine will come in handy later when I add my footstep sounds as I will be able to switch the surface sounds based on the material being walked over.
The next step was to created my cave. I used simple geometry to map out the area of my cave and then surrounded it pre-made rock assets. I sped up this process by reusing multiples of the same rock shape and rotating them, giving the illusion of unique rock formations.
Once this was completed I finished off my starting area by adding trees and a small lake to create a forest environment. While adding these details is mostly unnecessary, I wanted to include them as inspiration for my final forest soundscape.
Within the cave there is almost no available light, preventing the player from being able to see. While I like this idea to an extent, as limited visuals will allow me to rely on my audio abilities more, complete darkness would make the game near unplayable. With is in mind, I created a simple torch light using blueprints that could be toggled on and off. Within the cave and temple this will be the primary source of light for the player.
The final stage of my level design was to create the temple area, where the bulk of the game will take place. Using geometry I created a large enclosed box that will house the dungeon-style gameplay area where the enemy will hunt you down. Once the mazy interior is completed my level will be finalised and I can fully focus on the audio orientated gameplay aspects of the game!
While messing around with the first person template in UE4, I created a simple enemy AI that would follow the player throughout the level until it reaches the player.
This gave me the idea to have a sound attached to this enemy so that you could hear where it is coming from.
Adding to this, I thought that having the sound not only get louder, but have more of a stereo presence as the enemy gets near would allow the player to locate the enemy realistically through sound. I also figured out a way to have the audio trigger an event (stop in this case) on contact with the player.
With these things in mind I have decided to create a game where the player will be chased by an invisible foe (maybe a monster?) that can only be heard. The gameplay will come from trying to avoid the enemy by using their ears and making their way though a level such as a cave or tomb to escape.
On to the level design next!
As my final major project (FMP) is worth a whole module of my degree it needs to be of relatively large scope. I would like this project to be a major part of my sound design showreel that I will eventually send to potential employers, therefore I have decided to create and implement sound into a game. From my research in the field of game audio I have determined that many studios are utilising Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) to create their games combined with Audiokinetic's Wwise to implement the audio. With this in mind I have decided to create my own game within UE4 and implement the audio using Wwise.
As a Sound Design Technology student, sound is obviously the most important part of my project. Knowing this, I have decided that in order to make sound the star of my project I will use simple pre-made visual assets and game mechanics so as to not get bogged down in those aspects of development. In some manner I will make the audio an integral element of the gameplay to allow the sound to shine.
At this stage I don't have a fully fledged idea. I'll see what direction the project naturally takes itself in :)
As its my final year of study at the University of Hertfordshire, I have decided to keep a blog to document my progress throughout the year!
This year I am involved in various game audio and sound recording projects including my FMP (Final Major Project), and a field project among other audio related content.
For my FMP I will be creating a game in Unreal Engine 4 where I will capture and edit my own audio content to then be implemented into the game using Audiokinetic's Wwise. The intention with this project is for it to be the main element of my showreel when applying for jobs once I have finished my degree.
As part of my field project assignment I am going to work on the freelance or self employed aspects of my sound design skillset. I will be working on making a game with a couple of people I previously worked with in a game jam and will be starting a daily recording diary to grow my personal sound library.
I have a lot going on so hopefully I'll remember to post it all here!