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.
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.