Track Teardown - Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Updated: Nov 16, 2018
Audio plays an integral part in video games with the players overall immersion in the environment be produced from great sound design and music tracks. Whether a game character is trekking through rain forests or walking the streets of a big city having sound design that can accurately represented those environments and make the player feel like they are actually there can make or break a game. When used in conjunction with music tracks adds to create an atmosphere and helps create a mood or feeling that the player should be having at that certain point in time.
The video game Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a great example of how audio can be used to immerse the player into the game environment. Below is the games description that I have taken from its website which perfectly sums up what its about better than I could.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a first person survival horror. A game about immersion, discovery and living through a nightmare. An experience that will chill you to the core.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent puts you in the shoes of Daniel as he wakes up in a desolate castle, barely remembering anything about his past. Exploring the eerie pathways, you must also take part of Daniel's troubled memories. The horror does not only come from the outside, but from the inside as well. A disturbing odyssey into the dark corners of the human mind awaits.
("Amnesia: The Dark Descent", 2018)
Below is a short 9 minute playthrough video that show different areas of the game each comprising of different audio aspects producing different moods and atmospheres in each. I will analysing how the audio in this video clip plays a role in creating this immersive horror environment and how the sound adds to the gameplay as a whole.
Scene 1- Enemy Chase (0:00 to 2:40)
The first scene in the video is of the player in an environment filled with a shallow amount of water with an invisible enemy chasing him, the player is only safe when he is standing out of the water as being in it alerts the enemy. The enemies whereabouts is shown by splashes in the water as it moves. The objective of this level is to find a way out of the area and into a safe zone without being caught by the enemy.
To better help the player identify where the enemy is in this level the game incorporates a couple of sound design features. Firstly 3D sound design has been used to track the distance the enemy is away from the player with changes in volume of the water splashes and where they can be heard in accordance to the players position. In the video the player throughs what appears to be a severed torso away from himself in order to get the enemy to move away from his position, the drop in volume of the splashes as the enemy moves away from the player indicates that it is safe to move onto another platform to open a gate. Also when the player is opening the gate the enemy can only be heard in the right speaker giving the player a better sense of where it is in the room relative to himself. These two 3D sound design aspects really help the player work out the whereabouts of the enemy so they have a greater chance of progressing through the level, they also make the enemy feel more realistic giving it a proper place in the environment.
The music in this section is the main source of atmosphere and creates a feeling of danger and urgency to escape. When the player is standing out of the water the music is relatively simple with low sounding stringed instrument pads and violin type instruments and a choir creating an eerie dissonant background ambience. When the player steps into the water and the enemy starts chasing him the music becomes louder and more frantic with the addition of low tuned percussion, louder choir parts and the violins playing more faster notes adding to the urgency to escape the enemy.
When the player opens up a locked door to escape the enemy the music changes from a dissonant eerie screeching ambience to a more mellow minor feel which tells the player that they are going in the right direction. This change purpose of this change in tonality acts as a musical cue which provides the player information about their progress going through the the level.
The player enters a small room next that still has a shallow amount of water in it which could indicate that they are not out of trouble yet but the music has died down with the ambience being produced by low rumbling sounds, dripping water, and the players movements. The lack of music in this part indicates that this small room is safe although they haven't completely gotten to safety.
As soon as the player steps through the next door they trigger another encounter with the invisible enemy which is indicated by a deep roar and hissing sounds used to symbols it, what follows is a frantic chase to reach the safe zone at the end.
The music in this chase scene builds up again but with more constant percussion and violin sounds adding to the urgency of the players situation even more, this used in conjunction with bashing sounds, roars and screeches produced by the enemy makes the whole experience very jarring. The overall audio in this chase coupled with the on screen visuals occasionally becoming blurry really makes you feel disorientated and afraid to be in this environment.
The overarching feel that the music creates in this section is meant to unsettle the player, which is largely done by choir parts, because they the most constant instrument used they produce an underlying tonality for the whole track. They move slowly and smoothly between the different notes played as to create an eerie uninterrupted flowing sound which acts as a bed for the tonality of the area. Due to the fact that the the intervals played are in a minor key and there is no real harmony between the different parts reinforces this unsettling feeling in the player by the tonality not having any nice sounding parts which could act to comfort them. All the way through it follows this ominous and menacing tonality that doesn't give the player any time to feel at ease in the area, which you wouldn't with an evil invisible monster chasing you.
The unsettling and ominous tone of the choirs is bolstered by the violins and percussion just to freak the player out even more when shit gets real. The percussion sounds like low tuned tympani war drums that create a feel that the enemy is battle ready and charging towards you, which it is. As a result of the percussion being low tuned and not really having much attack to them they almost sound like they could be heart beats and with them playing at a high BPM for heart rates (130 and 150 in different sections) makes the player feel like this should be my heart rate at the moment. A normal resting heart rate is between 60 - 100 BPM (Gholipour, 2018). This aspect of the percussion makes the player feel the tension that the character would be feeling and evokes a sense of terror of the fact that you could be killed by this monster, which is why your heart is beating so fast. It also works to set the pace of the final chase scene and tells the player that there is no time to f@$# around, get out of there or die.
The violins and other stringed instrument sounds follow the percussion parts rhythmically for the most part and are mainly used to add another tonality to the track. They don't play many different notes and usually go between semitone intervals so when played together creates a dissonant sound which again is very unsettling and doesn't give the player anything nice to listen to (bit of a pattern emerging here). The strings don't produce a melody as such and are used mostly to be jarring to the player. With their frantic playing and dissonant tonality they produce a feeling of agitation and when used in conjunction with the choirs and percussion forms a very compelling horror sound track that is eerie, ominous, frantic and unsettling. The track really helps to put the player in the situation and conveys the state of mind and emotions the character would having with the purpose of making the player genuinely frightened of this environment.
When the player reaches the last door of the level the music changes from the frantic horror track to no music again as they enter the next area, this area has no water in it showing the player that the chase is finished and the enemy won't be coming after them any more.
Scene 2- Back Hall Exploration (2:40 to 5:05)
This area is a lot more subdued with that main focus on exploration and trying to get into the next area. The music is more mellow to symbolise the fact that the player isn't in any immediate danger and is free to explore as they like. The sound design elements are used to make the player feel like they are actually in that environment, like a 3D water sound effect created by a water fountain that gets louder as the player gets closer to it, eerie metallic creaking sounds, a wind gust sound, and character movement sounds.
The music itself is the loudest thing in this area which is made up of relatively melancholy choir pad sounds with the occasional acoustic guitar melody making the track feel more musical. This track is not dissonant or frantic like the one in the enemy chase scene which highlights the difference between the two areas and acts to calm the player down after such an intense area. The tonality of the music in this area is very sad sounding which is produced by its minor key (i'm not going to work out what the key actually is), I believe this is done to symbolise the characters mood and feelings to the player to make them connect more with him, it also blends in well with the bleak and gloomy feel of the environment.
The choir parts act as the main instrument and like the last area produce the overarching feel and mood. They still move between intervals slowly and smoothly but the main difference is their tonality which even though is predominantly minor the harmonies they produce work well together and are very pleasant. This whole sad, melancholy, minor sound is done very well to still be pleasant and calming without unsettling the player even more from the last area but still keeping a sense that his ordeal is far from over. The intermittent acoustic guitar parts act as a nice touch to break up the monotony of the choirs and give the player extra little bits of tonality adding to the richness of the track. They also make the track feel more like a track rather than just background ambience as the player explores the level.
This whole area only has those two instruments (choir and acoustic guitar) but they way they come together and their melody and harmonies makes for a very beautiful piece of music that subdues the player tension. I like the contrast between the music in these two different areas because it shows that you don't need scary intense music all the way through a horror game and makes the transition through different environments even more noticeable helping the player work out what to do and feel more accurately.
Apart from a short voice over flashback with the character and the owner of the castle there is not much else going on sound design wise in this area, which I guess helps the player focus on exploration. After looking around for a while the player then enters another room, the study.
Scene 3- The Study (5:05 to end of video)
This whole area has no music what so ever with all the atmosphere coming from the sound design aspects. The background ambience is created by a constant gusting wind sound making the player feel like they are in an old castle, it also adds a subtle eeriness to the scene. The characters footsteps are louder in this area than the others and are also sound quite thumpy, accentuating the effect of actually being in the wooden study environment. The sounds of the character interacting with objects in the environment also make the environment more realistic, one example is where the character pulls a book out of a bookshelf and lands on the floor. This is not a very complex sound design but its done well and matches the room/space perfectly which shows how important little sounds and details can be to produce a realistic and immersive environment.
I believe there is purposely no music in this scene to make the environment sound more like how it would if you were actually there, because most people don't walk around with a sound track playing in there normal lives. Also having no music means that all of the audio can be louder and better heard by the player adding to the immersion.
This game has multiple sound design and musical aspects that change in the three areas of the video playthrough. By creating different moods and atmosphere with music the game provides audio cues for the player about the area they are in, the frantic dissonant sounds of the enemy chase scene to the sad melancholy of the safer Back Hall area. Both of these musical tracks really signify the ways in which music can affect the feel and purpose of the area, from urgently having to run away from an enemy to the calmer exploration of a safe area. The Study area with no music also shows how just the sound design aspects can be enough in certain places to make the player feel more like they are in that certain space where the music could take away from the immersive experience.
A quick snippet of information, in the video below the composer for Amnesia: The Dark Descent discusses how he created the music using only samples and no synthesis. This shows just how much of a rich sound can be produced by using samples alone and not having to leave the computer to potentially record other sounds. After analysing the music and knowing that it was created with samples provides me with a good starting point to compose music for my project and know that I can produce a great horror atmosphere with a few, choir, stringed, and percussion sounds.
I will use some synth elements in my composition because I believe it will help the more modern post-apocalyptic feel of my project, and it also provides me with another chance to get more experience with synthases in general.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.amnesiagame.com/#game
Gholipour, B. (2018). What Is a Normal Heart Rate?. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/42081-normal-heart-rate.html