For all the terrifying scares in Dead Space—necromorph babies, giant tentacles, and ghostly whispers—one of my favorite moments is one that has no monsters at all. A few hours into the game, you navigate a zero-gravity section of the Ishimura on your way to the engine room. During this entire sequence, there's barely any sound—everything is muted by the vacuum of space to the point where even your shotgun sounds like a distant thud. Then, after re-compressing at an airlock, you open the door to one of the most horrifying sounds known to humankind: the ungodly wail of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system.
Though it's been a fun fact that's been circling the internet for a while now, I only just learned that the source of this awful noise is none other than the train millions of California Bay Area residents commute on—as if I needed another reason to think of San Francisco as a nightmarish hellscape.
You can watch the video above to see the exact scene that I'm talking about. The sudden shift from dead silence to metallic screeching and flashing lights is so jarring, I vividly remember having to pause the game and muster the courage to enter that room. I was convinced something was going to maul me the moment I stepped inside, but Dead Space plays an even nastier trick. There's nothing in the room. It's a brilliant subversion of expectations.
This story comes from the most recent episode of Ars Technica's excellent video series War Stories, which explores the untold development stories of beloved games. This particular episode focuses on Dead Space and how creator Glen Schofield and his team turned it into a horror masterpiece. The whole episode is worth watching, but the BART story comes as Schofield talks about how important sound design was in achieving that palpable sense of dread in Dead Space.
"Sound is so important in a videogame, to me," Schofield says. "A lot of games, sound design was sort of the thing that came in last... But right from the start, we said sound design and the music and the audio are key."
When audio director Don Veca rode BART, he was stunned by the unbelievably awful noises it makes. Bay Area residents are all too familiar, but for someone who has never used the train before, it's almost hard to overstate what a nightmarish experience it is. If you want a taste, watch this video with the volume cranked.
After telling Schofield about it, they sent an audio team with studio microphones to record samples of BART that they then turned into the nightmarish squeal used in that room. "What we were looking for was, how can we scare people with just sound? No monsters," Schofield says.
It's one brilliant little moment in a game full of them, but watching this War Stories on Dead Space helps crystallize some of the things that made it so good. As Schofield explains, the team at EA Redwood Shores would go to extreme lengths to perfectly execute scares in even the smallest scenes, sometimes spending weeks of development time building new systems in the process. And it pays off. Dead Space is great and I now have a newfound appreciation for one of its more memorable scares.