Seeing with your ears — the audio of Alien: Isolation

Alien Alien

One of Sevastopol Station’s survivors opened fire on me and I didn’t even think about shooting back. I was mad at the idiot, not because he was shooting at me but because of what that noise would attract. I turned and ran, ducked into a room and jammed myself inside a locker. As I was closing the door I could already hear it slither out of the ceiling and thud to the floor. The scream and gunshots were simultaneous, but neither lasted long. Then I heard the alien: that rasping breath with the aggression of a growl and the satisfaction of a purr. It’s the sound of an animal beginning to hunt, and enjoying it.

While this was happening a movie of the events played out in my head, even though all I was looking at was a grill on the inside of a locker. That’s effective sound design—the kind that puts noises in a context and a space so complete you barely need to look at the screen to know what’s going on.

Jeff van Dyck was the audio director on Alien: Isolation (his credits at The Creative Assembly also include several of the Total War games; he won a BAFTA for his work on Shogun), and he chose the project because he was a fan of the original movie. “The alien just seemed so unstoppable and massive,” he says. “Not necessarily physically massive—his character. You rarely saw him and when you did see him somebody died.”

“Initially it just didn’t sound right. It sounded like a big robot or something like that—real thuddy and mechanical almost."

To help make a game that was as close to the first movie as possible, 20th Century Fox gave The Creative Assembly access to the original sound effects, taken from eight-track and dumped to a single ProTools session of the entire film. The audio quality wasn’t high enough to simply copy sounds across, but it gave them a base to faithfully re-build from using modern technology. “ That article comparing the visual in the game to the visual in the movie? We were doing the audio equivalent of that.”

A sound that did make the transition was one of the first things you hear as the camera pans across the stars. “I used it in the main menu music,” says van Dyck, “what we dubbed the ‘space whale.’ It’s this weird bending WOOO sound right at the very beginning.” He wanted to let players know from the start they were in for an genuine Alien experience. “It’s so authentic it’s actually got a piece of the movie in it. To me it sounds fantastic, and then we did a surround mix with it. Rather than it being echoey we have it spinning around all the speakers.”

Structural perfection

Among the games that Alien: Isolation drew on for inspiration, van Dyck singles out Visceral’s sci-fi horror game Dead Space, which itself drew heavily from the Alien movies. “In Dead Space they use these things called ‘fear emitters’ and they were basically just a point they would put in various parts of the level, and if you walked near that point the music would cross-fade into tension and if you moved away it would be less. Not only were they fixed points in the world, but they would attach that emitter to monsters, specially significant ones. When they got closer to you the music would amp up.”

The xenomorph in Alien: Isolation has a similar intensifying effect, but as well as making the music change—more of those quivering violin tremolos—its approach makes the ambient noises subside. Sevastopol’s creaking and sparking and shuddering all recede when the alien’s near, making you even more aware of protagonist Amanda Ripley’s breathing and the clatter of items you bump or devices you turn on.

Not every sound can be as evocative as the space whale. There need to be ordinary noises as well, the ones that ground you, that give a believable physicality to the character you’re playing. Ripley has sneakers that squeak, a backpack full of tools and scrap that jangles when she turns, and jumpsuit pants that sometimes shwiff like George Costanza’s when she walks. “You can buy libraries of stuff like that,” explains van Dyck, “and we went through a bunch of the libraries because that’s obviously the easier way to go about it, but we couldn’t find anything that really matched and we thought, well, you know, triple-A title. May as well go for it. We had some budget left over and we went for the proper foley.”

Traditional movie foley is the art of physically creating sounds that feel right rather than necessarily being similar to what’s on the screen. During the infamous shower scene in Psycho you’re hearing Alfred Hitchcock plunge a knife into a watermelon. For Alien: Isolation, Pinewood Studios were hired to create an archive of sounds that would suit Ripley’s trek across Sevastopol, from the sterile plastic of its medical bay to the muck of an alien nest. They did this mainly by stamping on different surfaces, including soil covered in assorted squishy vegetables. “It’s amazing how much stuff they can do,” says van Dyck, “and you’ve got to imagine all this expensive equipment in this room full of dirt and broken wood and sawdust and stuff.”

Getting the right noises for the xenomorph was all about manipulating digital samples, however. Its footsteps were a trickier proposition than Ripley’s. “Initially it just didn’t sound right. It sounded like a big robot or something like that—real thuddy and mechanical almost. He’s got claws and we’ve got to get a sense of the claw but we want him to feel formidable and heavy so that he’s big and weighs a ton. We needed to get some sub-frequencies in there so that when he walked around you still felt the floor shake a little bit.”

In James Cameron’s Aliens, recordings of baboon shrieks, tweaked in post, were used for the xenomorphs. In Alien: Isolation a variety of animals were sampled to get the right sounds, then put through a talkbox—a musical effects unit that takes sounds musicians make with their mouths and translates them into instruments. It’s the effect guitarists use to make it sound as if their electric guitar is talking or singing. “We were taking animal yells and then putting it through that and getting some really interesting results,” says van Dyck. “Then the guys mixed in some of the alien sounds in the sounds of doors opening, which freaks the hell out of you. It’s not all over the place but there’s a few spots where there’s a bit of that and it adds to the freakiness of stepping into a new room. You think the alien’s in there because you kind of hear it.”

“When the alien was up in the vents and stuff, he actually is up there. He’s not being rendered.”

Sometimes though, you think you’ve heard the alien because you really have. The sounds of the creature crawling overhead were initially placed at random, triggering unpredictably to startle the player, but van Dyck says the effect “wasn’t quite right.” That changed when development reached a point where the coders and animators made it possible to realistically track the alien’s position even when unseen. “When the alien was up in the vents and stuff, he actually is up there. He’s not being rendered, when he’s off-screen he becomes just a wireframe skeleton, but he is actually moving around and moving to semi-logical places because he’s looking for ways to find you. There’s a cool mode you can get into using the development environment, you can turn off all the walls, see through all the walls, and you can see the alien running around doing his thing. When you move over here if you bump into something you can see him hear you and start coming over to you. Then of course in the final game, because you obviously have all the walls you can’t see him, all the sound he makes sounds correct and in the correct location because he is actually acting like he’s supposed to up in the rafters.”

Most animals retreat

That sense of being able to track your opponent by ear is essential in a stealth game, and what makes Alien: Isolation fascinating is that it’s not just one of the most stress-inducing horror games released in years, but also one of the purest stealth experiences. In horror well-crafted audio is vital because of the way it fires the imagination—all it takes to frighten someone in a house they thought was empty is footsteps on the stairs. In a stealth game, well-crafted audio is vital for a more prosaic reason: you need an idea where enemies are when you’re the one perched in a dark shadow. You need to know whether guards are around the next corner and if they’re approaching or moving further away.

Many recent stealth games have borrowed Batman’s detective vision from the Arkham games, the ability that lets him detect criminals through walls when planning how to avoid their guns and get the drop on them. Since then we’ve had Dishonored’s darkvision, BioShock: Burial At Sea’s peeping tom vigor, Dark’s vampire vision, and the remake of Thief had its focus mode. If the player can see through walls it makes perfecting expensive and time-consuming 3D audio less necessary.

In the original Thief: The Dark Project there was no detective vision, so in levels like Return To The Haunted Cathedral you had to listen carefully to tell whether footsteps were echoing around the large central space of the cathedral or whether they were coming from the enclosed confines of the corridors and vestibules near your hiding position. In the Thief remake that was impossible—the sounds were hard to place, and in the Dirty Secrets level the sound of a man being spanked by a dominatrix in a nearby room followed me at full volume down a hall, round a corner, and up a flight of stairs.

In Alien: Isolation they put in the effort, and it shows. “3D mixing is really tricky,” says van Dyck, “because when a sound is off in the distance it’s in a very narrow point and as you turn your head you can feel it move, but as it gets closer its sound now emanates from a wider area. Simulating the sound as it gets really close to you, that was one of the trickier things that we found. The other thing is that sound over distance starts to get filtered. High frequencies start to roll off and also low frequencies start to roll off and essentially a sound becomes thinner and thinner-sounding as it gets off in the distance. If you don’t apply those effects artificially the soundscape sounds wrong.”

In Alien: Isolation only the designers can see through walls, so instead the player has to learn to listen with pinpoint accuracy. When you hear a door open you know which one it was, and when the alien make a noise you know how far away it is. Your only way of telling where things are when you can’t hear them is by using the motion tracker, but that’s risky. When Ripley’s attention is focused on its screen the rest of the world blurs, and its beeping is loud enough to attract attention. In space no one can hear you scream, but everyone can hear that goddamn motion tracker.

“The guys spent a lot of time on the motion tracker,” says van Dyck, “because different people had different thoughts on what the motion tracker should sound like. We ended up going with a hybrid between the first movie and the second movie.” The Sevastopol version of the device is made for tracking on-board vermin, as the safety posters explain: “Before they breed... TRACK and EXTERMINATE.” For that purpose it would be fine, but it’s the world’s crappiest and least reliable version of detective vision—as it should be. When you’re hiding in a locker, leaning back to bring it up, it can draw attention to you, and when you’re in the open it can blind you to what’s right in front of your face. It encourages you to listen instead, to a soundscape that’s as effective as the visuals, and even more frightening.

When Alien was released in 1979 van Dyck recalls being afraid before he’d even seen the movie. “I remember it coming out as a kid and being too scared to want to watch it,” he says. “I remember seeing the poster: ‘In space no one can hear you scream.’ I loved that concept. It freaked the hell out of me.”

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.