Transposing horror audio techniques into all the Dark Pictures

Working across multiple games in a franchise offers unique opportunities for audio, linking musical character motifs and themes across multiple games, but although we look to add familiarity between the games, since each one is so different we also look to vary the soundscape in surprising and creative ways to make each experience different and unexpected to the players.


Thomas Hansen:

Music for Horror can be very demanding, but the genre always presents unique opportunities for music that other genres would struggle to utilize effectively. In this article I will highlight two areas of music that horror as a genre allows us to exploit: use of aleatoric textures for immediate transitions and diegetic vs non diegetic stings.


Aleatoric textures

The Dark Pictures are strongly narrative experiences with an emphasis on rich cinematic storytelling, we’re making games nowadays for the Netflix generation, because of this the music needs to function to the player as it would for film, as if scored with frame accuracy. This presents an interesting challenge to make incredibly smooth transitions from one music cue to another while closely matching the narrative moments.


The most recognizable and unique characteristics of horror music are Aleatoric textures. Think of an entire section of low woodwinds bending between notes randomly to create an ominous brooding texture as the antagonist watches the innocent victim (usually the player), or violin sections playing screeching strings, as high and violently as they can during the chase.



This is a genre defining technique and they provide a mechanic that enables smoother invisible transitions to fit the cinematic aesthetic. For example, during a melodic phrase or a motif it is jarring to have music switch immediately, ignoring musical timing completely, jolting the player out of the experience. However, if those melodic sections are authored to flow into atonal or arrhythmic aleatoric sections, they can be interrupted at any time and on the precise frame that we want, often determined by delayed player input, syncing perfectly to the moment, for example a jump scare. Aleatoric techniques are therefore a critical tool for maintaining a strong cinematic musical presence, and without them we would not be able to enhance the player experience to such an extreme as we need to in all The Dark Pictures.


Musical stings

We give each of The Dark Pictures a unique soundtrack. Each game presents a new set of characters, locations, narrative themes, even time zones, which dictate different aesthetic requirements and therefore sound palette from which we must draw in order to achieve very similar emotional highs and lows for the player. One example, ‘stings’, short, sharp audio stabs, were created with completely different content in ‘Man of Medan’ compared to ‘Little Hope’ and furthermore for the next title in the series.


For ‘Man of Medan’, musical content dominated the stings on jump scares. For example, hammered piano strings or high orchestral strings being violently struck. The ‘slasher’ nature of Man of Medan’s narrative lent itself to exaggerating the stings in this way. We also had ‘Until Dawn’ in our minds for ‘Man of Medan’, and when combined with a big swelling soundtrack representing the sea, the physical nature of the antagonists and the scale of the environments, we really worked the music to emphasise many aspects of that soundtrack, giving a very grand, colourful, and discordant result.



‘Little Hope’ however is a deeply personal, psychological horror story, with historical references at its heart, so we held back on the grandeur, presenting a soundtrack that was more sensitive, unnerving, and ethereal, developing music that was thinner in nature, built from those very same historical instruments form the late 17th century and removing almost all musical elements from the stings to uphold this historical and abstract aesthetic. If you were to listen to the music on its own you would notice it moves sharply down in volume for when a Demon appears on screen, or a door closes by itself behind the player, replaced by abstract sound designed elements that David will talk about later. The music however would be responsible for the chilling, spine tingling after effect of these moments, driving the resonance of the scare, the residual dread.


For the next game we are reshaping the relationship between the music and the abstract sound design once again, creating much shorter and sharper moments to be action based rather than the drawn-out psychological questioning of ‘Little hope’ and we will continue to change our approach on every title, as the narrative demands.



David Guinot:

The variety of the soundscapes in the Dark Pictures Anthology games are such rewarding environments to play with, as a sound designer you are weaving in and out between reality and the unknown.


Each project has a completely different DNA, we are always exploring the possibilities that are offered to refresh our sonic palette without losing sight of fitting the visual mood, art style, narrative design and most importantly, maintaining the player's experience through the wider narrative arc.



Compared to Man of Medan which had a very diegetic approach to environmental sound using winds, waves and water laps, Little Hope exploration was playing more with the environment, mostly taking place in very dark and desolate areas. Using a variety of textures, tones, drones, we wanted to push an edgy and haunted feel but psychological, not ghostly, causing the player to experience the idea of a fragile, empty world, matching the psychosis of the main character, and the dread that lurks within it.


These drones received specific attention as we wanted them to be the main colour of those environments, using modulation, stretching and distortion as part of the processing chain to make them unsettling, twisted versions of reality. We used a Geofon made by Jonas Gruska at LOM Audio, to record most of the sources for the drones in-game, giving us those deep and dark textures perfect for those moments. Always surprising what you can do with a recoding of a fridge or fan’s rumble!



Extending the psychological, shifting perception of reality aspect of the soundscape we wanted to create a continuous sense of unease and mystery around the players of Little Hope. The narrative design offered some great opportunities for echoes of the past, cognitive reminders triggered by past events, voices and whispers processed with lush granular delays and reverbs, giving them a dream-like quality.


The subtlety that is needed in psychological horror is so important as we follow and respond to the mentality of the main character. On the flip-side, in creating the high tension moments for Little Hope we extended further the idea of cognitive reminders and processed screams (which are a good thing to record after a long day), shifting a gear and creating necessary edges for our scares, but all within the chosen sound palette.



As Thomas has mentioned and as with all of The Dark Pictures games, scares in Little Hope were all about crafting the moments, creating space within the action and soundtrack, and always by connecting to what’s happening to the player’s character emotionally and physically, through music and sound design.


The environment was such a good setup to suspend and subvert the players expectations and wonderment about what is happening and when the next scare might arrive, and in crafting the levels of tension leading into more heightened scare moments, it was then mostly following the narrative to push the threshold of scare in the right moments, clashing the soundscape as hard as we can to break the moment and offering a frightening experience to the player.



Like any good partnership, the relationship between the non-diegetic elements of music and sound design is only ever made successful through give and take, experimentation and reflective learning. Sound design must support and enhance the music, not conflicting, and vice versa, working in tandem to augment the player’s experience. Understanding and co-developing the overall aesthetic of each element is key to understanding the available opportunities, which frequency ranges both elements can inhabit, and at which time and even how long is each bespoke moment.


It is also okay for sound design and music to tread on each other’s toes, to conflict, giving options to find a middle ground, which is often the situation for jump scares. We can resolve this by offering separate layers that can be balanced in the final mix stage. For a game with a larger soundtrack like Man of Medan, this was very much the case, with both music and sound design wanting to play scares at 200% intensity, occupy the same spectral ranges. increasing the grandeur of the end result.

For Little Hope, as the music was lighter, thinner historical feel, we were able to focus on the lower-mids and bass ranges for the sound design, adding warmth and power when we needed to, rarely conflicting with the music.


Sound design is always trying not to break any musical moments, to keep the flow of musical narration and narration itself intact, as they’re complementary but not necessarily in the same emotional world. Where music is flowing in the narrative, sound design is often here to break a pattern.


I cannot emphasise enough what a great playground for sound we have in the Dark Pictures, and the infinite choices we can make to author a unique and appealing audio experience for the players.