John Broomhall talks with Alien: Isolation Lead Audio Designer MARK ANGUS
Heading up music and sound for Alien: Isolation, the videogame incarnation of a hallowed movie, so famed for magnificently harnessing audio… What a gig - and an awesome responsibility for Mark Angus and his team who certainly stepped up to the table, delivering a critically acclaimed cinematic horror tour-de-force.
Angus: “Audio is such a huge element of any horror experience – we had to be the glue that held everything together - prefiguring, anticipating, confounding… generally messing with the player’s head. Each moment had to seem carefully crafted and mixed like a linear film yet also use the advantages of our interactive medium to go further, providing a unique experience for each player. Imagine if everyone walked out of the original Alien film with a different story to tell… Alien: Isolation is decidedly non-linear in its moment-to-moment gameplay, but we tried to shape it to feel directed at every turn.
“In many ways, our biggest challenge was our biggest asset. The Alien and other enemies are mainly AI driven - reacting to player behavior, using the open environment to hunt you down. A traditional ‘scene’ with camera control removed and a start/end sync point triggering audio is rare. You might play an hour without a single scripted moment or encounter meaning that, from first principles, we had to rely on player input and the Alien/Working Joe/NPCs to sculpt the audio experience. We had to anticipate moments, preparing the mix dynamically, plus respond to ‘sync moments’. We’d constantly monitor the relationship between player and enemy, in data, and be ready to react.
“For example, we knew how aware the Alien was of the player, how close it was, whether it was setting a trap or moving fast towards you; we also knew whether the player was looking in the Alien’s direction, how stealthy their movement was, etc. We’d take this information and, for each encounter, choose what might happen.
“Imagine you’re hiding in a locker and the Alien’s approaching. You might have just been running from it, and the music is reacting to its awareness of you, pumping up intensity, mixing away the rest of the audio. The music climaxes as the Alien stops outside the locker but it loses interest and walks away - the music slowly simplifies and drifts off leaving the hum of the spaceship. But if you’d just got into a locker and weren’t aware of the Alien, and it wasn’t aware of you, the music might not be playing - then when you suddenly glimpse it through the grill - we register that and play a sting - bam, jumpscare! The player gasps in shock, her breathing rate rises and becomes ragged, you lean back and hold your breath… The moment feels linear, designed, but actually no other player might ever get that same combination at that precise spot.”
For Angus, this ambitious approach has paid dividends but not without some lessons learned: “Don’t be afraid to re-visit those first principles! If something is proving hard, and you’re adding layer upon layer to solve it, go back to the start and re-assess your end goal. We actually reset our Wwise project entirely upon entering production to have a clean sheet, only bringing forward the things we knew worked and were really needed. And generally, less is more - the most elegant solution is the simplest. Put yourself into the player’s seat and focus on what’s most important for them. Sometimes that means hearing nothing, allowing imaginations to run wild. We’ve reached a stage now in videogames where we can deliver high quality sound whenever we want, so the question becomes, do we need to? Does this moment need music? Does the player need dialogue to get what’s happening? Sometimes you have to be the guy who argues for not putting a sound on something even if you can…”