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The Sound of Dead Space

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

Having recently completed my first play through of Dead Space (2013), I realized it was a great opportunity to make some notes about the brilliant use of sound throughout.

The audio team at Visceral created some of the most incredible atmospheres to compliment the detailed visual environment of the USG Ishimura. Layered on top of the drones and hums of machinery are haunting, reverberant clanks and bangs that come from above and below you. These clanging noises happen at random and seem to originate from the ventilation system which happens to be where enemies spawn/appear from...

All of the firing sounds for the weapons in the game have a significant weight that made their necromorph-dismembering abilities convincing. The necromorphs themselves had a great blend of humanoid and alien sound qualities to match the unique visual design of each type. Larger beasts like the brute have deeper, more guttural bellows, compared to the lurker which has the high-pitched scream of a baby. Each type is identifiable through sound alone, which aids the player in identifying the threat and how best to respond. One of my favourites is the exploder's evil cackle as it prepares for its kamikaze charge.

Below, I list my personal selection for the top two sonic moments in the game. Both of these stood out to me as impressive both creatively (in their presence and contrast), and, most importantly... in their level of surprise/scare factor!

1. The Work Bench

It's a testament to the sound of this game, when even something as rudimentary as using the work bench system for upgrading weapons scares the crap out of you. The first time I used the bench and it unfolded with that horrifying mechanical crank noise I thought that Isaac was done for. The mechanism itself looks like the reverse bear trap in Saw II, and the sound was just so damn loud and jarring. Typically these work benches are found in what feels like a "safe zone" at the start of each chapter. There are some light ambient noises, but not much else. It's relatively serene in comparison to prior moments. It isn't until later that these safe zones have enemies spawn in them. Then you approach the work bench - stoked to see what it does... You press A, and it the sound just rips through you like a chainsaw. Brilliant.

2. The Tram

After exiting a destroyed outdoor section of the Ishimura you enter an airlock to depressurize. The past few minutes of gameplay have been entirely silent (remember, no sound in space) and quite scary. Enemies appear without sound, and as you approach the door to renter the ship you check behind you one last time to ensure there's nothing approaching. The door shuts behind you quietly and the chamber is depressurized with an airy hiss. Then, there is a moment of peaceful bliss in this airtight chamber. You are safe and sound and all is well. That comfort is short lived. As you open the second door into the ship hallway, you are greeted by the horrifying sound of the tram system passing overhead. Fun fact: this is actually a recording of the San Francisco metro line. There is screeching metal, the hissing of large vents on your left, and it is utterly deafening. It is the opposite end of the spectrum from the prior segment of absolute silence. You again have to check your rear for enemies because their sound is drowned out by the cacophonous roar of the tram. This is a great contrast, and an incredible use of sound as a means to unsettle the player. Check it out for yourself (you can find the exact moment at 1:54:22):

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