Studying Scary: Resident Evil
Welcome back to my study of what makes Resident Evil such a scary video game. This time I’ll be writing about sound design. Enjoy, and please, whether you agree, disagree, or simply put the time in to read it, comment! I like to hear what others think on the subject. You’re not all mindless zombies, are you? I didn’t think so.
The Sound of Silence: Sound Design in Resident Evil
Sound design in video games is sometimes overlooked. However, elements such as sound effects and music have been integral to experiencing video games since their inception. Bleeps and bloops in Pong let players know they made contact with the ball; the rudimentary music in Space Invaders speeds up along with the invaders’ approach while that garbled siren alerts the player of a UFO passing through. Most feedback in a game doesn’t rely primarily on sound (you can see that the invaders are moving faster without having to hear the music), but there is an undeniably different experience to be had in playing most games with the sound muted. The sound design in Resident Evil is one of the key factors in making the game feel suspenseful to the player. The sound effects do a bang-up job of alerting the player of his avatar’s desolation. The music sets a pace that quickens as you progress through the game, and its sometimes discordant nature is a reminder that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Dissonant chords are creepy for sure, but the most suspenseful moments in Resident Evil are those when there is no music whatsoever.
Diagetic vs. Non-diagetic
Allow me a few lines to explain what these fancy words mean. In filmic terms, the diagetic space is everything that happens ‘within the world’ of the film. Plot, characters, scenes, etc. are all diagetic. Elements of the film that do not take place within the film-world are non-diagetic. For example, if a character is in a record store and Foghat is playing, the song is diagetic (the characters can hear it, react to it, jam out to it). When Slow Ride plays at the end of Dazed and Confused, however, it goes from the diagetic space (Mitch putting on his headphones) to the non-diagetic space (the characters in the car cannot hear it). The song is meant to give the audience the feeling of a happy ending as well as usher in the closing credits. Most music in movies is non-diagetic, especially when it was written by a composer for dramatic effect. Now that that’s done, let’s get back to the world of survival horror.
There’s a lack of non-diagetic music in Resident Evil, especially during the early parts of the game. This silence accentuates all of the diagetic sound effects. When your character’s footsteps on different flooring are the only thing you can hear, it’s a resounding message to the player that he is alone. Since the game takes place on a room-to-room basis, the only diagetic sound effects that can be heard are those within the room/hallway your character currently inhabits. When you enter a room with a ticking grandfather clock, it sends a message that says, “check that object out, it’s making noise!” When you hear the shuffling of feet, you know to be on guard because a zombie is in the room. Because of the game’s purposefully obscure camera angles (to be discussed in full next week), this decision in sound design lets players hear the evil without having to see said evil. Many successfully scary horror films have made use of this technique.
One particular part of the game serves as a fine example of the effectiveness of Resident Evil’s sound design. If you play through the game as Chris, there’s a point where you can assign Rebecca to play a piano. The piece of music is familiar, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. However, Rebecca is rusty at reading music, so she repeatedly blotches the song at a few different (but predetermined) spots. If you walk in the hallways that neighbor the room in which she’s playing, you can hear her struggle to get the song right. It’s the only music you can hear in these rooms, and it’s off-putting to say the least.
Music is sparse in Resident Evil. It’s not uncommon to run through several rooms and hallways of silence before finally hearing some non-diagetic accompaniment. In the Director’s Cut, the save room theme is an eery, child-like melody that’s at once creepy and comforting. The music also works toward creating an overall pace for the game. You can tell when you’re nearing the conclusion of the game because the non-diagetic music becomes more present. The sudden surprises and scares meld into the steadily growing background music, which has been building up the game’s final confrontation from an early stage. So now there’s a different sort of suspense to be felt, the sort that arises from approaching an end. Many in-game documents and diaries help to build this specific sense of suspense, but I’ll get to that portion of the game in another post.
Resident Evil exists in a room-to-room realm. By that I mean it’s not an open world game. Because of this, it can make sound design choices that are super effective in scaring the crap out of gamers. Silence surrounds many of the diagetic sound effects, accentuating them and their messages. The music isn’t groundbreaking, but as a device to pace the game, it works very well. Rest assured Resident Evil would be a lot less scary if it were played without sound.