The sound of Alien: Isolation

Matt Fellows caught up with sound designers Byron Bullock and Sam Cooper from Creative Assembly to chat about the audio elements of the survival horror hit.

Over 25 years since the Xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien first crept out of the shadows to cocoon itself in cinema history, those first nail-biting moments haven’t faded as the franchise expands evermore into the gaming world.

Set 15 years after the original film, Alien: Isolation puts the player in the shoes of Amanda Ripley, daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s iconic character Ellen Ripley. Stranded in space and stalked relentlessly by a familiar and ever-present alien, the player must keep their senses alert and their wits sharp if they are to escape alive. And one of the key (and only) weapons in their arsenal is a keen pair of ears.

The game aims to assimilate itself into the Alien universe narratively and aesthetically, as sound designer Sam Cooper notes: “The mantra was authenticity and staying true to that ?1970s version of the future, that world of tactile technology with big buttons and noisy computers.”

And the team were committed to staying faithful to their progenitor.

”We did a lot of research and we interviewed Terry Rawlings [editor on Alien] – he gave a lot of valuable insight into what it was like creating the original film,” explains Cooper. “We also managed to get Fox to dig out some old recordings on reel-to-reels from their archive.”

These original recordings from the set of the film proved to be a cornerstone of the game’s authentic lo-fi aesthetic, used extensively to build the library of sounds heard in the game, as Byron Bullock explains: “We could take that stuff and expand upon it and make more material from the original.”

”We got the stems, so we had those as a guide,” Cooper continues. ”We resynthesized a lot of the telemetry sounds, but we were actually able to pull stuff out of the sound effects stem, stick it into a DAW and remake it piece by piece.

“We wanted to create high-quality source. We toyed with the idea of using reel-to-reels, but in the end we created high-quality source and degraded it using plug-ins afterwards so that we always had the original to go back to.”

Alone in the dark

In Alien: Isolation the player is forced to rely on their sensory awareness rather than brute strength, and the team consciously crafted the game’s sound to complement these gameplay conventions.

”Sound was planned to be used as a gameplay device from the beginning,” Cooper notes. ”A lot of what goes on in the environment is implied by sounds that aren’t in the frame, so the player can hear where things are, where the enemies are, the alien crawling through vents overhead. It’s about what the player can see, because they are controlling the frame. So we did a lot with view-cone scripting to add rises in tension. If the alien is creeping up on the player and they’re facing the other direction, we didn’t want the music to give the game away, so the sound is based on line-of-sight.”

As with any good horror media, for the team it was as much about utilising the absence of sound as it was about using sound itself. “We tried to be quite minimal with sound,” Bullock notes. “There’s moments when you can just be in a corridor and hear the creaking of the corridor around you and other Foley, and that all helps the feeling of claustrophobia. It was important to get some dynamics in the mix; there are moments that are really quiet, but there are also big, loud moments.”

But the team’s biggest obstacle came in the form of the salivating villain.

“The biggest challenge was that we have this unpredictable, adaptive alien – he can hear you, he can see the light from your torch – and he uses those senses to hunt you down,” Bullock explains. “We wanted to make moments of suspense and tension by pre-empting what he was going to do. For us that was very difficult – you never know what he’s going to do, because it’s all down to what the player is doing.”

So to craft a soundscape, the team needed a logic system as dynamic and fluid as the player’s erratic nemesis, as Cooper notes: “We had interactive systems driving the mix as well as scripting, so we’d have variables which could adapt the mix and the score at the same time to create a dynamic range.”

“We created these values called ‘stealth’ and ‘threat’, which told us how stealthy the player was being or how much threat they’re under, and those values remix the music in real time to help drive suspense,” Bullock explains. “For example, if the player is hiding under a table as the alien is moving past them, the context-driven system will change the music so you get rising strings as the alien is coming past, and it lowers sounds of the atmosphere to concentrate on the player’s and the alien’s sounds to create focus.”

The game is distinguished in gaming media for its use of sound, and this is due in part to the studio-wide collaborative nature of its development. “I haven’t worked on a game where they wanted sound involved so early and having sound inform aspects of the design or the art,” notes Cooper.

Looking ahead

And as the next-gen of hardware opens up more avenues for sound design, Bullock opines on its future: “It’s becoming more accessible for more indie developers. Some of the tools to create good game sound are becoming relatively affordable to licence, so I think we’ll start to see more good-sounding games. And triple-A budgets are becoming bigger so the expectation on the sound team becomes bigger, and ultimately that will make the games sound better.”