When I’m not running around playing rock journalist, my day job is as senior director at Behaviour Interactive, an independant video game developer based in Montreal, Canada. I oversee a talented team of sound designers and musicians who are responsible for every bit of audio you hear in our games. The company has just released “Dead by Daylight” on Steam, a PC asymmetrical horror game in which one player plays as a killer while four others try to survive and escape to safety.
This is a game that was a long time coming, with various incarnations floating around the office over the years. It kept evolving until it became what it is now. Assigned to make this game come alive through audio was sound designer Frédéric Poirier, an 8 year veteran of the Behaviour audio team. Frédéric had never worked on a horror game, but he had shown a dedication to researching thoroughly every project he’d worked on. He is also an expert at designing audio systems, so he seemed like an ideal candidate. Horror is a dream genre for a sound designer, and the prospect of making this twisted world come alive really excited him.
Early on, while he worked on the sound effects and audio systems for the game, we had many discussions about what the music should sound like. Frédéric immersed himself in horror films and horror scores, from the classics to contemporary movies. We quickly agreed that this game wouldn’t be served by a conventional horror score, so we went looking for the most off the wall scores we could find. I suggested some from my collection, and he trawled YouTube for videos exploring many musical genres. “I wanted to avoid sounding like any horror franchise out there,” Frédéric says. “It couldn’t sound like ‘Friday the 13th’ or ‘Halloween’ or ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’.”
Frédéric experimented with dubstep, metal (from thrash to progressive metal) and industrial. He quickly rejected anything not organic. “I thought that ‘metal dubstep’ would drive the aggression nicely, but it turned out to be too artificial,” he admits. “Whatever style we would adopt needed to be well adapted to an interactive score,” he adds. “The classic horror scores use a lot of long sustained notes and that wouldn’t work with what we were trying to build.”
While he really connected with what Mick Gordon did on ‘Doom’ and ‘Wolfenstein’, Frédéric fell in love with the music of Steve Jablonsky, especially his horror scores. His style of blending sound design, industrial music and metal became the blueprint from which we’d create the music of “Dead By Daylight”. We briefly toyed with the idea of hiring Jablonsky himself, but we never received a reply to a message sent to his Facebook page. We never pursued the idea further.
Choosing a composer
We’ve been fortunate to work with fantastic composers over the years. My usual process is to narrow the selection down to 2, maybe 3 composers we think are well suited for a project. I hate cattle call pitch processes; in fact I think that only once in my 17 years at Behaviour have I ever asked more than 3 composers to pitch on a project. The final choice is as democratic as possible, involving the project’s key creative personnel.
For “Dead By Daylight”, I had a composer in mind. We’d worked with him a few times before, and he had shown a strong ability to experiment, work quickly and keep an open mind. I feared I’d have to convince Frédéric, but he walked into my office one day and suggested that very same name. “I don’t know who you have in mind,” he said, “but I’d really like to work with Michel F. April again.” Great minds think alike I guess.
The two of them had collaborated before on a project that couldn’t have been further from “Dead By Daylight”. Michel had done the music for “Disney’s Planes”, a game where he and Frédéric had hit it off creatively. “It was a real leap of faith from him,” recalls Michel. “We’d done ‘Disney’s Planes’ together which was completely different, and I had nothing remotely close to this in my portfolio.
Michel also went out of his way to avoid the horror cliches. “I purposely refrained from listening to any horror scores,” he explains. “I wanted us to find the game’s own vibe, one that would fulfill its needs. So I just experimented in the studio, creating new sounds until we found something we liked and that worked. I quickly realized I was in my comfort zone when I started detuning basses and guitars to try to create new sounds for this.”
“The first challenge we tackled was the interactive tracks,” recalls Michel. The main element that drives the interactivity in the game is your proximity to the killer (or your victims, depending on the role you play) and the pair spent time polishing their concept. “You can see it even in the YouTube videos: when proximity kicks in, players get excited and stressed. When I write music for a game, it’s never about my music for its own sake. The most important part is the user experience: how the player will react to the music.I don’t care if I have to rewrite a piece, or change the instrumentation. All I care about is if the players will react to it.”
“I ran a lot of my sounds through distortion pedals and over compression, and it created a lot of high frequency content that would blur the subtleties of the sound design,” Michel explains. Lowering the frequency range on every sound and concentrating on the low end helped carve out a sonic space for the music. Frédéric realized he could use the music’s frequency spectrum to the game’s advantage too. “We tied proximity to the high frequency content, in a way” he recalls. “When you’re far, there isn’t a lot of highs, but the closer you get the brighter the music gets.” “Proximity was the crucial element to get right” adds Michel. “Once we got that, the rest was a piece of cake!” he says laughing.
It was also important for the composer to understand the sound design of the game. The music could not exist in the same space as the sound effects, and could not communicate the same information. “In the beginning, Michel put in a lot of ambiance in his music, and it clashed with my sound design,” explains Frédéric. “It was difficult for him to feel the vibe of the game, alone in his studio.” Michel admits it wasn’t easy. “That’s why I asked Frédéric to play me what he had for the ambiance,” he recalls.”After that, it was a lot easier to understand what space I needed to occupy.”
“One thing we always tried to remember is that “Dead By Daylight” isn’t a horror game: it’s an action game with a horror theme” Frédéric says. “In a horror game, the scares are based on shocking moments, like jump scares. You trap the player in a controlled environment. In our game, we don’t control the fear factor. The music had to create fear through the mood, not the stingers.” “It’s constant tension,” the composer chimes in. “In “Dead By Daylight” you’re not scared sometimes, you’re scared ALL the time.”
In his quest for new sounds, Michel wasn’t afraid to use traditional instruments played in unorthodox manners. “I downtuned basses and guitars down to A flat; I couldn’t play them too hard because the strings were so loose! I played them with a pick, and ran the signal through a pre-amp. I also put a mic on the string itself to get the attack, and combined both. I played live percussions and ran them through multiple plugins. I also used timpani mallets to hit the soundboard of a small piano I have here. I then detuned the recordings in a sampler to keep the harmonic content intact. I had so much low end when mixing that the whole studio was shaking. I’m pretty sure I killed all my plants!”
As the game evolved, some of the music mechanics were tweaked and sometimes reworked entirely to remain relevant. Their close collaboration and daily Skype calls proved essential in maintaining the agility needed to adapt, as Frédéric explains. “There is so much interactivity in this score that we needed to be in constant communication to make sure we supported it correctly.” The team also wanted an element of randomness to keep players on their toes. “For every situation,” explains Michel, “there might be 3 or 4 tracks that can play. Even if you play for 30 hours, you won’t get bored. In the game you don’t know what the other characters will do; we wanted the keep the players guessing about the music too.”
In the end, the music plays a large part of the experience of ‘Dead By Daylight’. While players are concentrating on their ingame opponents, the music acts on their subconscious. It keeps them on edge and maintains a climate of fear: you’re never really safe in this game. “The music in ‘Dead by Daylight’ is beautifully woven into the atmosphere and the sounds of the environment,” says the game’s producer Mathieu Côté. “From the first days of the project we aimed to create intense, genuine emotions in our players, and a huge part of the success we achieved is due to the quality of the audio experience.”
You can buy ‘Dead By Daylight’ and the game’s soundtrack on Steam.
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He's also a regular contributor at the very rad site Montreal Rampage