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How the video game 'The Callisto Protocol' uses immersive audio to scare players

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THE CALLISTO PROTOCOL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You know they call Callisto the dead moon?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That sound is from the new horror video game The Callisto Protocol. It comes from the director of an acclaimed sci-fi horror game called Dead Space. NPR's Bryant Denton reports on how the sounds of the game are at least as scary as its gory visuals. So just a warning - we're going to play some of them next.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS FALLING)

BRYANT DENTON, BYLINE: In space, no one can hear you scream. What they don't tell you is that you can also be bitten, you can be impaled and sometimes your head might explode, among many other fates not suitable for the radio. So despite what the old tagline from the movie "Alien" says, you can hear death and dismemberment oh, so loud and clear in a new title, The Callisto Protocol. For the full experience of the game, you'll want to wear headphones to hear every little sound.

GLEN SCHOFIELD: It's a feature. It's a mechanic. It's a large percentage of a horror game.

DENTON: That's game director Glen Schofield. His game is set on a prison colony on one of Jupiter's moons, Callisto. And one day of incarceration at Black Iron Prison is enough for a lifetime, if you survive that long.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THE CALLISTO PROTOCOL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, inaudible).

DENTON: Oh, did I mention the viral outbreak turning prisoners into mutants?

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THE CALLISTO PROTOCOL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, grunting).

DENTON: But it's the atmosphere, not just the monsters, that make the game terrifying.

SCHOFIELD: You know, you can have brutality, but without the tension, without the atmosphere leading up to it, it's not as scary.

DENTON: Glen Schofield has been perfecting this technique for years. In 2008, he also directed the critically acclaimed Dead Space.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "DEAD SPACE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, grunting).

DENTON: In video games, sound is used to convey many different things. There's certain noises that let you know you gained a power up or an extra life or that you've taken damage, you're in danger or you died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, groaning).

DENTON: Horror games borrow the same tricks. But, of course, the sounds are creepier.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "HALF-LIFE")

MICHAEL SHAPIRO: (As G-Man) Rise and shine, Mr. Freeman.

DENTON: Menacing performances for an evil character, a special tune to warn you of an upcoming foe and startling sound effects to keep you on edge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONSTER CLICKING)

DENTON: Here's Schofield again.

SCHOFIELD: Everything is building up to something. What's tension without a scare at the end?

DENTON: A lot of that tension comes from the score and a special instrument called The Apprehension Engine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DENTON: Film composer Mark Korven had the device commissioned for scoring horror flicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DENTON: It's a Frankenstein of instruments, with strings, knobs and rods that can be pulled, scraped and strung for unsettling results.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DENTON: Combine that with grisly abominations and you end up with a terrifying soundscape. And it wouldn't be survival horror without the excessive and excruciating ways to die.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD SPLASHING)

DENTON: The game pulls no punches in this regard, with terrifying visual and audio cues to let you know that you've failed yet again.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD SPLASHING)

DENTON: So you're probably wondering, why would anyone subject themselves to this? For me, it's all part of the genre. It can be brutal. It can be discouraging. But it's still fun. And when you beat the game, you feel a sense of relief. So after each death, you'll pick that controller back up anyways, and you'll fight for your life until...

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD SPLASHING)

DENTON: Oh, my God. Yeah. This is a bad one.

For NPR News, I'm Bryant Denton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bryant Denton