Sound & Horror in Video Games: The Perfect Synergy.

In the theoretical framework, I covered various concepts beneficial for understanding and analyzing sound’s function in video games from a ludological and narratological point of view.

The theoretical framework is by no means exhaustive. It depends on what you want to analyze.

Fx, I don’t include musical notation, which is necessary in many cases for analyzing video game music. I also don’t include cultural or genre theory, which is needed to understand the cultural impact of video game sound on different demographics.

But one of my points was that we must take a holistic approach to analyzing sound video games and not dig ourselves into a ludological or narratological trench.

Video games are – after all – transmedial multimedia, and, as such, they require a broad analytical approach that draws on many different academic disciplines to be fully understood.

So the framework I’ve presented is just that: a framework, i.e., something we can use as a basis for video game sound analysis – especially its function and meaning in games.

We will need to draw on relevant concepts when needed, and in this article, I’ll do just that while using the theoretical framework as a foundation.

To put the framework to the test, I’ve chosen to look at horror games because sound plays a major role in this particular genre when it comes to conveying meaning and gameplay information to the players.

What is a horror video game?

Horror stories have fascinated humans through millennia.

But what most identify as the horror genre we know today has its roots in Gothic literature in the 1900th century.

The 1900th century spawned a plethora of Gothic horror novels that are considered classics today, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

The genre became more popular as new media, such as movies and video games, became available. And it has split into multiple subgenres, such as psychological, gore (splatter film), and supernatural horror.

Recurring horror menaces include ghosts, zombies, serial killers, demons, vampires, extraterrestrials, cults, torture and rape, evil witches, apocalyptic events, and dystopic societies and futures.

Through the decades, horror tropes have been established, and most have spilled over into video games.

So, what do we expect from a video game within the horror genre?

Common horror conventions in video games

To better understand why sound is so important in horror games, let’s first look at some horror tropes in video games.

Below are some typical horror tropes that depend on sound to be the most effective.

  1. Jump Scares: Sudden loud noises or visuals that startle the player.
  2. Environments with low visibility: Horror games often occur in dark, eerie environments that add to the tension and fear the player experiences.
  3. Monsters and creatures: Horror games often feature terrifying monsters and creatures the player must avoid or defeat.
  4. Gore and violence: Many horror games feature graphic depictions of violence and gore, adding to the shock value of the game.
  5. Puzzle-solving: Horror games often require the player to solve puzzles to progress, adding a sense of accomplishment and challenge to the experience.
  6. Open-world exploration: Some horror games feature open-world exploration, allowing players to explore and discover new environments and secrets. Players are often given limited ammunition, health, or other resources, making survival more difficult.
  7. Eerie soundscape: Often, the overall atmosphere or mood in the video game is enhanced by an eerie soundscape.

Let’s break them down one by one in more detail.

Jump scares

Critical for jump scares is that it has to startle the player. It appears suddenly, without warning, and makes the player jump in the seat of their gaming chair.

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Jump scares a highly dependent sound to be the most effective. Combined with a startling visual cue, the sound helps penetrate your defenses and trigger your adrenaline to get you battle-ready – whether that means flight, fight, or freeze is up to you.

Fx, you walk down a dark hallway in complete silence. Suddenly, you’re attacked by a monster coming out of nowhere. The monster wouldn’t be nearly as frightening if some sound didn’t accompany it.

Jump scare sounds are often short and loud with no build-up. They need to be explosive to startle the player without any forewarning. In other words, they need to appear suddenly and in synchronicity with the graphics on the screen to be the most effective.

Jump scares must be used sparingly. When used too often, players become accustomed to them and lose their startling effect.

Fx, when I played Left 4 Dead for the first time, I jumped up from my seat the first time I met a horde, the Tank, or when the Witch attacked me.

But because these events happen so frequently in the game, I soon grew accustomed to them, and they lost their effect.

Since L4D has short levels and high replayability, this is natural. But it holds for more narrative-driven video games as well. If the game developer overuse jump scares, they’ll lose their effect.

Jump scares don’t always happen to be in sync with a dangerous event in the game. They can effectively keep the player on the edge of their seats, thus keeping up the suspense.

Good examples of this can be found within the Alien franchise.

Fx Aliens Versus Predator 2 (2001) and Alien: Isolation (2014).

In Aliens Versus Predator 2, the player (when playing as a Marine) has to walk for a long time without meeting any aliens or predators. But you know they’re out there, as your scanning device keeps telling you with its frantic sonar’ish beeping, and they can attack you any time.

A similar setup is used in Alien: Isolation. The more you walk without meeting enemies, the more the suspense builds.

Both games startle you with “false flag” jump scares – fx from a steam pipe, which suddenly comes loose right in front of you, followed by a hissing sound from the steam blowing out into the narrow corridor.

When used sparingly like this, jump scares are extremely effective at keeping the player on the edge of the seat.

Environments with Low Visibility

One thing that makes horror games so scary is that they limit the player’s visibility. This can be through darkness, fog, a distorted vision, and similar effects.

It’s precisely because this sound becomes essential, i.e., when you can’t see, you must depend on your other senses.

Thus, sound cues become your way of “seeing” the environment, and they carry diegetic and extra-diegetic gameplay-relevant information to the player.

Monsters and Creatures

Sound help gives “body” to the nasty monsters and creatures in video games. Because sound waves spread into the 3D environment of the player, it is as if the monsters pop out of the 2D gaming monitor and into the player’s room.

Game sound designers are great at utilizing already-established horror movie tropes and foley techniques, which often mimic real-world sounds.

Deep rumbling sounds or heavy “thuds” help sell the illusion that the monster on screen is large and heavy. Fx the Tank is in the L4D franchise.

Hissing sounds and screams give the impression that the monster is fierce, aggressive, and sometimes venomous. Fx a zombie horde or snake.

The sound of a monster might be the only clue the player gets that something evil is lurking in the shadows.

L’acousmêtre – an evil being heard but not seen.

In his book Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, film theorist Michel Chion operates with the concept of l’acousmêtre, which is beneficial in this context.

The neologism is French and combines the words acousmatic [acousmatique] and “être”. Acousmatic sound is where you can’t see the source; être means being/existence.

Thus l’acousmêtre refers to an acousmatic being that can be heard but not seen.

The being is diegetic and not a form of extradiegetic voice-over narrator. This is because the being is in the same timeframe as the diegesis. In contrast, as a commentator, a voice-over narrator always refers to something already occurring.

So l‘acousmêtre should not be confused with a voice from, for example, a radio in a film, which is also acousmatic and diegetic. We do not expect to see the person behind the radio voice, as it naturally exists as an acousmatic ether medium.

L’acousmêtre has the ability to always evade the camera and remain outside the picture, which helps to give it divine powers.

The being is often portrayed as evil and is often used in horror and thriller movies, where during the film, it transforms from existing exclusively off-screen to gradually being revealed and visible on-screen.

The being thus also goes from existing exclusively acousmatic to becoming worldly and embodied (a form of ‘de-acclimatization,’ thereby becoming vulnerable, and can finally be killed at the end of the film.

Think of the alien in Alien: Isolation (2014), which is notoriously off-screen (but you can hear it) until the shit hits the fan.

Or think of the audio cues you get when you hear the special infected in L4D2. You can hear The Boomer, The Smoker, or the Hunter is out there somewhere, but often you don’t see them before it’s too late.

Gore and Violence

As with monsters, video game sound designers also use established horror movie tropes to sell the games’ gore and violence.

Examples include splatter sounds, flesh sounds, and weapon sounds.

Horror video game sound designers use many tricks that sound designers and foley movie artists use when creating horror films.

Fx, crushing watermelons to create the sound of skulls cracking and smashing.

Large video game developers can afford foley artists to create the sounds in their video games, such as in this example starring Joanna Fang, who created the sound for God of War Ragnarök (Santa Monica Studio) from 2022.

Smaller indie studios often have to rely on samples they’ve licensed and rework to fit their game (fx by stacking multiple samples together to create a specific sound).


Horror games often require the player to solve puzzles to progress, and sounds can help guide the player in the right direction. Or sounds can stress the player, making solving a puzzle more difficult.

A good example of the latter is the game Hello Neighbor (2017) by Dynamic Pixels. You have to solve puzzles and sneak past your spooky neighbor to get into his basement and uncover his dark secrets.

As you try to complete the puzzles, you can hear your spooky neighbor walking around, and if he sees you, music similar to the theme from the movie Jaws or the ostinato from Space Invaders starts playing.

The music works as trandiegetic external warning and is thus part of the metaphorical interface, and it sure gets the player’s stress levels up.

Open-world exploration

With the advancement of computer processing power and storage space, horror games have evolved from fixed-camera angles and linear stories (like the Lovecraftian survival horror game Alone in Dark (1992) into large sandbox scenarios (like DayZ (2018) or even Minecraft (2011)).

While there might still be a central story based on a series of “main quests” in open-world exploration survival horror games, the player is free to piece together the story. Some games allow you to roam around and focus on survival, and you don’t have to complete any main or side quests if you don’t want to.

Sound cues are important in informing players about the environment in games such as these (is it a friend, fiend, or food?).

3D sound localization is also important (where is the sound coming from?).

Take, for instance, the sound of spiders, creepers, or zombies you can hear behind the rocks when you mine down into the deep in Minecraft. They tell you to be careful because enemies are nearby and convey information about the terrain, i.e., there’s probably a cave in that particular direction.

While some survival games focus on solitude, in others, you have to work as a team to stand a chance for survival (check out some examples of co op horror games.)

Eerie soundscape

Like the scores and soundscapes in movies, horror video games also use background music to help set the mood.

But because video games are interactive, so is the music, which changes based on the player’s behavior.

As such, what would be an extradiegetic soundtrack in a horror movie carries gameplay-relevant information to the player. Fx is when the intensity of the music increases as you get closer to an enemy.

Thus, the eerie soundscape in horror games is part of the game frame and can be categorized as trandiegetic external within the narratological discourse and as part of the metaphorical interface as part of the ludological discourse.

In Closing

I’ve briefly touched upon why sound is so important in horror video games in this article. I’ve also applied the theoretical framework of Part XIII of this article series to show how you can describe these sounds’ spatial integration and function within the narratological and ludological discourse.

As you can see, this framework only addresses these two aspects of video game sound analysis and doesn’t account for other musicological or film theoretical tools.

I still find them useful in describing the many layers and functions of sound in video games and their interactive nature while simultaneously bridging the narratological and ludological divide.

In my next article, I’ll analyze one of my favorite snowboard games – SSX Deadly Descents.

Until next time, happy gaming!

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Jan has played video games since the early 1980s. He loves getting immersed in video games as a way to take his mind off stuff when the outside world gets too scary. A lifelong gamer, the big interest led to a job as a lecturer on game sound at the University of Copenhagen and several written articles on video games for magazines.

Read more on the About Page.