A big part of horror is what you don’t see, the monster lurking around the edges of your vision, just out of reach. Whatever is in your head is almost certainly scarier than reality, and because of this, sound is a big part of horror, helping make what you can’t see even more terrifying. Noises crawl into your brain, a warning that something just out of sight is near and it's coming to get you. This is especially true in the new indie game Noct. With its low-fi, black-and-white presentation, it doesn’t necessarily look scary, despite the gigantic horrors lurking in its wasteland. But thanks to its haunting soundtrack, created in part by Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck, the pixelated world is elevated to a new level of terror. "We contrasted the barren scape with a glimmer of hope, hanging in the distance, tied to something just beyond sight," explains Finck.
Noct takes place in some sort of barren world where few humans remain and radiated monsters dot the landscape. You view the world from a top-down perspective, and the gritty visuals look like they’re being rendered through some sort of thermal vision goggles. You can scrounge the remnants of the post-apocalyptic world for supplies like new weapons, and there’s even a multiplayer component; you’ll occasionally come across other players, and you can decide whether to work together or not. The one constant is the huge, disturbing terrors that will spring out at you, forcing you to run or fight. I often found myself trying to stay close enough to the monsters so that I knew where they were, but far enough away so that they couldn’t see me. This usually didn’t end well.
The game started life when designer Chris Eskins tried to make a zombie game to play with his friends. He stumbled on the idea of using a thermal imaging camera as a viewpoint, and that helped set the tone for the entire experience. "The end result was this lonely detached perspective which was very unique, and the rest of the game world kinda just evolved from that visual style," Eskins says. The game raised more than $30,000 on Kickstarter last September, and earlier this week Noct launched as an early access title on Steam. While it looks simple, it’s a game that’s incredibly tense to play — and a lot of that has to do with the soundtrack. "It all comes down to atmosphere," says Eskins. "One of the coolest components present in Noct for me is the music."
The soundtrack was a collaborative effort between Finck and composer Pedro "Worldclock" Pimentel. It was Finck’s first experience working on a game — he was introduced to the project through a friend at publisher Devolver Digital — and in fact he had little history with gaming at all. "It’s a blip outside of my confidence radar," he says. "I didn’t grow up gaming, so it is all very fresh for me." The two composers worked together remotely — Finck in California, Pimentel in Portugal — and shared tracks through regular Skype sessions. Each brought something different to the table. "It was always like Pedro's dark ambient tones seemed to be the ever-present evil, and Robin's epic guitar represents this somberness laced with moments of hopelessness," explains Eskins. "Together they have created a soundtrack which fits the game's visuals so well, I can't really see it being done any other way."
Noct doesn’t have the jump scares found in most horror games, but instead creates an ever-increasing sense of dread — the longer you play, the more tense things get, and the music helps build that sensation. "Without it, I don't think Noct would have the same tension fueled atmosphere, which is such an important aspect of horror gaming," says Eskins.