Tom Salta has always loved scaring people. His composer’s catalog of video-game soundtracks spans numerous styles and series – from Deathloop and Halo to Prince of Persia and Need For Speed. But horror has held a skeletal grip on his heart since long before his career in game music began. In his childhood, Salta spent days crafting haunted houses to scare friends and family. Now, he’s terrorizing gamers across the globe.
Salta’s most recent creation, the soundtrack to the cooperative horror game The Outlast Trials, is pure, painful dread – a score which peels away the nerves until little more than a frayed mess remains. Mixing orchestral compositions with sound effects like breaths, dripping water, and the scrape of metal, it taunts and teases the mind. Begs players to question whether the dangers are real, or just in their headphones.
“Music is just another language, and it's the language of emotion,” Salta says. “So when we talk about horror and we talk about music and video games? That’s a bucket list item for me, scoring a game like this to create the emotion of pure terror.”
With the official soundtrack to The Outlast Trials now haunting the internet (and soon on it way to vinyl), we spoke with Salta to discuss his long-term love of the genre and how to define the bloody blueprint of a horror game soundtrack.
Blurring the lines
Barring a couple of projects early in his career – retro fans, check out Still Life and Cold Fear – The Outlast Trials is Salta’s first major foray into the shadowed lands of gaming scares. Leaving a memorable imprint was therefore high on his priority list.
“Whenever I work on a score, it’s always really important to me that it has an immediately identifiable sound to it.” Salta says. “That you can listen to five seconds and you know instantly what game it is.…I wanted The Outlast Trials to have the uniqueness of the way that everything works together.”
To achieve that goal, Salta leaned into diegetic effects. The soundtrack regularly features uncomfortable and eerie ambient sounds that could, feasibly, be drawn directly from the locations that players are forced to navigate.
“In a score like this, it really allowed me to incorporate sound design into the music itself and to blur the line between where sound design ends and where music begins,” says Salta. “For example, on [the track Root Canal] if you listen closely, you hear some dripping and other sounds like a vacuum – a dentist’s vacuum. I did that with my mouth!
“[Developer Red Barrels] wanted the sound of the score to be very real and organic. They wanted it to be unnerving, sometimes claustrophobic. Unidentifiable, very bendy, very disorienting. For environments, I would ask them for adjectives to describe what we want to feel. So that the music almost had some of the soundscape baked into it in a way that would not conflict, but rather enhance while you play it.”
This philosophy led Salta to some unconventional sources of inspiration. For a level set in an orphanage he utilized sounds from Edison’s phonograph dolls, childhood toys from 1890 capable of playing recorded nursery rhymes.
It was a groundbreaking concept, but Build-A-Bear, these were not. Even at the time, children reportedly found the dolls scary. Over a century later, Salta has found a more fitting use for their voices. Back in the Root Canal level, players are subjected to an in-world song by Salta which encourages (or indeed threatens) children to brush their teeth.
“It just became this musical soundscape with sound and music and atmosphere all working together where you're there. That's one of the things I loved about music from when I was 10 years old.”
The challenge of interactivity
The horror genre wasn’t born in video games. But their fundamental interactivity adds a level of stress unique to the medium. A statement that applies to both players and composers.
“What makes video-game music different is the nonlinear experience,” says Salta. “In video-game music, we are scoring to possibility. In linear media you know exactly what's going to happen and you know the timing of everything. You know the entire narrative.
“In something like The Outlast Trials, you have a lot more work to do to craft an implementation mechanism that will ensure that when the player experiences the game, [the music] has the greatest impact.”
The solution in the case of The Outlast Trials comes in the form of the attention proximity system. Based on the player’s distance from danger or enemies, additional layers of music can be added or omitted. Adjustments based on a list of variables which only grows when multiplayer is added to the mix.
“Each player is going to hear the music differently based on their perspective,” Salta explains. “For example, if you are being chased versus your friend being chased in another room. The music has to inform you that a chase is going on, but he's not right on your tail.”
In some cases, Salta needed to create up to seven different layers for one track. So that no matter where the player is or what they’re doing, the music matches their gameplay. The result positions the player, in effect, as the conductor. Instruments fade in and out or ramp up to a crescendo based on their actions. The trick is not letting them become aware of it.
“As a composer and as an implementer, you never want the player to feel that they're in control.” Salta says. “Because once you feel that – if I step over here, this music happens – you ruin the immersion.”
Now teaching masterclasses on video-game music production, Salta has come a long way from piecing together home-made horror shows in his back yard. But the thrill of seeing others shriek and shout in response to his work has never faded. And modern technology has offered the next best thing to being there in person.
“This is the first time that I ever went on Twitch to watch people playing a horror game that I did the music for,” Salta admits. “It was so much fun to see people around the world playing. A lot of them are in the dark. You see the light glowing on their face and you see the fear! It's the same thing when I see people going through a haunted house that I made. They're immersed in this world that you've created. I got a big kick out of it.
“And what also was so gratifying was to see people around the world in different languages. I didn't even know what they were saying. But the language of music is universal, so I could see the emotion that they were experiencing. It doesn't matter what they were saying, I could see it.”
So the next time you find yourself whimpering in a corner during The Outlast Trials, just remember: Salta might be watching.
Our thanks to Tom Salta for taking the time to speak with us. Learn more about his work by visiting his website or discover his personal favorite video-game soundtrack in our recent edition of Composer’s Choice. The Outlast Trials is available now in Early Access on Steam. Listen to the full soundtrack on Spotify, Apply Music, iTunes, and more here.