What does safety sound like in a game? We spend a lot of time as players thrilling over compositions and effects that get the adrenaline flowing – spectral piano, frantic violins, ambient mitherings that might, if you’re very lucky, just be a broken aircon – but what about the compositions and effects that soothe and reassure? The Resident Evil series is full of them: bundle together every last Save Room melody and you’ve got a half-decent yoga playlist, though I’d probably chuck in some Okami or whatever to lift the mood. Gears of War has that satisfied guitar purr when you’ve winkled out every last Locust. The Sunless games have their port themes, wafted to you from off-screen like smoke on the breeze – music indeed to the captain coasting home on their last few lumps of coal.
And what of Song of Horror, Protocol’s absorbing homage to the Silent Hills and Alone in the Darks of yesteryear? In Song of Horror, safety is a soft tap, right on the edge of hearing, like somebody very carefully setting down a glass. All being well, you’ll hear it after a few seconds when you put your ear to a door. The tap, which surely represents a lot of calculation on the part of the audio designer, is a vital cue in a game where silence has many textures. Sometimes, silence sounds like silence. And sometimes, it sounds… bonier. Squelchier. As though you had your ear pressed against a misbehaving stomach. In which case, opening that door is… unwise. Better to switch to your map screen, work out another route, and hope like hell that when next you put your ear to a door, the tap is all you can hear.
Now three of five episodes in, Song of Horror is a third-person, combat-free spookfest with automatic camera perspectives and a refreshing taste for the procedural. Players rove dark, abandoned buildings solving puzzles while evading various ambient threats known collectively as the Presence. Snooping at doors is crucial because said threats – which kill off characters forever, should you fail the associated QTEs – are ever-changing, assuming different forms at different times in different places, based on a mixture of loose scripting and monitoring of player behaviour. You’re hurrying down some stairs, brandishing a candlestick like the shotgun you sorely wish you had, when oily black handprints blossom all over the walls. You’re inspecting a desk when something bandaged and breathy pops up on the other side of it, snuffling for your blood.