Echoes in the dark: Sound, silence, and claustrophobia in VIGIL

You might not have heard of VIGIL, a first person sci-fi thriller that puts all the emphasis on atmosphere, exploration, and narrative. That’s okay though, because you have now,...

You might not have heard of VIGIL, a first person sci-fi thriller that puts all the emphasis on atmosphere, exploration, and narrative. That’s okay though, because you have now, and it’s about to leap to the top of your “Jesus Christ I need that in my life” list.

Yeah, there it goes.

Developed by indie outfit Recluse Industries, and unbelievably still without a publisher, VIGIL is the studio’s first ‘big’ title. Unashamedly inspired by movies such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Duncan Jones’ Moon, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it’s no surprise to find that VIGIL is overflowing with dark, brooding purpose.

Even less surprising is the fact that we haven’t stopped thinking about the game since the first trailer landed months ago. So, in a bid to quench our thirst for knowledge, and to satisfy our own morbid curiosities, we caught up with Recluse Industries’ creative director, Martin Wheeler, to find out more about the studio’s dystopic vision.

Side One: First of all, would you be able to tell us a little bit more about VIGIL? What’s the game’s angle?

Martin: In VIGIL the player is awoken from hibernation, suffering from amnesia. He finds himself alone in a gigantic building, with just the computer, IRIS, for company. Disturbing visions of a child haunt him, visions which IRIS explains as the side-effects of cryogenic suspension. When the player discovers a child’s teddy bear in a sealed off chamber his suspicions about IRIS are confirmed and he realises he is a prisoner of the computer. At that point the honeymoon period is well and truly over and the player must embark on a mission to uncover the truth behind his captivity.

What inspired you to start working on VIGIL? I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I thought the first trailer was very Kubrick-esque.

Thanks, that’s a huge compliment. VIGIL is a first person sci-fi thriller inspired by movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bladerunner, and Moon. It’s also influenced by Fumito Ueda’s Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus. With VIGIL I hope to capture some of the epic loneliness of those titles, as well as the claustrophobia of being constantly watched. In some ways, I think VIGIL is a bit like a futuristic version of Stephen King’s Misery.

You’ve explained that VIGIL will put an emphasis on atmosphere, but how will you be using sound to achieve that?

Because of VIGIL’s bleak and lonely setting, I knew sound would be an important factor in bringing the environment to life.

A deserted corridor feels much more engaging when there is a background ambience. So even when we’re somewhere totally lifeless, there’s always the subtle throb of distant machinery, as well as positional audio such as lights having that little buzz as they flicker on and warm up.

Another layer that gives the environment credibility is the ambient reverb, which is effected procedurally, rather than being pre-defined defined reverb zones. In VIGIL, the distance around the player is constantly fed into the reverb’s falloff, so when you enter a lift the space becomes tight and contained, and when the lift arrives and the door opens onto a long corridor you get this long tail-off as the door clangs open. The reverb is constantly changing to fit the shape of your environment, which gives the spaces in the game a sense of connectedness and realism.

On a practical level it eliminates a lot of manual work too – there’s simply no need to set up a load of reverb areas in Unity’s scene editor, and then spend ages tweaking them by ear.

Will sound also impact gameplay?

Sound is used in a dynamic way in certain situations. There are proximity detectors that change pitch as you approach, emitting a higher frequency when you are near. There are segments that task the player with moving stealthily to avoid detection, so by making sounds respond to the player’s presence the atmosphere and tension is heightened.

When you approach a laser beam you can feel the proximity audibly, which again adds to the atmosphere. Of course, lasers are silent in reality, but in this case I think artistic license is allowable.

What was the most challenging part of the sound design process – how did you capture audio, what tools did you use?

I captured a lot of the foley FX using my Edirol R-09, which I’ve used for field recordings for years. The ladder climbing sounds are actually the sound of me sliding and bumping up against a big metal filing cabinet. I also recorded footsteps in water by filling the bathtub and walking on the spot in it. Mechanical sounds like lights buzzing and engines humming were generated in Reason or Ableton Live.

I also found a lot of placeholder sounds using sites like The challenging part is often the more mundane aspects of audio mixing – making sure levels and EQ feel natural, and that loops are smooth and click free.

Why design a game that relies so heavily on atmosphere? Do you think it’s something the industry is lacking?

With VIGIL’s theme of escape, we could have gone for a frantic ‘avoid robot sentries and dodge the constant threat of death’ experience, but that idea felt too in-your-face. I think it’s important to leave space for the player’s imagination, and to build things up slowly.

So, although the game is by no means a ‘walking simulator’, it takes a while to build up the tension and danger. I felt that if we pressured the player from the outset it would mean losing out on the pleasure of simply exploring and uncovering things in your own time. I think that’s something the games industry has really embraced recently.

Will the game have a soundtrack, and if it does, will it get a release further down the line?

I’ve released five albums of electronica as Vector Lovers,  and I’ll certainly be recording a Vector Lovers soundtrack for VIGIL. I’ve also had interest from other artists about the possibility of scoring tracks for the game, so we’ll see how that develops.

You’ve confirmed VIGIL will be heading to PC, but can console owners expect to get their hands on it at some point?

That’s certainly on our radar – we’re talking to publishers at the moment about releasing on other platforms.

Thanks to Martin for his time. To find out more about VIGIL and Recluse Industries’ other projects, follow the team on Twitter or check out their website.