Horrible Noise – How Corpse Party Scars With Simple Sounds
The sound of a rope pulling tight. A gush of fluid, followed by a wet, dribbling noise. A blade cutting through meat. All very ordinary sounds, but given the right context and spotlight, these may haunt you for a long, long time. Something that Corpse Party, the chilling adventure where a group of teens find themselves trapped in a dangerously-haunted school after a ritual gone awry, excels at.
Corpse Party’s audio design elevates a solid horror experience into a masterpiece of terror and gore, capturing the sounds of violent ends with such believability that I find it difficult to play the game again. There is a sickening reality to each death – a painstaking effort that went into making every agonizing sound feel uncomfortably real, and with it, each end feels all the more brutal despite the cute pixel art characters that are the victims.
It’s the ordinariness of the sounds that seems to make them so horrifying. That we might catch them while digging in the garden or cooking in the kitchen one day, and find our thoughts shooting back to the gruesome ends of a handful of teens. These sounds, when combined with the game’s ruthless storytelling, make for a game that will stick with players long after they’ve managed to escape its blood-soaked halls.
Corpse Party’s tiny little pixel characters, with their bright, giant eyes and stubby forms, don’t exactly seem like they belong in a game this violent. They feel like they’ve wandered out of some childhood SNES game, capturing an innocence with their appearance that caught me completely off-guard once the game began to viciously slaughter them.
I was equally unprepared for the writing, with its gut-clenching attention to detail. “Somehow or another, Naomi found herself with a large pair of sewing scissors in her hand. Her mouth was agape, and she was lowering the opened scissors into it as if intending to swallow them whole.”
“(I can feel the scissor blades clanging against my molars…and I can hear it, too…)”
That small detail about the scissor blades tapping against Naomi’s teeth turned a gory sequence into something with a deeply disturbing feeling of reality. You can hear it when they describe the act, don’t you? That little metallic ping as the blades bump into the back of your teeth as you struggle to open the blades wide enough to wrap them around your tongue? It’s so faint in my imagination, but the visualizing of that sound made me think about the feeling of those blades prodding around, the dull scrape of the steel as my tongue wriggled to get out of its path. You can taste the coppery blood as the blades begin to find purchase, first pinching, and then something far worse.
You don’t have to imagine the sound, though, because Corpse Party plays the faintest metallic tapping noise as the blade works its way around the character’s mouth. Every tap felt like it pulsed through my body as I heard it, loaning the narrative moment with this disturbing sense of reality.
Have you ever gotten that twinge in your body while watching someone else get hurt? That odd sense of physical empathy and understanding that comes from seeing someone get hurt. I could feel those same prickles of comprehension and horror – like my body was preparing itself for that same pain – as I heard those faint sounds.
It’s a familiar sound. Just metal tapping against something solid. It brought about a laser focus on this moment of horror and agony in the scene, forever connecting an innocuous sound with a sickening moment in Corpse Party. One of many more that would come.
I feel that this connection gives us a good indication of why the sound and writing combine to make things so disturbing in this game. Corpse Party dances between the impossibly violent narrative and the very-possible normalcy of sound (well, maybe I only wish this level of violence were impossible). It gives you a gruesome situation with its story, then takes a sound that is quite normal and adds it to the scene. Running fluids, cutting, a shovel digging in the dirt – these are all quite normal sounds that many of us hear often, but when combined with the text, they make something that twists in the guts.
Take, for example, a sequence where one of the characters is buried alive. “Ooh, oolph! *spit* St-stop! Dirt, and gravel…from above?)” This text is accompanied by the sound of dirt sliding off of a shovel, raining down on the ground. Again, if you’ve ever done any digging, you’ve heard this ordinary sound. Nothing about it is too frightening. Combining it with this text makes for a nightmarish vision you won’t likely forget.
Being buried alive is a terrifying prospect. Alone in a coffin you cannot escape, dirt weighing the lid down and keeping you trapped. What sound do you think you hear as you’re buried, though? A muffled sound of shoveling, with dirt crashing against the lid. But Corpse Party takes it a step further, having some of the dirt pouring into the coffin and the character’s mouth for that little extra dose of horror. It’s an innocent sound, normally, but when combined with the scene, it makes for a vivid image despite showing no visuals for the scene at all.
“My mouth is getting totally filled up…Ulch, blargh…Sh…Shtp…*choke* Top ith…”
The game continually finds new ways to make these sounds work in its horrifying situations. At one point, a thin wire cleaves its way through two of the student protagonists, leaving us to listen to the sound of a thick liquid pouring out. You hear something wet moving around as each character breathes their last. It’s utterly disgusting, but the sheer normalcy of the sound in this abnormal situation makes the horror of it al feel so real. You can hear the wire cutting through, the skin loose and bloody as it gives way, losing its ability to hold organs and bones inside any more. It’s sickening, and yet the sound is such a simple thing.
A crack sound is used to similar gruesome effect in another of the game’s Wrong Ends (endings where you’ve made a bad decision somewhere and will have to restart from the chapter’s beginning). When one character is pushed down a few stairs, it doesn’t seem like much of a fall, visually. That ‘crack’ noise implies that something awful has happened in the tumble, with the character meeting a slow, painful, gory end.
“In addition to multiple broken bones all throughout his head and neck, ***’s rib cage shattered on impact and pierced his lungs. As he convulsed and writhed in an ever-growing puddle of his own blood and internal fluids, his vision hastily grew dark. The last thing he saw…was a figure with wide, empty eyes and an unnatural smile stretched across the length of its face, rocking slowly back and forth in admiration of its own handiwork.”
This sequence, on top of using that oh-so-ordinary crack sound, is strengthened by another aspect of the game’s sound: its incredible voice actors. The people who voiced the characters of Corpse Party threw themselves into their roles, bringing some powerful shows of emotion and friendship through their stunning acting. Their cries of horror, the way they shout for lost friends, or their unstable laughter add further weight to each scene, making the grim effects of the hauntings feel more disturbing.
In the falling scene, while the writing was sickening, it was the sounds that the character’s voice actor was making that emphasized the damage done to their body in the fall. The way he gurgles and gags, the strained retching and sounds of fluids being expelled. I didn’t need to read a single thing about the fall to know that he’d suffered terribly and that his body was broken beyond all repair. I just had to listen to every stomach-churning sound as I waited for this scene to end. But this game rarely makes death brief, always lingering in every disturbing sound as it pummels you with the power of its violence and destruction.
Corpse Party never lets up with these wet, crunching, breaking noises. It isn’t long before you find yourself standing over a friend’s corpse, spitting out something with a deafening, damp plop. Soon after, we’re treated to the sound of something wet being broken apart, something snapping and tearing and crunching in the process. Splatters, and something like sobbing in the pitch black of an empty screen. It’s a horrifying meal that I can still hear when I think about it. Or if I ever pay too much attention to the noise when I’m eating ribs.
These noises loan every situation an unsettling narrative weight, using their normalcy to somehow bring up things that are horrifying in the mind’s eye. It seems that these sounds are so close to normal that it takes very little effort to imagine the gross, horrifying events that are causing the sounds. It’s like the sound skews so close to real that it loans everything a presence in your own existence. It makes them feel real enough to burrow into your mind and load some everyday sounds in your existence with a terrifying power.
So what? Most horror titles have gross sound effects. Most have scary stories. Most even take the time to show you the violence. What makes Corpse Party different? I agree that pretty much all horror games use sickening sound and descriptions of dark events to get under the player’s skin, but many of them use visuals to achieve this effect more than sound or story. Video games are often a visual medium, and many horror games use visuals to terrify first and foremost. Many use sound and story as well, but few to as dramatic effect as Corpse Party.
Corpse Party’s developers show a flair for choosing a single aspect of the scene and picking the one sound that will capture what is happening. That single wet plop from a fallen mouthful of half-chewed human flesh, the flow of blood from the severed tongue, or the wet cracking of broken bones puncturing skin all stand out with little around them to take away from their impact. The sounds stand as the most impactful element in each scene, rather than as a part of it, and again, through their relative normalcy, they scar the mind with the game’s events. These sounds connect with these horrible acts in ways that make them truly stick with us.
Corpse Party uses writing and sound to make for vivid scenes of violence in a game whose visuals really shouldn’t be capable of it (although it does pull of some pretty gross stuff in places). In relying on the imagination with words and sound, though, it burrows into the mind and scourges it with the aftermath of these sickening scenes, setting up a place in your memories where you’ll be incapable of forgetting them for some time. As I said, sometimes when I hear meat being cut, or catch the wrong kind of cracking sound, or have to dig a hole in the yard, I find my mind coming back to this haunted school filled with innocent, cute kids and cannot help but be reminded of how these scenes made me feel.
These sounds, real as they are, disgust and terrify. They dig into something deep within my mind and body and make my stomach churn with their frightening realistic sound, yet the game’s visuals are calming enough that I still feel like I can move on through their disturbing actions. I’m intrigued and drawn into this frightening world through these visuals and the compelling story, but the sounds and story hold the real power to terrify me, both calling upon my imagination in different ways to torture me.
For this is what the most effective horror does. When we’re shown fake violence, many are capable of disconnecting that from reality. I don’t truly fear many horror movie figures because I believe they aren’t real. When I see a movie filled with gory effects, it becomes harder to immerse myself as I watched the fake injuries walk by.
But nothing about Corpse Party felt fake. Through writing married to thoughtful sound design, the game forced me to open up my imagination and really take these moments in. I could sense the stakes as I wandered the school halls. Could feel the danger when one of my student classmates began to cackle. Voice and sound and writing all came together to put my imagination to work, creating a fear in me of something I know isn’t real. But it sure sounded real, didn’t it?
I went into Corpse Party expecting a good horror game about some kids who find themselves in a terrifying supernatural situation. What I got was a lesson in how an attention to detail in sound and writing can make a game that sticks in your mind forever. Even now, when I hear a sharp blade cutting through meat, I cannot help but find my memory returning to this title and certain terrible things that happened in it.