Dissolved and Playing With Fear
For over a decade, Glaswegian dark electronica genius Dissolved has been improving my films with his beautiful, disturbing and deeply layered ambient scores, so naturally he was the first choice to soundtrack my feature-length exploration of horror, Playing With Fear. An incredibly prolific composer and all-round horror expert, in this extended interview I ask him about his horror obsessions, his work, and his thoughts on the project:
What do you love about horror games?
It would be easy to list adjectives to try and gather up all the elements that appeal to me overall about horror games. But instead I’ll try and round it off. I’m a massive horror movie fan, which always help I suppose.
I think one of the things that does truly appeal over everything else is that horror games take it one step further, even though I may be sitting on the same couch and looking at the same TV playing as I do watching horror films, the fact I am now in control and I’m being placed right in the middle of it, instead of being an onlooker watching from behind a pillow.
Rather than shout at Characters on screen “Don’t go in to basement” or “JUST LEAVE THE HOUSE”, I can now do that with my keyboard or joypad and be hypocritical when I don’t follow my own advice I’m trying to give to the screen actors. Horror games feel like such a natural extension of the ghost train that many films try to be and through technology and writing, deliver experiences for me that simply aren’t replicable through any other medium. They present environments completely dreamt up and often ones that would be impossible. Those stick with me and sometimes enter my own dreams.
If they tried to make ‘Eternal Darkness’ for instance into a film, I’m sure I’d be bored stiff. But the game puts ME through those time periods, allows me to discover crazy spells and messes with my head through its sanity tricks while giving an engrossing story to boot.
Are slicker, higher budget horror games more satisfying than low budget or retro titles? Do the classics still have the power to scare us?
Recently, I’ve often questioned why I keep returning to slightly older titles to truly historic relics I remember in order to be satiated for my horror gaming fix. I think the answer is simple, despite all the glorious graphics and truly jaw dropping budgets for games, I can’t help feel a little let down or slightly empty playing through some of these grand new blockbuster titles. Many re-used game mechanics and seen it all before scares can bring down a title for gamers that are 127 like me. The titles that are truly inspiring and still deliver are those niche indie games that can retain their focus because they don’t have a team of 130 staff to worry about. When I get more joy from titles such as ‘Limbo’, ‘Home’ and ‘Amnesia’ I suppose it must mean I’m a gamer looking for originality but also games not overloaded with padding and additional fluff that doesn’t further or enhance the gameplay or atmosphere.
What is it about your favourite horror games that make them special for you?
Resident Evil remake (or REmake as its fondly called) on the Gamecube in my opinion is a modern masterpiece, it’s an anomaly that can still show these HD Remakes a thing or too, in an age where lots of titles are given the HD Treatment for the current gen platforms such as 360 and PS3 and it’s literally just that, the exact same title with a 1080p graphic overhaul with little to no additional game play additions (Windwaker HD on the WII U , I hold my glass to you for making a big effort to at least improve and make changes!), then Resident Evil Gamecube is still astonishing.
It showed that the little cube was a force to be reckoned with. Breathtaking pre-rendered backgrounds, beautiful lighting, top class reworkings of the classic music from the original Playstation game, brand new huge areas, re-worked puzzles, slightly less cheesy dialogue (not that I’m not a fan of that in the original!). The mansion in this version stuck in my mind for ages, I’d often just stand around looking at the rooms and watch Jill enter her “Bored” animation. I’ve completed it many times and still never get tired of it. Even now, when we’ve been spoiled by the lovely controls of later games like Resident Evil 4 which re-defined everything again, I find comfort in those old fashioned Tank Controls. It’s a HARD game too, no hand holding, it truly deserves it’s “Survival horror’ title and I think it’s safe to say that all those elements make it special to me to this day.
What’s your earliest horror gaming memory?
I’ve been thinking about this recently. I definitely didn’t have a typical gaming experience growing up and I would think it was the same for a lot of people. It was a case of playing bits and pieces on whatever machine you had or that your friends had and as a result, gaming was a very fragmented experience at the time. I did play arcade machines when they came around and that again was quite a pick and mix, there’d be a ‘visiting carnival’ that would come round each year to where I lived in Glasgow and they’d set up, as if by magic overnight and it was as shady and clanky as you’d expect. Papa Lazarou was maybe the only thing missing. Glorious really.
They had a set of walk-in trailer vans in which the sides would open up and each would be full of various arcade machines, all in various states of working order and repair. I was addicted to Tiger Heli, Pacman and Alien Syndrome. The first time seeing something like Alien Sydrome is burned indelibly in my mind, it was incredible. Being about 11, I’d learn to try and not stay on too long or be too good at an arcade or else a small group would appear behind you and make rumblings about you getting off soon or people shouting ‘shoot that one’ or ‘grab that!!’ at you.
Anyway, I think I can attribute my earliest ‘horror’ related game memories to the ZX Spectrum. It wasn’t my first machine, (which was the ZX81), in fact our first decent computer with full colour graphics and sound was the off beat and ill fated Oric Atmos by Tangerine Computer Systems. With 48k and with BASIC built in, it was similar to the Spectrum but without the nasty colour clash and better graphics.
But the Spectrum was really the machine that made me realise just how vast the range of game types were. It seemed that there were no limits to experimentation on that machine, crazy titles, unplayable weird nonsense, arcade clones, countless type-in adventures, simulators, everything really.
There was a little game called “Olli and Lisa: The ghost of Shilmore Castle”, a budget game and a kind of platformer/fetch object quest game with a tricky time limit mechanic. That was a game that really stuck with me, as primitive as the graphics look now, I felt like I was at that castle, I was totally taken in by the slightly cartoony graphics and since it was extremely difficult, I could barely make it to the 3rd screen most of the time, I just had to know what was past that screen! Bats, ghosts, weird sprites that you’d have to guess at. It was great.
Another title on a different machine that I think I can say was my first real jump into a deep game with a survival mechanic was the point and click adventure game ‘Mortville Manor’, an Amiga game by French company Lankhor. My friend had an Amiga 500 before I did and he’d have a varied supply of all sorts of games for it every couple of weeks. ‘Mortville Manor’ (in English) was one of those games I just put on one day by accident. It really grabbed me from the start, it used the Amiga’s built in speech synthesis which is hilarious to listen to now but at the time, it was slightly otherworldly.
You were an investigator sent to a snowbound mansion and had to investigate the death of the owner of the mansion by questioning the many guests there. You could search the rooms but if you were caught prying where you didn’t belong, you could be killed by an unknown guest in many different ways. It was incredibly atmospheric for its time with excellent static hand drawn graphics and scary atmospheric sound. Before I played ‘Alone in the Dark’ on the PC by the mid nineties, it was one title I kept coming back to. ‘Mortville Manor’ isn’t really ‘horror’ by any means but it does have that murder/mystery and survival element to it that brings it close to that realm.
What scares you personally?
I’m a bit claustrophobic which is pretty common I suppose. But I’ve always had an odd fear of very deep water, or water where you can’t see more than a few feet down, I don’t like submerged objects like sunken ships either, in murky water. Apparently, it’s a real phobia but I’m not sure of the name. I love horror and I’m not scared so much by films these days but I always loved ghost movies and when I was younger, films like ‘The Shining’ and ‘The Changeling’ definitely spooked me a bit. I think I’m still waiting for a new game to really push that element, of pure fear. The ‘Fatal Frame’ games really did a good job of that.
Tell us more about your music - when did you start making music and what inspires you to write?
I was very lucky to be brought up in a very musical family, so I was always surrounded by music, I had piano lessons when I was 5, Bob Dylan and Neil Young were always on the turntable, classical music on the radio, my brother always playing Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, my uncle’s and parents’ friends would often be round playing guitars and having folk evenings. It was a very rich environment for music really.
I taught myself guitar when I was about 10 and never stopped playing, and I still played piano from time to time. I played in bands formed at school, performing songs I’d written. On the side, I’d experiment a bit with recording myself playing my songs on guitar in my bedroom on a cheap tape deck (actually a datassette from my Spectrum that had a built in mic!) from there, I started to experiment a bit as I became interested in the lo-fi sound of the recordings themselves.
I discovered multi-tracking by setting up another tape deck (a short wave radio with built in tape!) and playing back what I’d recorded while playing over it in the same room, a common way a lot of people back then started I think. It was all as DIY as you could get, I didn’t read anything about music or recording and discovered a lot by accident and making a lot of mistakes. Some of the recordings came out pretty strange and that was inspiring, I knew I didn’t want to make music that was predictable. I started to mess with the tape speeds manually, tampering with the playback and recording at high speed to get extremely slow recordings.
I’d record a LOT of radio, shortwave and long wave signals and started to cut those up in to montages and made my first ‘tracks’ under the name Dissolved with those kind of sounds. I was getting heavily into much noisier and experimental music, Sonic Youth probably changed my life. I loved a lot of early electronic music John Peel was playing then, discovered Aphex Twin, loved the drum machine on New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Doktor Avalanche’ on the Sisters of Mercy albums.
From that early start, I progressed onto more interesting gear, picking up second hand synths and FX boxes and learning and experimenting with those throughout the 90’s. Recording on a Four Track recorder was a revelation, my sound improved and it probably made me a bit more controlled because I had to learn about structure. By around 1998, I started to use the Internet properly and having never really shared my music with anyone but friends, started to slowly put out individual tracks on sites like MP3.com (which was a fantastic platform for unsigned artists at the time) and through that, met people with similar mindsets who seemed to take home recording and experimenting seriously. It was the music and visual collective TEFOSAV which gave me my first real push and energy to take what I was doing a bit more seriously, these people were insanely talented and I realised I had a lot to learn. I self released some of my first CD’s at this time and released a lot of albums and EP’s online from 2000 to now, by myself and on various labels which has been a great learning experience.
In terms of inspiration, I can’t pinpoint exactly what makes me want to keep doing this. I just feel compelled to make music, part of the challenge is getting what’s in my head into something that resembles what I’m hearing and since that rarely happens, I have to keep trying. I dream tunes a lot and forget them when I wake up so perhaps fragments of those remain. Sometimes, tunes and melodies just pop in to my head when I’m least expecting it and If I’m near my equipment I’ll try and get it down roughly. Nature and science are definite sources of inspiration for me though. I’m always seeking out weird stories and discoveries.
What album or piece of music are you most proud of?
I’m always trying to refine and improve my music and techniques so inevitably, I tend to feel my most recent material is probably the music I feel most comfortable with. My last album on Daddy Tank Records ’Surge Of The Lucid’ felt like one of the tightest releases in terms of carefully compiling what worked together for a release, I was much harder on myself with that one than previous albums. http://www.daddytank.co.uk/surge.php
Why should horror game fans support this documentary?
Before the Kickstarter was underway, I don’t think there was any idea just how many developers and big names were going to agree to be on board, and that process is still happening even as the Kickstarter moves along. This is an unbelievable opportunity for horror game fans and indeed, gamers in general to have a deep insight into these famous games and also into the inside workings of independent developers. There hasn’t been anything so involved like this so far, there have been interviews and articles online but nothing that has cohesively tied it all together and looked at the history of how horror gaming ended up where it is currently. I can’t think of another scenario where so many different developers can be brought together like this and studied in detail, it’s marvellous and exciting and something I hope that will ignite some excitement into gamers world wide to get behind.
Grab a free 4-track EP of music from the ‘Playing With Fear’ project, composed by Dissolved - http://dissolved.bandcamp.com/album/playing-with-fear-ep
Listen to Dissolved’s special mix of classic horror game soundtracks (includes Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Siren, F.E.A.R., and many more) - http://www.mixcloud.com/dissolvedpaul/playing-with-fear-soundtrack-mix-special/
Listen to more of Dissolved’s work - http://www.dissolvedamberrooms.com
Support ‘Playing With Fear’ on Kickstarter - http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/AntCarpendale/playing-with-fear-the-world-of-horror-video-games