Dead Space did things differently. Not just in the headshot resistant nature of its many-limbed necromorphs, but in its music, too. Jason Graves’ score to the 2008 survival horror game drew from cinematic inspirations to deliver a soundtrack so harsh, unpredictable, and unrelenting in its tension that it earned two BAFTAs and helped Dead Space to numerous industry awards.
But with the original composer unable to return for the 2023 remake, someone needed to step into the waiting RIG, grab a plasma cutter, and quite literally face the music. Enter Trevor Gureckis. Like the jagged monstrosities of the Ishimura, Graves’ music remains alive to terrify us in the remake. Gureckis’ job was to build seamlessly around it, expanding the remake’s soundtrack for new scenes, storylines, and sequences.
Note: The article below contains mild spoilers for events and enemies within Dead Space.
As a composer, Gureckis has plenty of experience in TV – most recently he scored M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant – but Dead Space is his first foray into the world of gaming, and one that came with plenty of pressure and history.
“I’m always nervous and excited and terrified about everything, like why did I do this?” Gureckis laughs. “But, yeah, I think that working out my role in it was the key. It was figuring out ‘What do you guys want me to do, exactly?’ Because I want to make sure that I'm staying out of the way of what needs to happen for the original to exist and for the remake to be successful with that. But also to find places where I can branch out and provide additional musical material inspirational to new experiences and new scenes.”
Capturing the essence of another composer’s work in your own isn’t an easy task. Fortunately Gureckis has been a fan of Graves and Dead Space for quite some time.
“Yeah, I definitely played the game before and met [Graves] at GDC (Game Developers Conference) in 2008, when he was getting all these awards,” says Gureckis. “I was a composer who’d just graduated. I was finishing grad school and I was like, ‘this is crazy – I can't believe this is the score for this video game! It's so avant garde!’ So I was super, super into it, and it’s so crazy that I’m involved in it now.”
The first step was to identify the core of Dead Space’s soundscape. A feat achieved by looking both at the game itself and also Graves’ inspirations at the time.
“He created all these incredible sonic palates,” Gureckis says. “That was sort of the DNA of the music of Dead Space. That was something that we would constantly do a gut check on: Is this sound Dead Space? Does it feel like we would hear this and be in the world?
“[Graves], he's talked about how it’s inspired by Penderecki and late 20th-century composers doing extended technique performance. Doing stingers and crazy sounds on their instruments to create horrific sounds kind of like Alien, Aliens, and The Shining – that kind of stuff. Those are the North Star of where the horror is in that world.”
At the time, Dead Space’s soundtrack was unlike anything else in gaming, even within the horror genre. But the blood flowing through each track – not to mention across the screen – holds a much older heritage from cinema and beyond.
“Dead space has an interesting lineage to classic films in a way, Jerry Goldsmith and even James Horner's Aliens score,” explains Gureckis. “Which was itself a callback to late 20th-century composers like Penderecki and Lutosławski, these Polish guys who were doing all these kind of aleatoric, small improvised moments that are repeated.
“With the sounds they do, so just using a violin you play the wrong side of the violin or the back end of it, or you play the highest regions. But if you have 50 players doing the same thing, you'd get the craziest sound. That was not necessarily intended to be scary music. It was intended to be emotionally, vigorously interesting or compelling. And then filmmakers put that into scary looking things and next to an alien, and suddenly you're like ‘Oh, that makes perfect sense!’”
Respect for the original is important. But a remake offers the chance not just to relive a much-loved title, but to develop upon it as well. Adding substance to places that felt bare, or introducing something different for players – new and old – to encounter.
“Where I was interested in bringing something new was the intimate experience that Isaac has on this journey to hell. I recorded with an orchestra in Nashville – a 70-, 80-piece orchestra with choir – and we did big, big sounds and big percussion and everything.
“But there's also a lot of close stuff that just feels, to me, like a high-fidelity quality. To bring that somewhat distant nature of an orchestra score in a big hall really close. So I worked really hard on on trying to bring some electronics and those solo instruments up close and personal. That kind of dichotomy helps it feel like an intimate journey. A terrifying one, but still.”
A key aspect of realizing that intimacy comes through Isaac’s expanded relationship with his girlfriend Nicole. It’s an aspect that Gureckis is fascinated to see fleshed out this time around.
“There's a couple of through lines that we talked about, like corruption and Isaac’s relationship with Nicole,” says Gureckis. “That has a really distinct piano theme, and that's not actually material that's available in the original score. So that's why it had to be newly composed.
“I'm really curious what the experience will be – for myself, too – playing some of the Nicole stuff. Because it's an emotional space that was not in the original. It's sort of like you write a score for a movie or something, but you don't see the movie. It's kind of like you want to see how it actually worked out. I'm curious how that balances with the mayhem and the feeling of everything else.”
Infiltrating the score more insidiously, is the theme of corruption. The more time Isaac spends aboard the Ishimura and close to the Marker, the more his mental state deteriorates. With the remake, Gureckis had the chance to incorporate that in new, unsettling ways, encroaching on players where they previously felt most at ease. And in Dead Space, that means the tram.
In the 2008 original, the tram was little more than a loading screen, but the arrival of faster console speeds means that every trip is now part of contiguous gameplay. A change that grants more time for music.
“The tram is a safe space,” says Gureckis. “We called it the most safe area in the game. So [for the theme] I had to revise it a few times to lower it. So we could like find the lowest level, and then once we're at zero, we get to find where we could go.
“And that's me playing some really strange cello things, doing some weird electronics stuff that just kind of creeps in. It's all on the periphery – the idea of music that's in the subconscious. Because there's so much music that just comes at you and attacks you. But this stuff is just the feeling that things are like getting increasingly out of control. It's a sense of unsettling that just doesn't let go.
“That's one of the exciting things about this remake. We got a chance to step back and go, well, what if we did this idea? What if music could be one of the elements that portrayed this concept?”
In many ways, however, Gureckis is as much in the dark as the rest of us. As the remake was being adapted and expanded, he crafted a raft of new cues for different segments throughout the story. Which sequences actually made it into the final release, he still isn’t sure, but there are definitely some picks he’s really hoping for.
“I have this percussion instrument called the Marvin that's great for like bowing and clanging and stuff – kind of ship sounds” Gureckis says. “We recorded with the choir and did all this extra stuff. We called it wishlist work. We had the choir saying all this, not satanic because it's of the Unitology religion, but all these verses and all this stuff and screaming. I hope it gets in the game. We were just trying to come up with lots of cool stuff for them to work with. I’m just curious how it all comes together!”
So which section is Gureckis most excited to replay and see how his work was implemented? Isaac’s climactic showdown with the mighty mother Necromorph, the Hive Mind.
“That 10-to-12-minute thing is a crazy cue. It's the most intense thing I've ever written and so I hope that it plays with some restraint so that you're not like ‘Oh my God, turn this off’, but also excitement so that you feel that with each level you’re getting a little bit closer and closer.
“I have no idea what that looks like. That'll be fun! I'm gonna put it on easy so that I can get there quickly.”
Our thanks to Trevor Gureckis for taking the time to speak with us about his work. Dead Space is available for Xbox Series X/S, PS5, and PC from January 27.