Game audio people are still talking about Limbo. They may be for some time.
One leading audio developer recently stated publically they would likely have made a terrible job of Limbo’s audio compared to the treatment by Martin Stig Andersen, who single-handedly created its sound and audio.
Not because they’re rubbish – far from it. It’s just that Andersen did such a brilliant, innovative and thoughtful job.
It’s all about vision – or perhaps that should be audio vision. Would you have added a ‘spooky’ stylised interactive orchestral score, a plethora of character emotes and maybe even a narrator?
How easily the ‘nothingness’ – the ‘notional silence’ – could have been tromped on and thereby the intensity and involvement diminished.
The brief was ‘not like a video game’, leaving Andersen free to explore some powerful ideas in an environment in which he could nurture them – and he found the iterative experimentation/decision-making process both engaging and inspiring in itself.
“I learned some interesting things,” confirms Andersen.
“Trying to make Limbo sound like an old film, I put everything into mono but discovered I couldn’t engage myself with that sound.
"It’s because I was living in 2009 – it was just not immersive enough. I see Limbo as such a tiny world. I was trying to reduce all the sounds to something very simple and thin sounding.
"I distorted sounds and then afterwards, expanded them again, really spatialising them – almost anti-phase.
“I ventured into using antique audio devices – wire recorders, spring reverbs and tape recorders.
"In linear media you can make your mix from moment to moment whereas in a game, the sounds might always be mixed differently.
"One thing I discovered using old machines was that they created a homogenic sound. Running all of my sounds through an old tape recorder made them sit very well together in the mix.
"With my own bespoke-recorded physics sounds – I found when I put them in the game, they sounded too real – the surface of the sound didn’t fit the image.
“So I ended up running them through an old spring reverb. I put the reverb to zero so basically I was just using it as a hardware filter which made the sound narrow and thin – all the bottom would disappear.
Because the sounds lost a lot of their main actual identity and clarity, they suddenly became more generic – I could use the same sounds for a metal box or a wooden box. It all contributed to making the world very small and defined.
“A lot of the things I do are essentially mash-ups or paraphrases – it arises from working with electroacoustic music for a lot of years. I can take one sound and it doesn’t really matter where it comes from because I’m not using that sound as it is.
"I might just extract the texture or colour and then use it to transform another sound. It leads to a slightly unnatural but useful quality allowing me to create an audio world that’s generic and yet unique.”
IN STEP WITH SOUND
Footsteps are pretty much the only sounds the character makes, with Andersen feeling that in third-person games the player can identify with the character but if he or she starts to make noises, a disconnection is created.
Meanwhile, the music of Limbo is so ambient and blends so beautifully with the sound and graphics that some reviewers have claimed there is none.
But for Andersen, the overall narrative structure built into Limbo’s audio is his biggest contribution.
“No one really pays attention to this aspect so I’m really happy when people ask about it. For me, the overall framework plays a very important part,” he says.
“I was trying to achieve the creation of a world structure with the audio going from quasi-realistic sound that you hear in the forest – naturalistic – then as the boy progresses through the world, things become more and more abstract, they almost become transcendent.
“What I wanted to contribute was more along the lines that the boy got habituated to the violence – rather than the player, with the player almost wondering how to feel and with the music sometimes almost representing forgiveness.”
As ever, though beautifully realised, such true sound design does not readily show itself yet it works subliminally to tell a story.
As our old friend Ben McCullough would say on the matter – ‘It isn’t just the icing on the cake; it is the cake’.