Review by Alyx Jones
Edited by Sam Hughes
Composers: Martin Stig Andersen, SØS Gunver Ryberg
Sound Design: Martin Stig Andersen, SØS Gunver Ryberg, Andreas Frostholm Røeboe
Audio Programmer: Jakob Schmid
Audio Director: Martin Stig Andersen
Reviewed on: Playstation 4
It’s a tough market out there, and not many games get multiple 10/10 ratings, but INSIDE is one of them! The most recent title from Playdead, the studio that brought us Limbo, brings a thought provoking, deep and dark experience. With puzzle-platformer mechanics, not dissimilar to Limbo, it stands alone as a game and piece of art in its own right. While still feeling related, the narratives don’t tie together obviously just yet, but we can hope for future releases!
If you don’t want the game spoiled in any way, the first part of this review won’t give anything away, but you should definitely stop reading when warned, don’t scroll too far ahead ok?
In the safe hands of Martin Stig Andersen for all its audio needs, INSIDE was sure to be full of audio tension and mystery. The drones and atmosphere actually reminds me a lot of David Lynch‘s lesser known work Rabbits, an unsettling and slightly creepy soundscape in both cases, but not as far as horror. Andersen certainly makes me feel uncomfortable playing the game, but not scared. Coupled with quite graphic death animations and a lifeless thud to the ground, similar to Limbo, it definitely pushes the disconcerting nature of the game to the forefront.
When developing this game, it takes a special kind of person to think, “Hmm do you know what would be cool? Let’s get an actual human skull, and play the soundtrack through that!”…
Well, that’s just what Martin Stig Andersen and his co-composer SØS Gunver Ryberg did. You can read more about the process on Gamasutra, but the result is something similar to the sound of being inside a small but resonant chamber, not unlike some of the environments in INSIDE. The game and the music can feel quite claustrophobic in some ways but with a sense of wonder and curiosity conveyed by the original composition.
I was lucky enough to attend AES: Audio for Games 2016 and get a preview of the incredible work and technique that goes into the sound design of INSIDE. We got to see a showcase of the elements that made up the boys walk and run cycle, and how they fed into his breathing patterns. Jakob Schmid showcased how the layers of audio such as cloth sounds (for how clothing creates friction) and footsteps had to match the animation and as the boy began to run, his breathing became more labored. To match real life, even when he stops running and returns to standing still, he is still breathing heavily for a small amount of time until he catches his breath.
It’s difficult to totally separate sound design and audio, because they inhabit the same world, and the soundscape of INSIDE is a combination of all parts working together. We come across many workers in our journey who are perhaps semi-conscious but mostly zombie like, with heavy shuffles and stumbling wherever they go.
There are a few creatures who are less than friendly towards us, at least to start with. Vicious dogs are often unleashed to stalk us, and their snarling/barking has a similar resonance and distortion to the music, creating this spacious and empty yet inescapable feeling wherever we go. There comes a point in the game where we can dive and encounter a mermaid-like being. Its presence is accompanied by whisperings of words we can’t quite make out that echo around and when it gets to close a kind of distorted/muffled scream comes out. The treatment of alot of these sounds is similar to the music, creating an entire audio world to accompany the games unique place in the Playdead universe.
Now let’s step a little further into that world…
SPOILERS AHEAD: TURN BACK NOW
OK you’ve had fair warning. If you reached the games strange bundle of bodies ending, you might be wondering what on earth it all means. Well I’m not going to give you those answers. I do want to talk about the fact that to unlock the secret ending for the game, you’ve got to use your ears!
If you return to Scene 16, where you can climb down pipes and ladders to beneath the city, there’s a small audio playback device spinning away. Once you destroy the high ringing of the orb, you can hear a musical sequence made up of 3 pitches. Each pitch corresponds to a lever direction, in the underground bunker, found through a hatch in the cornfields. Listening to this musical pattern and noting down with direction of the lever produces which frequency, you can then open a vault door and proceed to the secret ending.
This puzzle mechanic is really interesting as you have to use a musical aspect of the game in order to progress (unless you googled the solution), which is something not explored enough in video games. I hope this may serve to open a door for more audio based game mechanics in modern games. It’s a really cool way to engage players other senses, that are a massive part of the gaming experience anyway, but less so in a problem solving dynamic. Visuals are the primary aspect for the majority of puzzle games, I would certainly like to see more audio teams challenge this convention.
INSIDE is surely one of the most innovative games to come out recently, it will definitely suck you in and make you question life a little bit! 100% go and play it now if you haven’t, it’s an incredible listening and playing experience, and we absolutely can’t wait for the next instalment:
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The Sound Architect