Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Innovative Sound In Games: Limbo



I have recently been wanting to check out recent developments in games, particularly those with innovative sonics. Propitiously, a friend gifted me with the Humble Bundle V -- thanks Martin! This Bundle includes no fewer than seven independent games and four of their soundtracks. The innovative marketing includes a pay-what-you-can price structure. Unfortunately this Bundle is no longer available, but the games can be found as individual products.

Now this will be old news and terribly obvious to all of you hardcore gamers out there, but I discovered a couple of truly great experiences amongst these. And I use the word "experiences" advisedly, because to speak of these only as "games" is to force them into a label that no longer seems to fit. In fact it is only the gaming elements that could possibly be improved here; everything else is so much fun. In this article I'll discuss Limbo and in the next I'll turn to Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (yes, that's what it is called).

Limbo is a game developed by a small team in Denmark. It was released on Xbox in July 2010 -- more recently for just about everyone else -- so it's not exactly news. Given that it's won just about every award it could, I am sure I must be the last person ever to play it. But I am quite used to games winning awards and still being crap, take for example any first person shooter. (Yes, I am pretty hard to please.)

The look of Limbo is expressionistic cinema, with some deliberate faux film effects and a palette restricted to monochromatic washes and hard shadows. The game-play is essentially puzzle-solving in a 2D side-scroll environment. And those puzzles are carefully thought out, providing just the right level of difficulty (sometimes quite hard indeed) but always with clues to guide the observant player. I like that. It's a game that treats the participant with respect and consideration.

But never mind the game-play, an equal part of the enjoyment is simply experiencing the expertly realised and subtly-nuanced game world. I won't say anything about that, since it is something you need to explore for yourself. The game is quite short, but still good value for money, so long as you are aware.

I am fascinated by the fact that a fellow electroacoustic composer wrote the music. Martin Stig Andersen is a graduate of The Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus (Denmark) and so isn't just any fly-by-night sound jockey. In fact he is explicitly identified as an acousmatic composer, which must be the first time that's been done for a game. (A shame this wasn't part of the in-game credits!)

While there is nothing that could traditionally be called a "score", those familiar with post-digital, drone, and noise musics will find many familiar textures here. In fact, the soundtrack is not terribly innovative when heard as a free-standing "album" (at 20 minutes it's more of an EP). However, in the game itself it works in outstanding fashion. Andersen has done a fantastic job of integrating what are normally distinctly layered sound fields: sound effects or practical sounds, textures and atmospherics, musical cues. From these elements, distinct sonic environments (compositions) are created for each of the distinct game environments.

One aspect I particularly liked is how the sonics create an internal subjective representation of the physical elements on each screen. This mirrors how the visuals are given to us: a present and tangible local environment with further indistinct shapes somewhere "out there" in the larger world. It's a particular model of the context-free childhood view of the world. The fact that the sonics and visuals work on the same epistemological basis is fantastic.

In conclusion: just play this game. But not if you are too squeamish.

P.S. The game could almost have been called "Limb". There are an awful lot of references to limbs, and not just in the death scenes.

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