In July of 2010, Playdead's game "Limbo" hit the XBox Live Marketplace. It's striking visual style and effective use of storytelling through gameplay was enjoyed my critics and consumers alike. It received various accolades and was recognised by many large publications such as Time, Wired and the Toronto Sun, who all placed the game in their top 10 lists for the year. Martin Stig Andersen was the Composer and Sound Designer for the game. Andersen decided to take a more non-traditional route in terms of sound and music when it came to Limbo. The background tracks the player hears in game aren't the typical sounds you'd expect from a video game, but they suit the game incredibly well. The music of Limbo, however isn't where the audio shines most, the Sound Effects and how they mesh with all other aspects of the game are what make the audio experience of Limbo so captivating.
One of Limbo's most recognisable features is the black and white silhouetted visual style, and Andersen's music simultaneously creates a great reflection and a strong juxtaposition of this. The sounds are vague, with not real beginning or end. They all blend together to create a general harmonic sense rather than a strict harmony or melody. This compliments the visuals as they are only defined from their outlines and otherwise blend together. The background is out of focus, with the player only able to notice the objects there if they purposefully pay attention to them. However, the music is rich with texture and harmony. Although it lacks definition, there is a lot of subtlety and purposeful use of timbre within the sounds. There are layers upon layers and many variations of tone. In this way, the music is the direct opposite of the visuals. Where the graphics are sharp and absolute, the sound is soft and unsure, this juxtaposition seems to give the world more depth and gives the player a feeling that there is much more lurking in what cannot be seen on screen.
The music only makes up one part of the overall auditory experience of Limbo, however, as the sound effects play a very important role in the game. As stated before, the game's visual style doesn't allow for much detail to be given about the game's environment. No texture, no colour, no reflection just silhouette. Although when playing the game, the player has a strong sense of the materials of the objects they're interacting with, along with their weight and various other properties. This is all thanks to the magnificent sound effects implemented throughout the game. Every sound in Limbo helps to paint the world the player is traversing through. This is a great example of the game giving the player information through sound without having to sacrifice the visual style or include impeding narration or dialogue. Not only this, but the sounds that objects produce in the game often play a key role in the puzzles within the game. A sound might signify an object has dropped off screen, or that a magnetic surface has bee turned on or off. All of these instances of sound within the game allow for a fluid, exploratory experience for the player and is just one of the reasons the game feels so cohesive.
Limbo's audio gives the player two types of information pertaining to the game world. Firstly, a very general, vague sense of atmosphere, provided by the background score, and secondly a very specific aural representation of objects within the world, giving it detail and allowing the player to identify sound effects with similar sounds in the real world. One piece of information that Andersen purposefully excluded however, was emotional information. This was an intentional choice from the game's director, Arnt Jensen. Andersen says in an interview with DesigningSound that he wanted to
"to avoid music that would manipulate the emotions of the player". This choice gave the game an entirely new dimension. All emotional interpretation was left solely to the player. There was no score to instruct them how to feel about a particular event, all the information was just presented to them as plainly as possible. This is probably one of the most important artistic choices the team could have made and it certainly turned out for the better, as it reinforced the melancholy nature of the game, and gave the player the agency to interpret things for themselves rather than have the game give them the "correct" emotional response.
Overall, sound plays an incredibly important role in "Limbo". It gives the player all the information about the game world they need, without sacrificing gameplay or visual style. The music both reflects and contradicts the visuals, giving the game world definition and depth. Limbo provides a unique take on music and sound within a video game, giving emotional ambiguity and a strong auditory identity.
What do you think? Did you find Limbo's music to add or detract from your overall experience of the game? What are you expecting for Playdead's next title, "Inside"? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Also be sure to check out the full interview with DesigningSound it's a great read.