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"Immersion" has become cliché. It's often just another buzzword when talking about how great a game is, but it's all too infrequent that those discussing games will actually break down the finer details of what that immersion entails.
Like all pieces of the puzzle that is game design, audio must work in concert with graphics and game mechanics to help immerse the player into gameplay experiences of all shapes and sizes through its ability to convey vast amounts of the detail to the player, often without their knowing.
J White, Martin Stig Andersen, and Thom Kellar, of Visceral Games, Playdead, and Freshtone Games respectively, are three sound designers who have ample experience in creating such audio experiences.
"It can be easy for the media to reveal itself if you've got a sound loop or something that becomes annoying. As soon as the game reveals the mechanics, the media and the machinery behind these things is ruined and the player is thrown out of the experience," said Martin Stig Andersen, sound designer and composer on Limbo.
Limbo was a critical success and fan favorite in 2010, putting many end-of-year awards under its belt.
It was lauded for its striking visual aesthetic, but part of its success came from its ability to make the player feel a sense of isolation and foreboding that is largely the result of top quality sound design.
Andersen and Limbo's director, Arnt Jensen, teamed up after Andersen saw the game's initial trailer and felt his unique area of music (electroacoustic music, a non-commercial, almost entirely funding-based form) would add to the experience.
"I watched the trailer and I was really captivated by [the boy's] expressions," said Andersen. "It reminded me of the aesthetics of light and sound; you have something recognizable and realistic, but at the same time it's abstract.
"It's the same as what I love about how we use sound. We have all these slight references that focus on ambiguity, so it's more about what the listener imagines, rather than what I want to tell them."
Many can think back to sections of Limbo where they were struck by a certain feeling or sense for what the boy was doing in that place. But one thing Limbo never allowed the player to do was fully understand what was happening. Andersen achieved this by intentionally distorting the sounds of objects in an attempt to make the player think more about what's going on and how they're meant to react. This gave it a level of ambiguity that allows the player to "be there and make their own interpretation."
"The more identity the sounds had, the more I would distort them," Andersen said. "So I wouldn't include sounds that gave too strong associations. If we added something that had a strong identity like a voice or an animal, then it would almost destroy the atmosphere. So with that style, Limbo offered an audio and visual atmosphere that can really get into the player's mind, and make them feel scared, worried or on edge."