The thing about wisdom is that you can’t really ever receive it. You can read and watch everything there is to find about sound and come away with little more than good conversation. Lessons have to be learned personally, and experience only ever happens to you when you’re ready.
So it is that I feel myself finally ready to think seriously about some of the things I’ve seen my heroes do for years. I want to talk about INSIDE and specifically, about the ontological 4D chess that game plays with perceived dynamics.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the concept of dynamic range–which a quick search defines as “the range of acceptable or possible volumes of sound occurring in the course of a piece of music or a performance”. That’s a clinically accurate definition that centers on loudness. If there exists a range of volumes, there must be a minimum and a maximum volume–everything within that’s fair game. A narrower dynamic range usually means skewing that minimum upwards, keeping things louder overall but reducing the chance for truly powerful dynamic shifts.
You can combat this with systems such as HDR, which floats our dynamic range window up and down according to what’s playing and how loud the system’s been told to think it is; this lets quiet sounds happen when there’s nothing more important happening, and for them to automatically drop out as the window shifts upwards with more interesting content.
Today I haven’t been using a keyboard for over ten years, and I’ve learned to form sound as if it was a piece of clay.
-Martin Stig Andersen
INSIDE is a fantastic sounding game full of craft, polish and the sorts of perfect choices that only experience can bring. I have zero opinion on its overall loudness, and its weighted dynamics probably fall within the ranges we’d all aim to ship a game within.
But its perceived dynamics are staggering. There are moments so quiet, quiet beyond anything you’d ever expect to hear (or not) in a game, quiet that I would be completely uncomfortable sending out into the world. In these moments, the sound of a car door can stop time. And when it happens, it does–it’s the loudest thing you can imagine, until some chapters later when another sound’s blown the memory of it nearly away. The range of INSIDE’s sound stretches even further as the game goes on, and in its final moments, when it fixes upon the listener with the full weight of all of its creators’ execution, well…I don’t know. INSIDE has painted my brainstem with the invert, ashen silhouettes of experiences caught in a blast. It leaves a mark.
What’s beyond HDR?
Here is what I think is happening: the team at Playdead is on to dynamics in a very holistic way that most of us don’t get the headspace to consider, much less internalize. Much less practice. I’m going to call it Extra-Dynamic Range for the sake of future discussion.
INSIDE is an aural study in contrast, with all of its sounds filling a very specific call to some other sound’s response. Play through it if you haven’t (and again if you have) with an ear to the way each of these are played against each other to enrich the game’s dynamics:
- Dry vs. Wet
- Lows / Mids / Highs
- Transients / Swells
- Clean / Distorted
- Source / Score
- Soft / Loud
(I’m sure you can find more, and we’d love to hear about them in the comments!)
Consider that INSIDE’s a short experience, about three hours in length. You could play through it one go just as you’d listen to a song before skipping. What if INSIDE’s dynamics–and here I’m using it to refer not simply to loudness, but to the game’s extensive study in contrasts between sound shapes, colors and intensities–are staged not only from moment to moment, sound to sound, but across the entire game as a single session?
A thought on why that might be is reinforced by some of the DICE audio team’s words on bass frequencies, and spending them like a currency. Consider all the moments of dynamic audio change, small and large, which happen over the course of INSIDE’s few hours, and imagine taking them all out of the game. You’re asked to sort these into cateorgies. How would you do this? What are the big pieces, what are the small ones–and what makes them that way? Is there some pattern to recombining them that creates the ‘perfect’ model of dynamics over time? What would that blueprint look like? (The obvious answer here is, “INSIDE,” but be creative!)
I recall a couple of lessons I learned on a recording trip last year: that sounds are experienced best and most naturally at their intrinsic volumes, and that our ears love to work for a quiet sound. I think the same’s true for all sorts of dynamics. Changes like this are what engage the mind and turn listening from a passive experience into one in which you’re actually participating; having to work for it makes all the difference.
Maybe INSIDE’s a gift of wisdom after all.
What’s your experience here? Am I crazy? If not, where else have you seen this? How have you used uncommon sorts of sound contrast in your work to expand its impact, or what are your ideas for taking this further?
Lastly, some quick throwback reading to carry you through the end of your weekend:
- Finding Your Way With High Dynamic Range Audio In Wwise — Jack’s great article on the hottest audio buzzword of 2013. Jump to this before I say something about HDR that’s incorrect.
- Sunday Sound Thought 10 – Spectral Loudness — A previous SST from Shaun on one of the extra dimensions of loudness.
- “Limbo” – Exclusive Interview with Martin Stig Andersen — Our interview with MSA from years and years back. We were all so innocent!
- GDC 2016 — INSIDE Ourselves — My hype piece on INSIDE’s implementation after experiencing what was shown at GDC 2016.