INSIDE is one of the most recent game titles from Playdead, following its predecessor, Limbo. The game follows an unnamed character on his lonesome journey through a dystopian and seemingly inescapable world, whose only purpose is to evade the capture of a mysterious, cult-like force.
It’s hard to believe that a linear level based game with puzzle-platform mechanics would become so critically acclaimed for its immersivity, but INSIDE artfully creates an expressive world that lives, breathes and intrigues.
And that’s largely thanks to its sound design.
Developed with an audio-driven approach, sound is a big part of the experience. INSIDE’s sound design is full of subtle, immersive details that make playing the game feel both unsettling and mesmerising. It is this mixed bag of emotions that make it so interesting; players are intrigued to know what’s next, whilst slightly unnerved about what might be waiting around the corner.
The world of INSIDE becomes increasingly strange as players progress through each level, uncovering what seems to be a large-scale science experiment responsible for the many zombie-like beings we meet along the way. If you’ve reached the end of the game, you’re probably still wondering what on earth just happened. But if you haven’t, I won’t spoil it.
What I can talk about is the game’s sound design and composition, which from start to finish, conducts a uniquely dark narrative.
Music and composition
INSIDE’s sound design and composition was led by Martin Stig Andersen, alongside SØS Gunver Ryberg, Jakob Schmid and Andreas Frostholm Røeboe. Andersen was also the sound designer behind Playdead’s Limbo, which used minimalistic sounds to accompany the game’s black and white silhouette visuals.
INSIDE uses 3D graphics, with much more visual detail included across each level design. To accompany this, Andersen and his co-composers focused on creating unique atmospheres for each moment in the game, giving each level its own characteristic soundscape.
For many of its levels, INSIDE cleverly uses ‘silence’ to fill the space, with only the sounds of distant industrial rumbles and white noise to be heard across its empty factories and lonesome outdoor spaces - helping expertly craft the story’s lonesome and peculiar narrative.
When the game does use music and more compositional sound elements, they creep in almost unnoticeably. Several of INSIDE’s levels are enriched with ambient soundscapes and drones, introduced gradually, layer by layer.
Andersen makes sure to build tension when the end of a level is within reach. The music becomes louder, blooming from the depths of low frequencies into more resonant, exciting soundscapes. This definitely pushes the tense nature of the game. At times, its soundscapes make the player feel uncomfortable, tip-toeing on the edge of horror.
Processing sounds through a human skull
When developing the game, there were certainly elements of horror and science fiction in mind. And when I say in mind, I mean quite literally. Martin Stig Andersen and co-composer SØS Gunver Ryberg processed the soundtrack through an actual human skull, taking the game’s aural horror aesthetic to entirely new heights.
During interviews, Andersen states that the creative decision to process sounds through a human skull came from the idea of your voice sounding very different in your own head.
People are often surprised when they hear their own voice played back, because it sounds so different from our own perspective. In our heads, our voices sound softer and fuller, resonating inside the different parts of our bodies.
Andersen wanted to experiment with this resonant effect when developing the soundtrack for INSIDE. The sound design team acquired a human skull and began experimenting with synthesised sound processing.
When processed through the skull, sounds take on a completely unique quality. INSIDE’s sound designers discovered that the skull worked like a unique filter, emphasising certain frequencies whilst reducing others. Its hollow formation gave sounds a distinct chamber resonance.
The result: a chilling ambient soundscape.
The biggest challenge was finding the right contact microphones to process sounds through the skull. Sounds also required some amount of post-processing to make them more listenable, which is common when designing sounds through unconventional objects like this.
An incredible amount of work and technique went into the sound design of INSIDE. What might seem like a simple game on the surface, actually contains sophisticated audio elements that make the game intuitive, immersive and responsive.
There's a reason this title makes it to our list of games with the best sound design.
INSIDE is a game that listens, its sound engine, Wwise, is programmed for natural and adaptable audio playback in response to gameplay.
What’s notable is the main character’s sound design details, which include layers of intuitive breathing, footstep and clothing sounds that adaptively integrate with different environments, emotional states and physical movements.
Character sound design
The character’s sounds adapt across a responsive walk and run cycle. As the character runs faster, his footsteps become louder, breathing becomes heavier, and clothing friction intensifies. What’s interesting is that this doesn’t simply stop once the character returns to a standstill; he continues to breathe heavily until he catches his breath.
Similarly, when the character returns to dry land from water, his footsteps sound damp, matched with wet footstep visuals. His damp and muffled footsteps gradually become drier and crisper as the player continues running. INSIDE’s sound designers also used cloth sounds to emulate the way that clothing creates friction.
These character sound design details are impressive in their own right. They make the game immersive, with foley details that match real life. But what’s more impressive is how these sound details enhance the game’s eerie and tense experience.
As the player, you can’t help but anticipate what extra layer of detail awaits. Sound design is used very cleverly to not only fill the game with detail, but inform the player that they have many layers to unpack.
In the world of INSIDE, it’s impossible to think of the soundscape and sound design separately; the music and sound details work together to create seamless audio tension.
There are several underwater levels in the game where the player must alternate between land and water to escape some (pretty creepy) swimming troll-like creatures.
The game’s water scenes demonstrate the audio tension between music and sound design perfectly. Take a look at the example in the video below.
Once submerged, the eerie ambient music kicks in, and all above-the-surface sounds disappear. When swimming underwater, audio details plummet into low frequency, muffled sounds, giving an immediate feeling of submersion.
Combined with horror-esque soundscapes, the subversive sound design details make the player feel heedfully alone - making the underwater creatures that extra bit intimidating.
The shockwave scene
One of the game’s most memorable moments is the shockwave scene. During this sequence, the player must avoid being hit by a series of rhythmic, lethal shockwaves that propel from the background to the foreground.
Failing to find cover results in a quick and implosive death.
INSIDE’s sound design is an integral part of the game mechanics. The player must rely entirely on noise to find cover from the invisible shockwaves, using the audio loops to anticipate when a shockwave is going to fire.
Game audio director Martin Stig Andersen also explains how the shockwaves’ reverb aux sends are modulated depending on how the character takes cover, as well as filtering and volume changes.
Industrial sound effects
If you’ve played INSIDE, you’ll know that many of the game’s sequences take place in abandoned factory environments.
These scenes are enriched with low rumbling industrial sounds, many of which fire quietly in the background - getting louder as the player gets closer to the source of the sound.
This dystopian sonic world was created partly using industrial sound libraries from film sound designers Ann Kroeber and Alan Splet, who have worked with directors including David Lynch, Carroll Ballard and Peter Weir while compiling personal sound libraries.
INSIDE’s sound design awards
INSIDE is an award-winning game, having won several awards and nominations for its audio direction and design. Here’s an overview of INSIDE’s sound design awards.
- BAFTA Games Award for Best Music (2017) - Winner
- Game Developers Choice Awards for Best Audio (2017) - Winner
- Game Audio Network Guild Awards for Best Audio for an Indie Game (2017) - Winner
- GDC Award for Best Audio (2016) - Winner
- Webby Award for Best Music and Sound Design (2018) - Nominee
- Game Audio Network Guild Awards for Best Interactive Score (2017) - Nominee
- Game Audio Network Guild Awards for Audio of the Year (2017) - Nominee
- Interactive Achievement Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design (2017) - Nominee
- The Game Award for Best Music (2016) - Nominee
- D.I.C.E. Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design (2016) - Nominee
INSIDE sound design team
Behind every great sound design is a great team. Here are the talented names behind INSIDE’s sound design: