Without giving anything away, there are definitely some freaky experiments going on in Inside, the latest game from Danish studio Playdead. At times, these experiments are depicted through the game’s eye-popping stagecraft, but in other instances, players take the helm as experimenters, tinkering with switches, valves, and other, squishier, things to puzzle out solutions in a manner that would make Dr. Jekyll proud. Inside’s music composer and sound designer, Martin Stig Andersen, conducted his own unorthodox experiments to create the game’s unsettling soundscape. More interesting than the bizarre nature of Andersen’s experiments, though, is why he conducted them and what results they yielded.
Andersen, who also scored Playdead’s previous game, Limbo (2010), plays with an abstract, muffled sonic palette. The music often sounds like you’re listening to it underwater or, not coincidentally, inside some kind of womb-like sound deadening chamber. “I don’t know what draws me to [these muffled sounds],” Andersen told me, “but I see them as a reference to the feeling of being in a secure place that really isn’t [so safe].” In David Toop’s book, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (2010), he cites scientific studies that claim newborn infants prefer the muffled voices and sounds that they’ve grown used to inside the womb, and that unborn babies feel—as well as hear—sounds, particularly their mother’s voice as it vibrates through her bones. Andersen’s score for Inside plugs into these ideas to push the extrasensory potential of sound design. Low hums rumble and thick pulses undulate, enveloping players in an otherworldly soundscape where music and sound effects are melded into one holistic composition. “The way that I structure and mix the sounds, everything has a musical quality to it. So even with footsteps or whatever material, I regard them as musical.”
Though field recordings and musique concrète certainly have a place in Andersen’s work on Inside, he also took inspiration from cinema. “With Inside it was stuff like John Carpenter films. There was a lot of inspiration in the simplicity [of his scores], and a lot from when he situates the music [within scenes],” Anderson says. “I enjoy these very long action scenes where there is no music at all and then a car randomly drives by and there’s a very distinct music cue inserted in.” Early on in Inside, there’s a confrontation with a pig. The pig initially wakes up and chases you, absent of any background music to amplify the tension. There’s something rawer about the encounter without music, though—just the hideous pig squeals laid over frantic footsteps and hoofbeats. When the pig hits a wall, it triggers a musical stinger that follows you into the next puzzle. The music signifies a relief of tension, but the echoing bass rumble is hardly comforting. Like Carpenter, Andersen sustains mood and tension through sound implementation in addition to composition.
While most music is born out of some synergy of inspiration and experimentation, at times, Andersen’s methods enter the realm of “mad science,” sans the reanimated monsters and plans for global domination. Andersen transfused some of Inside’s audio through a human skull and jawbone, while creating other recordings using a microphone inside a man’s stomach. As bonkers as that sounds, Andersen’s experimental methods are grounded in the pursuit of a sonic aesthetic that sounds unique and fitting in the shadowy, suffocating world of Inside. That these methods correspond conceptually with many of the game’s themes is no coincidence.
Andersen was inspired by some experiments at Stanford University that sought to create an audio recording of a human voice that sounds the way it would within the head of the person speaking. “Listening to yourself, half of the sound is the sound that you project into the room and that’s what hits your ear. The second part is internal, coming from your jawbone and ear. In your head, those two kinds of sounds mix,” Andersen explains. The Stanford study sought to measure the difference between your recorded voice and the way your voice sounds in your head when you speak. One means of achieving that was through bone-conducted sound. Basically, the concept is that instead of conducting the sound through the air, you’re conducting it through your bones, as we all do naturally when we hear ourselves speak. The result is akin to what it sounds like to talk with your hands over your ears.
“What I did to achieve that was to get some audio transducers, which are like speakers without membranes, so instead of just putting a membrane into vibration you can attach any object to this transducer,” Andersen continued. “Then I acquired a skull and attached that to the transducer and recorded the sound with contact microphones. You could say it works as a kind of filter.” If you were to put your ear up to the skull during recording, you could have actually heard the sound reverberating within the brain cavity.
“I could run any sound through the skull, but for most part it was this synthesized, musical sound,” Andersen noted, bringing his John Carpenter inspiration back to the forefront. “I had the idea of making this synth score [for Inside], but didn’t really want to hear like actual synth music because that felt too much like a statement.” Undoubtedly there’s a strong sense of time, place, and genre associated with Carpenter’s scores, that would draw strong cultural reference were it used in Inside. “In the end there are still slight nuances of the synth sound, but without actually sounding like it because it’s become something quite different.”
As to the stomach sounds, Andersen brought a professional sword swallower into the studio to put a wired contact microphone down his throat. Once the mic was “in place,” Andersen both recorded the internal body ambience and produced various sounds externally for the mic to pick up from within the performer’s stomach. “Most sounds that we projected into his stomach were extremely muffled, and very distant in a way.” Andersen told me. “But actually in the game I used some of the internal sounds, like the heart beating. [In Inside] there’s this lineup puzzle and there’s this kind of pulse going on, and I used the heartbeat for that.” The lineup segment is a tense setpiece where your every step is being closely monitored by imposing guards, cameras, and dogs. The heartbeat acts as a kind of metronome for keeping the rhythm of the queue while also making players conscious of their own increasing heart rates.
Some of Andersen’s aesthetic choices for Inside may have been achieved through unconventional methods, but he’s also quick to point out the clear difference between placing value on process versus product. “I work through experimentation, but that’s not the point of it. Only in 1 out of 10 experiments does something interesting happen,” Andersen explains. “[Experimentation] is just a means. If, say, the skull sounds good and does something interesting, then I’m using it, but if it doesn’t, then I’m just throwing it away and going onto the next thing. You don’t need any knowledge of the background of my work to appreciate it.” It’s a philosophy that meshes well with a game that also offers very little pretense, right down to its fanfare-less launch mere weeks after the release date was announced.
“With Inside it should be the experience of playing the game, not how it’s done. That doesn’t matter. It’s all about the end product and your experience with it,” Andersen claims. And to the composer’s credit, his Inside score does stand on its own, without the need for liner notes or production tales to prop up its success. However, Andersen’s approach to experimentation is more than some lucky trick that happened to turn out well. His work on Inside is the product of informed, targeted hypotheses that thematically engage with the material substance of the game, and the resulting data is undeniably resonant. While it’s fun to marvel at the sounds inside the skull on Andersen’s desk, far more interesting is what’s going on in the skull that sits on his shoulders.