Sonic Meditation

How sound design in Inside creates a mindful experience

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Andrea Luc is a second-year MA student in the joint Communications and Culture program at York and Ryerson Universities. Her current research focuses on analyzing gendered inequalities in accessing videogame technology. Other research interests include examining play experiences from a cultural, linguistic, and affective perspective.
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When I was younger, and I found myself feeling dizzy from too many thoughts swirling in my head, I’d sit on the stairs of our house and listen to the outside world bounce off the curved walls of our foyer – birds chirping, cars driving by, the stiff bones of our house settling – until inevitably, the noise fell to silence. I’d be sitting there alone again, until I’d hear something else and focus solely on that sound. It became a ritual.

Focusing on sound and its relapse to silence is a way for me to orient myself mentally, when I find my thoughts are straying too far from my current reality. It’s a mindful practice – a way to bring my attention back to now. I practice it any time I’m sitting on the subway, or I’m out at dinner, or more recently, when I’m playing videogames. I’m always listening to the world around me as a way to remind myself “this is where I am and everything will be fine.” And this practice isn’t just restricted to my physical reality, but also virtual. Recently, I played Playdead’s minimalist game Inside and found nothing but ambient noises amidst silence. In this environment, being mindful of the sound around me not only created an intense affective experience, but also one predicated on careful, calm, and meditative movement. Focusing on sound in Inside wasn’t just crucial to my survival in the game, but also grounded my every movement and thought in a certain time and place.

I’d like to expand on this idea of focusing your attention on the world around you, to not just spatial movement, but also sonic movement. In the same way we can occupy a specific time and place in games, I’m suggesting we also occupy a time and space in a game’s soundscape as well. Using the soundscape as a focal point in Inside, we can see how games are able to elicit an affective and mindful response to the reality in front of us, in all its honesty.

Playing through Inside

Inside is a puzzle-platformer game, in a minimal, noire art style. You play as a young boy, dressed in a bright red sweater, as he sneaks his way through a ruined city and dilapidated military facility. The entire narrative is ambiguous. Plot is something to be discovered and imagined as you pass by lines of mindless people, abandoned laboratories, and armed guards. The story is ambiguous from the start, yet by listening to the world’s soundscape we can hope to uncover part of its history.

When you first play Inside, you’re dropped in media res, the sound of leaves rustling, a boy panting, and hurried feet kicking up loose gravel play in the foreground as your player character sneaks past armed men scouting the ground for your presence in a forest. As you run through it, evading flashlights and hurdling barbed-wire fences, the ambient noises of your environment create a tense atmosphere. It’s easy to lose focus in this chaos – particularly when you hear the growling and snarling of dogs in the distance beginning to close in on you.

It worked at first. When the dogs started barking, I ran as fast as I could through the forest around me, jumped off a cliff, and into a pond only to discover I couldn’t hold my breath for too long. I surfaced and the silhouette of armed guards appeared above me. Then bang. A piercing gunshot flagged my first death. You learn quickly that if you pay attention to the noise around you, the audio becomes a rhythmic clue to successfully fleeing.  Eventually, I honed my listening and I timed my escape.

“Focus and keep calm. You’ll die if you don’t.” My ritual began.

What is so compelling about Inside is that despite its narrative ambiguities, the gameplay, level design, art design, and especially sound design still create a cohesive world for the player to experience. Sound in Inside is, for the most part, diegetic. It serves a mechanical function in that we move according to what we hear and see in the world around us, but it also serves a narrative function. The soundscape is designed in a way to include noises that are made possible in this world, giving players clues as to what exactly happened to this place – a place where this boy is shot on sight, where people march in synchronized paces, and a place where there are devices to control the movement of human bodies. As a medium, games have the ability to not only be played, but also play with us. In this way, I think Inside exploits our sensory inputs in order to lure us into its world on a physical but affective level as well. This will be further explored below using Ian Bogost’s text How to Do Things with Videogames (2011).

Affect and Meditation in Games: A review of Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames

Inside is exemplary in how specific modalities – namely sound – can draw physical and visceral reactions from players. In How to do Things With Videogames, Ian Bogost argues that videogames have many uses “across the spectrum, from art to tools and everything in between… videogames are already becoming a pervasive medium, one as interwoven with culture as writing and images” (p.7).  Bogost categorizes and explores these many uses just as an entomologist “might create a collection that thoroughly characterizes the types, roles, and effects of insects on an environment” (2011, p.7), a practice that falls under the term “media microecology.” Media microecologists look at the minute functionality and interactions within a medium, to gain a broader understanding of the medium as a whole. For videogames, Bogost uses this process to look at the ways games are being used today – everything from their role in electioneering to photography – in order to elevate their cultural status to something more than a pastime.

I’d like to riff off Bogost’s writing, particularly when it comes to the affective and meditative properties of videogames. Throughout his text, affect is an underlying element that is never fully explored. Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg write that affect “arises in the midst of in-betweeness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon” (2009, p.1). We see this in-betweeness, this slippage into a visceral reaction, in the medium of games especially. For Bogost, we can see this affect when it comes to empathy. He argues that games can place players in a position of weakness despite having agency – that in games, we are placed in a position to act and be acted upon. (Bogost, 2011, p.19). This relationship between vulnerability and control is only one example of how games can elicit affective experiences from players. Videogames allow us to step into worlds that unnerve us, that frustrate us, that bring us joy – worlds meant to reflect our own, honest reality and affectively confront us, however ugly.

These affective experiences often lead to us to confront our current realities off screen. Mindfulness is a cognitive practice, one that requires your full attention in order to ground you in this reality. Affective experiences are a gateway to reflection, or meditation. And in my experiences, I find myself practicing mindfulness when my emotional anxieties begin to unnerve me, frustrate me, overwhelm me – when I need to slow down and take a close look at the world around me. Bogost writes that similarly, games allow players the ability to be aware of their environment – to pay “continuous attention to the unfolding scene” in front of them (p.51) through traversing a space – meditation through movement. In Inside, movement isn’t limited to a physical landscape. Our movement extends to its soundscape as well. Sound becomes a way to measure our temporal position in the game’s world. By listening to the world’s rhythm, to its beat, we move according to sonic affordances.

Moving through sound in Inside

Much of your movement in Inside is dictated by the noise surrounding you – this small boy is in constant danger and the only way to survive is to listen first. The boy is a hostile enemy to this place, with a looming threat always beating in the background. Everything in this world occupies a sonic space, and every noise reverberates tenfold in these abandoned laboratories. And as I progressed further into this facility and its laboratories, I began to hear a constant drumming in the background on a few occasions. Listen, focus, and move.

The drumming crept up on me, and my mind started listing off reasons why it would be playing at this specific moment. The drumming began to amplify. I could feel my heart beat faster until suddenly I realized it wasn’t just my own heartbeat I was listening to. It was the boy’s. Crack. I fell through a wooden floor and into a dark corridor with a line of listless bodies passing by me. Heavy footsteps began to join the beating in unison, and the boy jumped into its chorus. I began marching, then the line abruptly stopped moving. Start. Stop. Listen. Focus. I started counting.

“1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1. 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1.”

The line was moving to a rhythm. If I moved discordantly, the boy would be shot. My movement mimicked the rest of the mindless bodies marching forward. To progress, I had to count the rhythm of the footsteps and the boy’s heartbeat. Traversing the physical landscape of this scene without being noticed depended solely on my attention to the unfolding rhythms. Sonic harmony – the chorus of footsteps and the boy’s pounding pulse – was produced by movement that conformed to the beat of a line filled with people that weren’t moving of their own will. And I was one of them. The context of the soundscape created an affective experience, one prescribed by my visceral reaction. While counting, my thought became grounded in movement that was of that place and time. By repeatedly counting out the beat, traversing the physical landscape became a meditative interaction as it drew my attention to the present world around the boy.

The sound of a constant drumming, beating, would play another role later in my playthrough. At first, I thought it was the boy’s heartbeat again. But the beating began to shake rubble from the ceiling the closer I got to it, and my curiosity quickly turned to horror – another threat. My hands clammed up, my back stiffened. I pushed forward on my joystick: “Focus and keep calm. You’ll die if you don’t.” My ritual began. As I completed the previous puzzle, a heavy mechanical door whirred open, inviting me to my doom. The beating was now intolerable; a loud boom penetrated my ears.

I slipped past a wall, into the open of this rhythmic sound, and was immediately blasted apart. Fuck.

I had to stay hidden from the sonic shockwaves. The heartbeat of this sonorous weapon terrified me. I panicked, and my nerves were unsettled. The next few times I attempted to run to the safe cover of a wall, but failed and watched this boy be ripped apart, endlessly, by shockwaves. In these moments, I let fear get the better of me until I remembered to listen.

When I respawned behind a wall, I took a deep breath and listened to the shockwaves. BOOM! “1…2…3…” BOOM! “1…2…3”. My heel began to stomp the rhythm: I was focused, and I moved accordingly. This was the situation I was dealt and regardless of my fear, that reality wouldn’t change. What I could change however, was my reaction and agency. Behind each wall was my progression through this soundscape. I was moving my way forward, focusing on the soundtrack as a means to ground every action. As I traversed the virtual space, my attention was consistently focused on the sound that was shaping this specific moment. The sonic boom became an anchor to meditate on in this current time– to move forward, I had to slip through this in-betweeness, to feel uncomfortable, and focus on the world unfolding before me as Bogost prescribes. My skill was crafted by sonic meditation.

Sound and mindfulness in videogames

Inside illustrates the affective and meditative power of how we navigate soundscapes in these imagined worlds. Though sound design is often overlooked in discussions of the potentialities of this medium, I hope to give it a voice. Through my own dealings with anxiety and mindfulness, focusing on sound is a way to ground my reality. Games require a great amount of cognitive awareness, and though they can impose uncomfortable experiences on you, the player, they can also heal you through that very same process. This, I think, is a function of games that is just beginning to be understood and following Bogost, speaks to the growing properties of games as a medium. Videogames are often a site of sonic stratigraphy, waiting to be unearthed through our experiences of them.

References

Bogost, I. (2011). How to do things with video games. University of Minnesota Press.

Gregg, M., & Seigworth, G. J. (Eds.). (2009). The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, US: Duke University Press Books. Retrieved from ProQuest eBook Central

Playdead. (2016). Inside.

Andrea Luc