Limbo Original Videogame Soundtrack
Limbo Original Videogame Soundtrack
July 11, 2011
Buy at Official Site
It seems that, these days, the best place to find a video game that’s fresh and innovative is the burgeoning independent game scene. Case in point: Limbo, a 2D-platformer with an art direction morbid enough to give David Lynch nightmares. But of course, Limbo‘s sepulchral black-and-white tones were the exact thing that made the game unique, creating an intensely bleak atmosphere like few other games. Inevitably, it distinct look and feel would fuel the well-trodden “video games are art” argument. But more importantly, the titlebecame something of a posterchild for the creative potential of independently produced video games. That claim was solidified through a very strong critical reception and commercial success that saw Limbo become the third-highest selling game on the Xbox Live Arcade service in 2010.
Maybe tellingly, apart from a highly creative art style, Limbo shared another characteristic with 2011’s big indie game smash hit Sword & Sworcery: each game’s soundtrack was developed in close collaboration between composer and game director. On Limbo, composer Martin Stig Andersen and game director Arnt Jensen tried to ensure that the game’s sound would fit perfectly into the finely-tuned sensory package that it aimed to be. Andersen’s background lay in acousmatic music — music that integrates not just instrumental effects, but any kind of sounds. This turned out to be a perfect fit for what Jensen had in mind for the soundtrack. Limbo‘s score would play less like pre-composed “traditional background music”, as Andersen put it. Instead, it would be “appearing to stem from the [game’s] environment”, consisting to a large degree of sounds emitted by characters and objects within the game’s world. For example, when the player would approach “the insects, they become the main instrument of the music.” Andersen took further inspiration from the soundtracks to the silent films that inspired Limbo‘s visuals, “including the frequent use of near-silence, and the lack of audiovisual correspondence”. Andersen’s technological approach to Limbo‘s soundtrack matched his aesthetic ideas: to complement the game’s stripped-down visuals, Andersen ran everything through obsolete analogue equipment like wire recorders that degraded the sound while mixing all elements within the soundscape into one tightly-knit whole. All this time, Andersen was mindful that his music still had evoke emotions and draw the game’s deeper into Limbo‘s nightmarish world.
Andersen’s efforts, which confidently walked the threshold between music and sound design, certainly didn’t go by unnoticed. The adaptive nature of his score was highlighted in several reviews, as well as the soundtrack’s ability to perfectly contribute to Limbo‘s style. Ironically enough, Andersen’s sophisticated work on the game’s so subtly mixed understated musical elements with sound effects that many reviews stated that there was actually no music in the game! That didn’t stop Limbo from picking up a number of awards kudos, including a BAFTA nomination for Use of Audio. Eventually then, the game’s soundtrack was released on a short digital 20-minute album via iTunes and Bandcamp.
Of course, it’s desirable that a game’s soundtrack is created to perfectly fit the title it accompanies like. But such close correlation between gameplay, visuals and audio raises some tricky questions once that audio element is released on a soundtrack album. How well does the music stand on its own when its close siblings, the game’s images and gameplay, are gone? And to make things even more complicated: how could the highly interactive nature of Limbo‘s soundtrack be adequately showcased within the linearity of an album presentation? What about the fact that the game’s soundtrack consists at least as much of sound effects as of music? And while silence plays an important role in Limbo‘s sound world, how to integrate that tension between silence and noise into the soundtrack album? Mind you, none of this is impossible, but there’s no doubt about one thing: compiling a music album for Limbo that does the game’s elaborate soundscape justice is a formidable challenge.
Alas, this album’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t address the above questions and largely fails to convey the innovative nature of Andersen’s work. Silence doesn’t play a role at all on the album, although dynamics are at least varied enough within pieces and across the album as a whole. The music does change its direction during the course of the album, but while these changes could highlight the soundtrack’s originally interactive nature, the pieces instead follow straightforward musical considerations. Half the pieces simply move from darkness to light, sometimes almost jarringly so (“Rotating Room”). And instead of presenting a collage of creatively arranged sound effects, Limbo‘s soundtrack album mainly consists of ambient synth textures whose moody, minimalist nature won’t surprise many listeners. That’s not to say that Andersen’s ingenuity doesn’t shine through at all. The opening of “Rotating Room” features some truly menacing, growling and gnawing effects that sound like the unwanted child of a circular saw and a metal guitar riff. An almost subliminal electronic pulse sneaks into the first half of “Gravity Jump” and gives the piece a gentle beat. Here and also through the fuzzy bass notes on “Boys’ Fort”, Andersen’s instrumental manipulations give some sounds a removed, blurry quality that keeps them just of the listeners’ reach. And at least in this instance, Limbo‘s soundtrack album properly represents Andersen’s ambition: in this case, to mirror the reductive nature of the game’s visuals so that the player/listener has to fill in the gaps.
Limbo may ultimately not be a revolutionary listening experience, but it’s still an evocative one that weaves its spell despite the album’s short running time. Even on “Menu” and “Sister”, the game’s most static tracks, the music’s kept accessible through through an undercurrent of melancholia and a sense of loss buried beneath those morose, glacial textures. Admittedly though, you’ll have to listen very closely to find these compositions’ hidden heartbeat, particularly on “Sister”, which many listeners will deem too monotonous. Still, this emotional component, often a result of the pull between darker and lighter passages, draws you into Limbo, despite the album’s relative shortcomings. The tension between menace and elation is most clearly articulated on “Rotating Room”, “City” and “Gravity Jump”, which all start out with varying degrees of gloominess and eventually find their way to peaceful, sometimes ethereal conclusions. Andersen’s use of analogue recording processes gives these soothing sounds enough of a vintage, low-key quality that they never feel forced or cheap. Instead, they maintain an introspective, frayed edge that lets them ring true emotionally. Even more effective are the moments when rays of light don’t just replace blackness, but when both elements instead battle as on “Boys’ Fort”, where a high-pitched, single synth line is lost amidst bass drones and subterranean rumbling and almost overcome by their volatile force.
Going into the Limbo Original Videogame Soundtrack, you’ll need to adjust your expectations accordingly, particularly if you’ve played the game — and obviously, people with an interest in this soundtrack will have done so. Don’t expect this album to reproduce the game’s innovative, jagged soundscape and its experiments with sound effects and silences. What you get instead is musically quite conservative: slow, gloomy synth compositions for a gloomy game. But listen closer and you’ll discover that there’s more to this music than just ambient background noodling. Despite all the surface dreariness, this music has a heart full of menace, melancholia, and even hope. It’s these understated emotions, clad by Andersen in an organic and analogue sound, that make Limbo a worthwhile listen, despite the album’s short running time. It might not do full justice to the vision of Andersen and the game’s makers, but the Limbo Original Videogame Soundtrack will still find admirers among those who like their music atmospheric and subtly powerful.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.