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Sound Design

I feel like there’s a hole in the way we discuss soundtracks. We talk about using certain instruments or techniques to evoke certain kinds of emotions and associations without ever talking about the specifics of how we do that and why it works. I can’t tell if there’s some big conversation going on about this I’ve somehow managed to miss or if this is just something that somehow doesn’t get talked about, and a quick google search has turned up nothing, so let’s just get into it and if it turns out this is actually its own field of study with its own terminology then I’ll just have to look like an idiot later.

Okay.

So we’ve been trying to use music to evoke complex ideas for some time. Symphonic Poems, symphonies created to evoke a given piece of art or poetry through music, stood itself apart from earlier forms of music, which were either meant to accompany the opera or ballet or were meant to be purely musical exercises, not related to evoking any emotion or idea in particular. Of course, once we had film, we found that it was kind of weird and awkward to sit there and watch something in spooky silence, so we started playing music to accompany it, and soon the music also included rough foley effects. This was the precursor to the modern soundtrack, the music that accompanied non-musical action, baked straight into the movie – not singing, not dancing, just a couple having a heartfelt conversation about where their lives are going or a man walking away from an explosion.*

Music, even without lyrics, has symbolism. The most obvious form of this is mimicry: If you want to evoke an icy environment, use crystalline sounding instruments like chimes, or thin windy instruments that sound like the wind through the snows, or abrupt snapping percussion that sounds like ice cracking. The second form of this is onomatopoetic, using sound to evoke an environment or action in a less direct way – this can be difficult to quantify, but the famous Jaws theme is an outstanding example, the slow insistent motion evoking waves and the gradual crescendo to something faster and more insistent evoking something terrifying moving underneath them. The third, and probably actually the most common, is the associative: We associate sexy ladies with saxophone solos because we associate saxophone solos with sexy ladies. Among other things, this frequently provides a handy musical shortcut to communicate what era a flashback or period piece takes place in, though anything past 80 years ago is likely to be interpreted by a modern audience as “I dunno, in ye olde days sometime.”

A curious effect of the last is that, because it’s quite easy to create an association like this, the composer can create her own internal symbolic logic. For instance, Peter and the Wolf gives each character their own musical instruments and theme. Giving a character their own theme or leitmotif is a popular composer’s choice, something that can communicate bits of plot very easily, such as by using variations on a character’s theme during a scene where they appear in disguise. This was actually used often for humorous effect in the comedy series Arrested Development, establishing a short musical sting for a particular character/plot element and then playing it at unexpected moments when that element came up later in discussion (it may have been that part of the reason for this show’s lackluster success were that many of its jokes were too subtle to register as jokes to an audience not paying attention.)

Maybe a big reason this doesn’t get talked about much is that, as with the Arrested Development example, no matter how much the composer thinks about this, no matter how hard they work on it, few in the audience seem to notice the effort. The early areas in Monkey Island 2 have a lovingly crafted adaptive score, where each character has their own variation on the main town theme, with characteristic instrument choices and a bunch of detailed musical transitions, and these are sometimes reprised in later parts of the soundtrack – it’s unlikely we’ll ever see its like again in a game, since it was such a massive effort for a result that almost no one noticed. Inception cleverly used a musical motif, slowed down progressively, to viscerally communicate an idea about how its world operated – a motif since appropriated by other films going for that ‘epic movie feel’ without any appreciation for the original symbolic logic of its use.

Maybe most audience members just don’t give a shit about soundtracks.

The thing is, if soundtracks have meaning, it’s possible for soundtracks to have unfortunate and unintended meanings. I saw the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a play about an autistic teenager: The soundtrack seemed very intentional, using arpeggiatic constructs to evoke a sort of mathematics-tinged outlook and loud overwhelming distorted sounds to evoke the idea of being painfully overstimulated. It also had a kind of glitchy aesthetic to it, which struck me as odd. Was this intended to suggest that he was like a computer? Or, worse, a poorly programmed computer, or a malfunctioning one? Well, most likely it’s just that the composer associated these sounds with math and rational thinking, but in that specific context it had some rather unfortunate implications…

To me, anyway. I’m the only one who notices these things, apparently.

*I may be entirely off-base as to the musical history here. As I said, I wasn’t sure what search terms to use to do more research on this stuff.

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There are certain common threads that run through stories about violence. Violence has consequences – this is almost the very definition of violence. When you forcibly enact your will upon the world, things change, and often not in the ways you expected or desired. That permanence of violence, a permanence which outlasts any intent and causes unforeseen consequences to echo after its passage, is its most distinguishing characteristic – which is probably why, despite studies suggesting that the most harmful influence on young children comes from justified violence with minimal consequences, that that kind of milquetoast ‘good-guy’ violence is still the most commonly portrayed in media for youth. It may be a lie, and a dangerous one, but it feels safer because it is insulated from the honesty of violence, is violence with all of the blood and tears drained out. We need our bad guys and our good guys, and we need the good guys to stop the bad guys, and maybe it’s a failure of creativity but the solution is always to fight some kind of just war where no one is hurt. There aren’t really any just wars, just wars; and there are definitely no wars where no one gets hurt. This same kind of lie is popular in games, and has been all along, but has become more and more noticeable since the advent of recorded voice lines. We want to create enemies just human enough to be hated, but not so human that you feel bad for murdering them.

For most of last week I was awash in fictional blood. I played through Hotline Miami 2, and about halfway through that experience I went to see a stage production of Sweeney Todd, and something clicked there, a connection between disparate works snapped into place, the blood and the music pulsing under it, describing an arc of savage and hungry beauty. There’s meaning to the narrative, there’s ideas crawling on the surface, but there’s also the bloodlust itself, the Grand Guignol, the pure aesthetic of violence and shrieking sound.

So: Consequences. Revenge against those who have wronged us and then revenge against us for wronging those who have wronged us, echoing back and forth until it fades away, its memetic virus killing hosts faster than it can spread, or reaches an awful crescendo, a nuclear chain reaction, and destroys everything. Sweeney and Turpin destroying each other and everyone around them, the mob boss mowing down swathes of rivals in aimless vengeance, consequence outlasting intent by the echo chamber of revenge. Imitation as well, innocence becoming violence by learning it as the shape of power and respectability, the fans kill because Jacket killed, Toby kills because Sweeney killed – in this way, as well, violence reproduces and outlives intent. This is the story we tell when we talk about violence. The world twists off its axis, doomsday lurks around every corner, final judgment deferred moment by moment until its deferment run out, and those who live by the sword die by the sword, and when everyone starts living by the sword that is how everyone dies.

Maybe this isn’t a more honest perspective on violence than others – that which holds it to be hard and sad but necessary work, or to be naturally repugnant in every way but a behavior reinforced by the twisted incentives of a dying society – but it’s a perspective that at least looks at violence directly, as a force unto itself, rather than using humans as target practice and plot device without ever looking back at the trail of blood left behind.

There are probably some spoilers here if you care about such things.

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It’s incredible the symbolic weight we can lay upon the simplest of stories. Each such story extends beyond itself like tree roots and tangles into matted carpets of narrative and meta-narrative, confused ideas about what it means to exist and to be a person, Each story is not only its own story, but also part of this grand tangle that comprises our symbolic understanding of the universe, and the simplest stories we hear the earliest grow the deepest roots, come to underlie all other stories, come to bind and be bound into an intractable metaphorical labyrinth.

When we encounter stories like this as children it’s finding what looks like a little mushroom, but is actually one nodule of a mass of fungus that comprises the ground on which we stand. It is the forest masquerading as a tree. it is the tip of the iceberg, the horn of the bull, the grit of the planet of the star of the galaxy, and we are not prepared to comprehend. Our parents’ lives seem otherworldly – it doesn’t even occur to us that they have lives beyond us – and everything past our tiny fingertips seems so vast that we touch only fragments at a time.

Instead of being a story that ties into a world-view, parable and art merges into our reality. When you’re not that far past figuring out that objects don’t actually go away when you stop seeing them, metaphor is a big ask.

The Binding of Isaac is a confused overlay of heavy Abrahamic symbolism laid onto a procedural pastiche of the Legend of Zelda. I don’t mean ‘confused’ in a pejorative sense: It evokes the feeling I was just discussing, that of being a child, surrounded by parables and adult interactions that both exceed our understanding of the world and thereby begin to fuse with one another.

It’s easy to forget that feeling of not really knowing what’s real and what isn’t. That isn’t to say that we necessarily ever really learn what is real, but we at least become more certain of our divisions. We at least become more confident that there is, that there must be some objective reality underlying all of the interpretations.

The fact is, the history of objective reality is as distant from our perception as it is from explicit fiction. The truth is something that only existed in the moment, and for us can only be inferred partially from available evidence, a tiny light in the distance sinking inexorably into the black.


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There are a lot of different ways to create art, by way of impulse and instinct, by way of calculated engineering and symbolic interweaving, through characters or through places, through eras or circumstances. Games generally tend to favor deeply analytical and structured processes because these kinds of structures line up most readily with the technical work required to make a game manifest. Making a fully-featured game with its own unique gameplay tropes in a stream-of-consciousness, impulsive and expressive fashion is quite difficult, and the rare realization of this approach to creation is what gives The Binding of Isaac such a distinct and unique aesthetic.

Because ideas are siphoned directly from the most surface-level impulses, they carry all of the biases and preconceptions of the artist, often unfiltered. This kind of stream-of-consciousness and improvisational creation is common methodology in standup comedy, which lends itself readily to intuitive  and off-the-cuff approaches. The process of a lot of comedians seemingly involves scraping their psyche for the grossest, weirdest thoughts, throwing them out there and, with a wry grin, saying “isn’t that some fucked up shit?” And it works, because all of us have some of that shit in our brains, and acknowledging that it’s there and it’s gross but it’s still ours makes us feel human, feel worthwhile even at our most flawed.

There are drawbacks to this approach. No mind can exist in our world without picking up some really toxic concepts, and sometimes that toxicity is so potent that even within the context of saying “aren’t I hilariously fucked up?” it’s hard to allow these ideas space in discourse. Between portraying toxic ideas that have burrowed into our minds, and encouraging and normalizing those ideas, there’s a line so razor thin that it can be difficult to see, and bitter and ongoing disagreements vie over where that line lies. This is a frequent point of contention between social justice activists and stand-up comics, whether a joke is mocking oppression or normalizing it, whether a joke deconstructs racism and sexism by showing how the stereotypes they are built on are absurd or whether it merely parrots those stereotypes without meaningful commentary. In cases where a comedian has a strong social consciousness it can be a troubling and conflicting open question, leading comedians like Dave Chappelle into painful crises of conscience.

I don’t think there’s really a ‘solution’ to this conflict between normalization and description. This is one of many conflicts that we must resign ourselves to in our art, and navigate in the only way true ethical conflicts can be navigated: Day by day, case by case, rough-hewn principles abandoned far back on the road as too heavy and onerous to be borne out into the real world.


 

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The Binding of Isaac is uniquely structured in games, and even though it’s kicked off a wave of imitators it still remains distinct from them in several ways. Isaac is designed to be played through multiple times: Each time the game is completed, some new facet will be revealed. New areas will open up, new enemies will appear, new upgrades will be added to the pool of items that can be found. Though at first the game appears simple, there’s more and more to discover as you go.

While many games have been released since Isaac using a similar multiple-playthrough incentive, in all cases the new aspects unlocked are about rewarding the player by making them stronger or giving them more options. In Isaac, each playthrough expands the scope and difficulty of the game while the player character remains more or less consistently powerful: conversely, with most other games using a similar structure, the game stays more or less the same while the player gets more powerful, something much closer to the traditional RPG leveling system.

Though these games are overtly inspired by the structure of The Binding of Isaac, when it comes to the intent behind the structure Isaac is far more similar to something like Frog Fractions, an experience of discovery, than it is to Rogue Legacy, an experience of empowerment.


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The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a remake of the original, undertaken primarily because that original game grew too large to be a manageable project in the confines of the antiquated version of Flash it was built in. it was built quickly, in a matter of months, and architected in ways which were more expedient than they were expandable: This, more than any limitation of design or vision, is the flaw that Rebirth was released to rectify.

For all that Rebirth adds, there’s something missing. For all the technical woes born from creating the original game quickly and haphazardly, it captured a spontaneity and energy that’s distinctly different from that of a long-term project. For a game like Isaac, that is so inspired by the muted and confused impressions of childhood, so shaped by intuition and free association and reckless expression, taking a large team and long time to express it in its most refined form gives the whole experience a different impression than when it was expressed as quickly and intuitively as possible. Not only does this make the vulgarity of the game appear more calculated, and therefore less justifiable than before, it makes the entire experience less coherent. It is the difference between the quick sketch and the painstaking portrait: The latter may take more time and technical execution, but the former sometimes captures a spirit, a moment of movement, that’s lost if you try to polish it, to ‘fix’ it.

This slight conflict is echoed and amplified throughout Rebirth: The game employs a ’16-bit aesthetic’, presumably intended to hearken back to the Zelda games which inspired it – but, as with most modern games employing ‘retro’ styles, it doesn’t really commit. The resolution is higher and wide-screen, the frame-rate is targeted at 60 frames per second, the color range is essentially unlimited and operates via RGB tinting rather than palette manipulation, objects are translated and rotated and scaled with sub-pixel accuracy… It’s an inversion of the kind of up-res filters that are popular in emulators for old games, which draw interpolated pixels between the jagged edges created by the limited resolution: Rebirth appears to use high-res pixel images, perform operations on them, and then filter them down to lower resolution to hide the ugly artifacts that result from these kinds of operations. This is a peculiar choice in particular because the vector art the original game uses was resolution independent, and it was designed to take advantage of that capability, freely scaling and tinting objects. Translating a design made with these decisions in mind directly into a technical situation where it’s much more expensive, challenging, and aesthetically inconsistent to perform these operations seems a bizarre choice. The end result of these decisions isn’t ugly or unappealing – the underlying art is well-executed and it runs well – but it does seem somewhat inconsistent and ill-considered.

The music carries the action well, and layers fade in and out based on gameplay situations which adds an element of excitement and discovery that wasn’t there in the original, but it feels less consistent in tone and intent. The original soundtrack had a balance between excitement and melancholy which evoked the difference between the game’s action gameplay and its dark and strange story framework, and though the new soundtrack never detracts from the experience it trades away this complexity of emotion for a colder and more technical complexity. It’s a worthy soundtrack, but along with the new graphical style seems slightly at odds with the intuitive and personal stream-of-consciousness of the game’s expression.

Where these technical improvements don’t conflict with the fundamental soul of the game, they shine. Almost every item in the game has been carefully developed such that it interacts with other items in an appropriate and interesting way, in many cases obviously requiring custom code to handle a specific interaction. It would be hard to argue that this isn’t an improvement over the original, where many items didn’t work with each other at all, in some extreme cases making it impossible to progress. The game runs stably and reliably on most systems, and enemies and items have been added which add so many projectiles the old version would have slowed to a crawl. Room layouts are more varied and interesting compared to overwhelmingly symmetrical layouts of the original, and native controller support and game-saving make enjoying the experience much easier than the occasionally convoluted issues of control and time-investment required to play the original.

Nevertheless, some aspect of the joy and horror of the original Binding of Isaac has been lost. As someone who tends to overthink and overwork every creative endeavor, I have to wonder: Is this my fate as well? Am I destined to have my creativity confined by a box of my own craftsmanship? Or is there a light shining through, a way to capture that spirit and spontaneity, a way to express myself through the meticulous constraints of game technology, supported without being constrained?


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One of the most interesting and nuanced changes from the original game involves the health system. In the original, there were two kinds of health: Hearts and Blue Hearts. Hearts are what you would consider your standard health: You start with 3 of them and can upgrade your maximum with a number of different health upgrade items which allow you to collect more. Blue hearts completely ignore your maximum health capacity and just get added to the end of your health meter with no limit: They can keep on going beyond what the health meter can display. They are more useful in every way than standard health pickups, but generally less useful than health upgrades, and collecting a huge number of them is frequently a certain path to victory. Rebirth completely changes this dynamic by making it so that your maximum health and blue hearts together cannot exceed the maximum displayable health value, making blue hearts useless once you’ve accumulated enough maximum health.

This results in a very strange dynamic: If you have a high maximum health but are running low on current health, you can end up dying surrounded by blue hearts you can’t pick up because you have no room for them. Health upgrades are no longer objectively positive: Some of the most powerful runs have no health upgrades at all and run entirely on blue hearts. In practical terms, the optimal strategy is usually to choose either health upgrades or blue hearts and structure your approach around that choice: Items which provide blue hearts get more powerful the lower your max health is, and items which restore health get more powerful the higher it is, so depending on which you have you may want to collect or avoid health upgrades. Though it’s sometimes difficult to find health upgrades, depending on how you’re playing it can be nearly impossible to get rid of them, so the choice of whether or not to take them is far more loaded than it may, at first, appear.

While this system is likely not intended to convey anything in particular, or even necessarily intended to be an interesting gameplay decision so much as to hem in overpowered blue heart maximization strategies, it does have a weird kind of symbolic meaning. Generally, in Isaac, hearts symbolize life and vitality, with red heart upgrades being provided by items like food and drink, where blue hearts symbolize faith, the supernatural, and the life of the mind, being provided by religious symbols like the rosary or the miter. Being asked to choose between one or the other in order to maximize a run conveys a message about temperance and faith and the difficult decisions that go into how a life should be best lead.

This is particularly interesting in light of the running theme through Edmund McMillen’s games of balancing, or failing to balance, between the creative life of the mind and the real world. This suggests that the ideal balance isn’t some simplistic 50/50 time split, but a situational equilibrium that changes with each moment – sometimes, to survive, you must dedicate yourself to your spirit, towards improving and healing your mind through focus and faith – sometimes, to survive, you must rest and replenish, eat and drink and become physically whole. Trying to do both at once just makes you less capable of pursuing either.

Is this implication intentional? Probably not. We ascribe meaning to the patterns of stars in the sky, though, even though the lights above neither know nor care about our petty problems. Some messages are important not because of why they were sent, but because of why they were received.


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The intro and the first ending are the only segments shown in Isaac’s hand-drawn style, and also are together the only instances of spoken dialogue within the game. This suggests some striking divide between the narratives provided in those segments versus those provided in the brief ending cutscenes, which are rendered in a more traditional animated style. In many stories, these shifts would suggest a divide between the ‘real world’ of the fiction and something just happening in the character’s mind, but given the contradictory and fragmented nature of the rest of the narrative I doubt that there’s any such underlying ‘reality’ in The Binding of Isaac. Rather, I would suggest that these strike the divide between the conscious world, the world that Isaac constructs out of drawings and stories to make sense of what he’s feeling and cannot understand, and the unconscious world, his world of dreams and symbols which feed into his thoughts but is wild and incomprehensible.

This evokes to my mind the first Silent Hill game – two worlds, one seemingly ‘real’ but cut off from the reality we know, grey and muted, the other a purely nightmarish world of decay and rust, a purgatory where sinners and lost souls wander. There’s also a parallel between Isaac’s last ending, showing Isaac hyperventilating, locked in a chest, in his presumably final moments, flickering back and forth between a scared child and a vicious demon, and the ‘bad’ ending of Silent Hill, showing Harry dead in the wreck of his car, the preceding story perhaps just a dying hallucination.


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The D6 is an item you get once you defeat Isaac playing as ??? – who is essentially Isaac’s corpse. The D6 allows you to change any item you find into a random different item. There’s a couple of interesting points to note here: First, a notable effect of ‘random’ items like this that they essentially end up decreasing the overall randomness of a game’s outcome through means of increased, rather than decreased, randomization. There’s a certain naive approach to randomness in game mechanics that intuits that the more randomly selected numbers there are, the more random and unpredictable the experience is. In fact, the practical result is frequently the opposite: If just a few numbers are left to chance, the outcome of those numbers gives a huge impact to a single individual random chance – but, if the game is built on large amounts of randomly selected numbers, then over the mass of them they’re almost certain to balance out. This principle is neatly illustrated by the D6, which allows you to introduce more randomization in order to increase your average odds of success.

The D6 is also interesting because it provides your only means of escaping bad luck. This, along with the item’s description, ‘reroll your fate’, suggests gaming in general as an escape from the punishing vagaries of real life – though, in the end, it won’t help Isaac escape the doom ascribed to him by the confines of the game, it will give him a moment of ease, a moment of escape, a tiny bright spot shining through a keyhole


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Isaac suggests a number of interpretations through its several endings, none of them pleasant and few of them suggesting the actual gameplay moments are anything more than a hallucination or creative construct of Isaac’s mind. However, no matter what happens in this crazy scenario with hundreds of interacting elements, no matter what comes before, at the end, every single time, he has to climb into the chest. Each play of the game is just one of a million feverish escape fantasies, each suggestion of an escape from death an attractive lie. The only prize that can be won, the only ending that doesn’t require you to climb back into the chest, is when you collect the key to the lock, fight the greatest of all imaginable evils – and find yourself already in the chest anyway, in a brief moment of lucidity, a shining light through a keyhole.

Then you play again, as a different Isaac with different adventures, but the chest is always waiting. The chest contains the game, contains every experience you might have within it, the fate you constructed for yourself by playing.

 

Next time: The Swapper

[moderate spoilers for Neverending Nightmares]

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I like dreams, and stories about them. Though they never capture quite what it feels like to exist in a dream space, though they never quite emulate that constantly shifting boundary that builds itself based on whatever seems appropriate to your internal narrative, there’s always a seed of that familiar space that is universal and lies within each of us. Our dreams may differ, but we all dream – and sometimes it’s hard to tell when the dreams end. When you spend enough time thinking of abstractions and possibilities, they start to blend together with the abstract constructed realms of the sleeping life.

Neverending Nightmares is that kind of dream. When you are overwhelmed with visions of failure and guilt, and these visions manifest themselves into pathways through hallways at-once familiar and unfamiliar. Just trudging, step-by-step, through a series of nearly identical hallways, stared down at by portraits of strangers and more disturbing images, feels like a dream. Ancestral homes that were once a place of comfort twist into unfamiliar passages in the undefined half-light of dream, shift and loop like a snake, become infinite, never-ending.

Antiques and old houses show up a lot in my more unnerving dreams. Is it just that they’re old, and know more of death than us, surviving owners and occupants, witnessing betrayals and murder? Or is it that I fear being forgotten and left behind, as they must have been, so long ago? Whether because of this primal association, or to fit more closely with its chosen Edward Gorey-esque art style, or to make the nightmarish hospital and asylum’s antiquated facilities not seem out of place, Neverending Nightmares seems to take place quite some time ago, in Victorian-style rooms filled with paintings and ornate antique furnishings, lit by candlelight only.

Sometimes the candles placed around are enough, and the rooms are well-lit, but as the nightmares progress this becomes the case more and more rarely, and as the rooms get darker and darker the art style begins to show its teeth, the darkness around you fading into a solid wall of pen-stroke hatch-marks. The jagged edge of the circle of light cast by your candle interacts strangely with the wood grain, wallpaper, and furnishings, crisscrossing to form abstract not-quite objects at the edge of your vision. Though the lighting doesn’t behave like actual flickering candlelight, it captures the sinister illusions of that inconstant light well. And, when the candle goes out and leaves you in the darkness, completely obscuring the world in black, you can still see which direction you’re moving by the motion of the textured pen-strokes that comprise the endless night, something that would be impossible to convey in a purely representational art style.

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At times the music seemed inappropriate to me, often harshly synthetic and reminiscent more of horror movies than of dream sounds – but our dreams are formed of our experiences, and movie tropes have their place within them as well. Simply keeping music going at all times helped to soften the edges of the game’s reality, making it feel less artificial and constructed, even if the process to get there was more explicitly engineered. Alongside the music, a number of sounds seem to recur: A woman crying, a death rattle, a creaking of rope or wood… these sounds, played over and over in different contexts, bring to mind the terrible stickiness of post-traumatically seared memory, the flashes of moment that will never be forgotten.

Though Neverending Nightmares would have likely never existed without being funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s hard not to feel like the source of its funding leaves some unsightly marks on the game itself. Since the higher donation levels allow the donor’s name to be put on a tombstone in-game, I was taken out of the moment more than once by seeing a familiar name – I suppose this might not be the case with someone less ensconced in gaming culture, but for me and, I suspect, many of the others most likely to be aware of this relatively small game, seeing these names will be distracting. There are also a series of custom portraits of backers in the game, any of which you can look more closely at: In a game with such a paucity of interaction and density of background information, having unusually detailed portraits of unknown people can also be quite distracting – though walking through a hallway of portraits of strangers doesn’t seem like it deviates too far from the dream logic of the game, and isn’t as distracting to the experience, it is an example of how extraneous detail can reduce the overall impact of a work. It’s fortunate that these are largely relegated to the early part of the game, before the nightmarish spell is wholly woven and distractions come at a critical cost to engagement, but it still demonstrates that the form of a game is ineluctably tied to how it is created and funded, and in some games this can improve it (as with Prison Architect’s custom prisoner profiles) and in others it can derail.

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Neverending Nightmares doesn’t rely much on explicit story, using a few short storytelling moments to anchor a web of symbolic significance hinted at by the environments you walk through. The game opens with a first-person vision of stabbing a young dark-haired girl, who we find is named Gabby. Gabby becomes one of the few constant points between the nightmares. You are always Thomas, she is always Gabby, but the relationship between you shifts depending upon the context of the dream. At first she’s your sister, then your therapist, then your wife.

This game has a branching ending system which, paired with the conceit of the game, has an interesting implication. Because the final scene of each story pathway is, at least implicitly, the reality that has lead to the nightmares, his real-world circumstances are derived from the dreams he has about them. It’s an interesting kind of reverse-causality emerging as a natural consequence of the decision to tell a branching story about a dream-world. It implies a certain universality to nightmares, that any one of three very different Thomases could suffer similar acute anxieties. It also implies that whatever decisions you, as a player, make, those decisions were foreordained by the nature of your Thomas, driven not by your choice as a player but by the shape of the reality that haunts his dreams.

There’s a number of different thematic elements that repeat themselves in background elements, found objects, and enemy design. Birds are commonly portrayed in the paintings you walk past: Frequently what appear to be albatrosses, tying into the theme of guilt and loss, but vultures and crows also seem to be portrayed. Additionally, several times you walk past a long dinner-table set for a holiday meal, and among other things the table is set with a large turkey – and, in darker iterations of the nightmare and in paintings, the turkey on the platter is rotted and hollow. This image neatly echoes the guilt of the albatross, the death-imagery of the crows and vultures, and the familial betrayal and unease that seems to underlie the anxiety between Thomas and Gabby.

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Suicide and murder, betrayal of the self and betrayal of those close to you, are portrayed as roughly equivalent. Gabby is so closely identified with Thomas that any harm that comes to her seems almost indistinguishable from harm done to Thomas himself, and they both harm themselves as often and as brutally as they harm each other. There’s a truth here that is rarely expressed about violence in games or, indeed, much of anywhere: Past a certain point, hurting the ones we care about most is the same as intentional self-harm, and often arises from the same impulses. Those who are close to us actually substantially define who we are, and if their perception is shaken or ceases then the person we believe ourselves to be exists a little bit less. We become orphaned from existence. We become castaways.

The floors of the hospital are littered with broken glass, and in one branch of the nightmare you find a broken bottle sitting in a sink, blood on its edges, teeth with traces of blood beside it. The teeth are there in earlier iterations without the bottle, but the bottle is unique to that branch, perhaps implying alcoholism in the reality of that nightmare – an interpretation amply supported by its conclusion. The teeth are in the sink for all paths and, perhaps along a similar theme, misshapen and grinning slit-mouths and bleeding or missing eyes are common thematically, most of the enemies having one or more of these, but it’s not clear to me whether this is intended to represent a specific anxiety (blindness, helplessness, self-harm) or are merely raw nightmare-stuff, the kind of thing that every human finds generally disturbing and which thus tends to find its way into horror games.

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There’s also an ongoing gender motif. Visiting Thomas’s childhood bedroom, we see toy soldiers scattered about, and in Gabby’s there are dolls. Also, aside from the pictures of birds and of food, plus the occasional landscape or violent death, there are many paintings of women in wedding veils or shrouds or hidden mothers holding children, and even more portraits of men in military dress. Together, they hint at Thomas’s struggles with traditional masculine and feminine identity and the history of violence that comes with them, both as perpetrator and as victim. This is echoed by a recurring motif of the bloody axe and the bloody meat cleaver, the painting of the huntsman standing behind the girl with an axe and the tolling clock’s mechanical diorama of headsman and victim, and the stuffed bear – both the fluffy kind, kept in Gabby’s room and standing in for her in several places, and an actual bear, stuffed and mounted, Gabby dead again in effigy.

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Interestingly, one of the three endings shows the stuffed bear in Thomas’s bed, just before he goes to kiss his sister goodnight: The world still seems nightmarish, damaged dolls and missing doorways, but it seems to give Thomas some measure of peace anyway – whether by healing the conflict in his mind that leads to such terrible dreams, or merely succumbing to them and joining Gabby in endless sleep, it’s impossible to say.

Religious imagery is also commonplace throughout. This is made extremely explicit by the stained glass image of Christ near the end of one of the paths, emphasizing the connection between the fifth wound of Christ, the spear stabbed in his side, and the wounds that Gabby and Thomas suffer in many branches of the nightmare. There are two bibles lying open on lecterns at different points in the game. The first, in one of the early nightmares, is open to psalms 21, likely because of this line: “Deus, Deus meus, respice in me: quare me dereliquisti”, or “O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me?” The second is open to Matthew 27, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth: “Et circa horam nonam clamavit Jesus voce magna dicens: Eli Eli, lamma sabacthani? hoc est: Deus meus Deus meus ut quid dereliquisti me”, or “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lamma sabachthani?’ which means: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” These messages are referenced in numerous places throughout the game, found scrawled in blood on the walls of insane asylums and bedrooms. Even aside from this obvious connection, there’s an interesting implied connection between the guilt of Judas at spilling the blood of an innocent leading him to hang himself and all of the hanging imagery in the game, as well as the name of Thomas, the Apostle “Doubting” Thomas who refused to believe in the resurrection of Christ, and the similarly recurring text scrawls, “Everything is a lie.” Continuing these biblical allusions further, Gabby likely represents Gabriel, the messenger of God, sent to guide Thomas out of the nightmare world he has created for himself.  Unfortunately, I am far from a biblical scholar so I’m sure a lot of more subtle allusions and connections have evaded my notice, but together this suggests a crisis and collision of faith as well as of identity.

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It’s difficult to say anything concrete about games that embrace ambiguity and mystery, but I love the feeling of having as much fun thinking about a work of art afterwards as I did while actively experiencing it, and Neverending Nightmares has delivered on that. Though it’s a lot of work sometimes to analyze a game like this, it’s also deeply rewarding in that it pushes me to take a closer look at the veins connecting a piece’s ideas and meaning, and in so doing think more deeply about what lies under the surface of my own work. It’s a powerful experience just to exist in a world like this, however distantly and abstractly, for a time.

Though I may or may not play it again, I’m sure I will revisit Neverending Nightmares – perhaps just a moment of doubt or a flicker of black hair at the edge of my vision, perhaps as a dream, perhaps as an inspiration. It’s in my head now.

[next: Lone Survivor]

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It’s been a pretty good week. At this point, I’ve got maybe 90% of my total sound code finished. As I wrote about this previously I’d developed a bunch of the foundational classes and I was just about to integrate them into the main game: I ended up basically copying the architecture I developed for playing animations for my Sound playing behavior, which means that it’s now a system every bit as flexible and powerful as the animation system – and, as well, it gave me another opportunity to look over the animation system, and catch a couple of small problems I hadn’t noticed the first time.

After that… actually, I had a really hard time for a while after that. I spent a few days looking at my requirements for a music player system, what kinds of information it would need to have access to in order to do its job. I pondered how to organize it with the same kind of command architecture that the Animation and Sound behaviors used, and frankly I just didn’t get anywhere. In the meanwhile, spurred on by the vague ideas I did have, I developed a couple of utility behaviors, such as a tag system which allowed entities to be labeled. So, for instance, a demon enemy could be tagged with “moving entity”, “enemy”, and “demon”. Entities thus tagged can be quickly retrieved… well, they can be retrieved anyway, I’m not sure how quickly, though I do have some optimization ideas should it turn out to be an issue that they aren’t retrieving quickly enough.

But I digress. The point is that, after a few days of bashing my head on the problem of a music interface, I all but gave up on a single elegant solution and resigned myself to just writing a bunch of custom code for each section of the game. It might be ugly, but it would get the job done. I started working on a simplest-case solution, a basic behavior that would play one track when you walked into an area.

For that to work, I would need an object to handle the music track’s information, so that the music behavior didn’t, for instance, accidentally play multiple instances of the same track. While I was at it, I figured, I should make this music track class able to handle fading the music in and out, so I added a couple of variables to handle that. At that point it occurred to me that if I wanted to be able to sync music tracks up to one another, this was the most logical place to store the information that handled that… and, everything started falling into place, and before I knew it I had made – well, maybe not what I’d wanted all along, but the more reasonable grounded version of it. It wasn’t a one-size-fits all system for handling music playback, but it was a music interface powerful and flexible enough that it should handle most general cases and, when it comes time to inevitably write custom code to handle level-specific interactive music needs, should be easily up to the task.

Up next, it’s time to actually test out all of the classes I’ve been developing. Within a week, barring unexpected circumstances, I should have all of the non-level-specific sound and music code functional.

I’m feeling pretty good about that. Let’s see if I can ride that good feeling long enough to get this entity editor I’ve been avoiding launched off the ground.

ST11All things are relative.

There’s a phenomenon that’s been ongoing in the music industry for the last 30 years called the Loudness War. It goes like this: Audio producers are pressured, both internally and externally, commercially and artistically, into creating louder and louder albums. However, of course, the loudness of a given audio recording has far more to do with how it’s played back than how it’s recorded, assuming all of the data is intact and accurate. Past a certain point, given digital technology, one reaches a maximum volume that the signal can reach: Anything past that, and you’re losing information.

Anything past that, and you’re not making the sound louder any more, you’re just compressing the range of sound up around the top, and warping it tremendously. It’s as though, in an attempt to make a painting the most vivid red, the artist avoided using any other colors: It might still look okay, it would certainly be very red, and it might even be recognizably similar to the piece it once was, but it would be overwhelming, bloody, tiring, monotonous. If it were but one painting, that wouldn’t be so bad: It would be a bold, if somewhat off-putting, artistic choice. But if it were all paintings?

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What do you MEAN you spilled it? That was a year’s supply of spaghetti sauce!

So it is with over-compressed music. It is tyrannical, overbearing, terrible – and it is everywhere.

By everywhere, I don’t just mean in the realm of music recording, I mean that in some form this tendency persists in all arenas of artistic pursuit. We race to make the most intense action, the edgiest dramas, the funniest comedies, and everywhere the most foolish among us convince themselves that the best way to achieve this is to make every moment intense, edgy, funny.

These things do not exist in a vacuum. Every emotion you convey to your audience is judged and weighed in relation to each other. Non-stop action turns out to be, in practice, really damn boring: With no contrast of fast to slow, of tense to relaxed to visceral, you have nothing. You have a flat line. And, as long as you’re attempting to convey an emotion only by hammering on that one note over and over, that’s all you can have.

Are you trying to make your audience feel sorrow? Don’t make them watch the protagonist get beat down every day, ground down to dust: Show the protagonist trying to escape that, feel the triumph just out of reach, and take it away from them. Show them the fall instead of just the unmoving carcass after the landing. Trying to make a comedy? Have at least one character who takes things dead serious, who’s just trying to get something done and is interrupted by outlandish occurrences, but it never seems to quite sink in how strange these things are. Add a context of sanity within which the absurd occurrences can take place.

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No it would not be funnier if he was wearing a hat shaped like a hamburger.
Probably.

The point is, no matter what emotion or idea you are trying to invoke, you must include its opposite to define it, or you end up with… nothing.

When everything’s over the top, all you have achieved is just slightly relocating the top.

Most experienced artists come to understand this instinctively, but it’s a remarkably common stumbling block even among those who should know better. And, to be fair, even contrast can be dangerous when taken too far: The mundane detail you wanted to seem poignant instead comes across as comical, or the comic relief to your tragedy seems to be mere tastelessness.

This is where true artistry lies: In finding the right mix of intense, chaotic, suspenseful, cathartic, reflective, outlandish, surreal, mundane – that mix that can show what you’re trying to show, can convey what you wish to convey, without seeming clumsy, blunt, flat. It’s a broad target to hit, and you can do a lot within those constraints, but it’s also an easy target to miss if you forget it’s there.

All things are relative.

433We are so often so inundated with sound that being in a genuinely quiet environment is a strangely potent experience. Right now, the weight of the silence is sufficient enough that I feel obtrusive by tapping at the keyboard, and am muting my typing as best as I am able, but there’s still a quiet distant roar outside like a waterfall almost out of hearing, and faint dog barks, and the quiet hum of my laptop. This is what passes for silence for me. It’s not much but it’s a start.

Silence is an intimidating choice to make, artistically. In films, making part of the film completely silent means that you will hear your fellow audience members, each cough or wheeze or murmur or fart. It can ruin the kind of tense moment that filmmakers usually reserve such silence for. There, too, we often hear a degree of that abstract distant roar, wind or traffic or water in the pipes, that seems to frequently accompany us, just to cover up the obnoxious practicalities a human audience brings. Silence means that whatever you present needs to stand up on its own merits, with no recourse to the cheap poeticism of speech, to the hollow thunder of faked up explosions, to the tawdry manipulations of an orchestral score or to the undirected impulse of a beat.

Making the choice of silence in games is even rarer. Many games avoid forgoing even their musical backing for any length of time, constantly playing musical phrases until they become wrung out and bereft of meaning. Even those which are comfortable with a more sparse musical accompaniment rarely have situations of oppressive silence: Because sound is a fundamental feedback mechanism to let the player know what they’re doing, it’s problematic to have any situation where the player would be incapable of breaking the silence. It’s unusual to even present the player with a silence to be broken, to have a space in the game muted, virginal: To make it seem an uncomfortable violation when the player character actually makes a sound, a footstep or a grunt, and shatters that vast mute.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be unable to hear, to have these mountainous ranges of silence and cacophony constricted to a single band. People often think of the blind man forced to compensate by increased sensitivity to sound and touch, but I wonder if the deaf might sometimes, inured to the manipulations of the Foley artist and composer, see things a bit more clearly. So often, every single channel of information is used to tell and to amplify an emotionally manipulative lie– if one of those channels cuts out, does that lie become more feeble and begin to topple?

Well, perhaps, but there’s more than one way to cast a sin, and people do so love being manipulated that any ground made up would quickly be lost again. Given my druthers, I’d ruther risk the pitfalls of manipulation than be edified by disability.

It would be terrible to never know what silence sounds like.