¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 “[T]he meanings of play—of video gameplay in particular—are ultimately connected to social and material realities […].” (Steven Jones, The Meaning of Video Games 15-6)
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Listening and playing are two interactive abilities that allow individuals to build and actively tap into networks of relationships that constitute their world. In video games, sound design and gameplay promote the cohesion of the gaming experience as they enlist a player’s sensory and explorative participation in the game world. Listening to the game and playing with the rules of the game means to connect with a virtual environment—a connection informed by social, political, economic, or cultural premises.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The 2012 video game Journey, developed by the game studio thatgamecompany, and Playdead’s Inside from 2016 are two story-driven games that combine the relational characteristics of sound and play while completely foregoing spoken or written narration. Instead of vocal renditions or texts, they use other means such as nonverbal sound to convey their stories and, ultimately, to elicit an interpretive response to the gameplay experience. In both games, sound simultaneously involves the players and encourages them to create their own personal stories while playing.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The main stories of Inside and Journey are embedded in game environments geared toward an immersive and interactive experience that oscillates between the solitary exploration of the world and the cooperative involvement in social connections. Set in an uninhabited desert, Journey combines a single-player mode with optional opportunities for cooperation and experimentation in its gameplay. Inside’s dystopian adventure lets its lone and silent protagonist grapple with institutional power structures that govern any form of interaction with non-player characters in its Foucauldian carceral society.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The absence of verbal explanations or distractions in both games channels the player’s attention to the sonic effects of their actions within the game from the beginning and allows for a contemplative engagement with the aural and visual aesthetics of the game environment. They start without preamble with a solitary avatar in a natural setting that is reflected in the acoustic design of the footsteps once the player takes up the controller and starts to move. We can hear the rustling of leaves as a feedback to our actions in the forest of Inside and the sand grinding under the avatar’s feet in Journey’s desert. This first auditory contact when one starts playing the game announces that paying attention to sonic cues is an integral component of the gameplay. It paves the way for the upcoming acoustic definition of the social and environmental structures governing the game world and the aural involvement in non-player character interactions as well as player relations.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Even though the outlook of these two games is almost antithetical, their shared emphasis on the sonic contributions to storytelling and nonverbal gameplay calls for a comparative analysis. When considered together, they raise the question of what makes sound (and this includes the absence of sound within a sonic environment) such an efficient tool for shaping the relations between players, non-player characters, and the virtual game environment. Critical listening provides a framework for the cultural contextualization of video game sound as a formative influence when it comes to the imagination of social dynamics, and it highlights the significance of sound for the interconnectedness between the practice of gaming and the “social and material realities” Jones mentions (16).
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In the following, I will argue that the usage of nonverbal sounds in Journey and Inside generates individual storytelling experiences that invite players to evaluate or rethink social dynamics and world-subject relations. Their approaches on the “invisible layer” of sound—to come back to Voegelin’s analogy—directly implicate the player in the sonic and visual events on screen through the close connection of sound to the tactile input and feedback loop between hand and controller. Since the progression in these games is based on the sequential exploration of a story in which the avatar is the protagonist, the gaming experience inevitably also becomes a storytelling experience. Accordingly, the acoustic definition of player actions and social relations not only functions as a major gameplay feature but also affects how the story evolves in the process. In the following, critical listening shall generate insights into the connections between nonverbal gameplay, virtual storytelling, and sound. The ensuing focus on in-game acoustics will delineate the impact of sound design on narrative agency and social practice as well as the participatory dynamics fueled by sonic play in Journey and Inside.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In Inside and Journey, sound is the determining element for the tension between gameplay and storytelling. The combination of an explicit attention to sound and the evident absence of sounds is a main driving force for engaging the player. It opens up a space for play in the stories that the games unfold and complements the spectacle of the visual aesthetics they display with the interactive potential of listening. As Karen Collins writes in Playing with Sound, “[l]istening affects the ways in which the player experiences the game and, in some cases, affects the player’s ability to play the game” (5). These two games, however, go a step further than this general notion because they offer players the option to influence the course of the game through the practice of listening and the play with sound reproduction.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 When sounds are elements of the game structure and of ‘free’ play at the same time, the presence or absence of particular sounds can promote alternatives to the predetermination of a story-driven gameplay and may sometimes even lead to its subversion. The double function of sound in both Journey and Inside engenders a possibility space that Graham Jensen defines as the result of the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom of play in “Making Sense of Play in Video Games: Ludus, Paidia, and Possibility Spaces:”
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In the same way that the Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin describes “centripetal” (or “organizing”) and “centrifugal” (or “disrupting”) forces working constantly against each other in language and culture (…), the forces that characterize paidia and ludus are in constant tension in video games. The result of this tension is what Will Wright (…) calls a “possibility space,” a site of constant but productive, generative conflict between order and chaos, between rules and uninhibited play. (69)
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Along these lines, gameplay resides at the interstices between the rules of a game and the player’s drive to explore possible courses of action and test the game’s boundaries in the process. The rules provide orientation and structure. They ensure the clear determination of the overall outcome of a game and its riddles, challenges, or tasks. By preventing the game from being arbitrary, they facilitate its playability. Play makes gamer agency possible and is characterized by the process of trying different approaches and altering an unsuccessful procedure when stopped by the code. In other words, play calls for experimentation and imagination as it motivates players to choose from a variety of options or even create their own solutions. The possibility space of a game depends on the balance between these two features and the visual, aural, and tactile features of a game function as calibration tools for the balancing of a game. Hence, simultaneously embedding sound in the game structure and playing with acoustics taps into the “transformative and generative power of play, which is derived precisely from the point at which paidia and ludus necessarily intersect” (Jensen 71). Sound facilitates the recognition of boundaries and required actions. Its temporal characteristics make sonic stimulus particularly useful as a structural element in video games, e.g. for timing tactile input or signaling hidden locations, key positions or action-oriented feedback. Moreover, the multimodality of sound in video games promotes playful experimentation with the game environment: play resides in the selection of what sounds a player chooses to listen to or, if it is a playable feature, in the triggering of sounds within the game as well as in the process of finding out which sounds do what.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 From the perspective of critical listening, two types of sonic play are at work in Inside and Journey. The first one is marked by the absence of language and the presence of other sounds as part of the structured, story-driven progression. In the following, this form of play will be defined as a play of signification. The second type is a sonic play with variation that consists of acoustic choices made by the listening player—choices that may range from possible gameplay actions to free play.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The play of signification in Journey and Inside is the result of the fictional indeterminacy that arises from the absence of a narrative voice, scripted dialogues or explanatory text passages. Chris Baldick situates the literary notion of indeterminacy within the fields of reader-response theory and deconstruction. It signifies “any element of a text that requires the reader to decide on its meaning” and represents “a principle of uncertainty invoked to deny the existence of any final or determinate meaning that could bring to an end the play of meanings between the elements of a text.” Expanding the notion of indeterminacy beyond the scope of literary textuality to other media—as the present study does with a specific focus on video games—does not mean to read games as texts. This move rather arises out of the understanding that the play of signification included in fictional indeterminacy does not necessarily need to be a textual practice and is not confined to processes of interpretation alone.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Gaming ties practices of participation to the experience of epistemic uncertainty. In story-driven video games in particular, the notion of fictional indeterminacy acquires a distinctively interactive and multimodal meaning. Not only does it depend on the process of interpretation caused by on-screen events seen or heard, it is also affected by tactile feedback signals, multimodal input-response loops linked to player actions, and the general amount of in-game agency granted to the player. Therefore, fictional indeterminacy in video games is closely related to the player’s attitude toward uncertain situations that they bring to the game. How uncertainty is actively handled while playing determines the manner in which players get involved with possible pathways through the video game. Moreover, the personal ways of playing the video game defines which parts of the game a player will be able to access and which ones will remain undisclosed.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The joint critical consideration of gameplay and fictional indeterminacy provides insights on the features and functions of a game’s possibility space in relation to participatory practices. Based on Wolfgang Iser’s literary anthropology, Philipp Schweighauser advocates an interdisciplinary approach to “the cultural work of fiction in a variety of media without leveling the distinctions between different cultural practices” (118). He argues that game studies and literary theory can mutually enrich each other by widening the scope for a more encompassing understanding of fiction. For Schweighauser, a media-independent understanding of fiction is particularly suitable to explore the “participatory nature” (118) of video games and, at the same time, to re-examine the cultural significance of fiction within a broader media ecology. To this end, he reads Iser’s definition of fiction in The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology as follows:
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Iser points out that ‘fiction’ is a much more active process than its equation with mimesis or representation suggests. Fiction does not imitate the world: it shapes, forms, fashions or invents a new, fictional world with objects and people in it that do not exist in empirical reality. Fiction, then, is not a mirroring of the world we already know. Instead it is a staging and invention of a new world, which emerges out of an interplay between the projections of the text and the reader’s imagination. (125)
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 The emphasis on the active and generative process of fictional invention is the point of departure for the consideration of fictionality in video games in Schweighauser’s work. He suggests that from a comparative perspective the active conceptualization of fiction “makes us think again about Eskelinen’s (…) claim that ‘the dominant user function in literature, theatre and film is interpretative, but in games it is the configurative one’” (125). In the present context of story-driven video games, the notion of fictional indeterminacy encompasses the configurative function of play. In contrast to literature, where the process of fashioning a story world happens within the reader’s mind, video games render the inventive emergence of a fictional world visible, audible, and palpable through the participatory process of the gameplay. What the story means, what kind of story it will be, and how the play of signification unfolds depends to a large extent on the actions of the player.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 At first glance, the almost rudimentary main plot line appears to be strictly predetermined in both games. Its unfolding is inextricably linked to their underlying story-driven structure. In Journey, players perform a “pilgrimage” toward the ray of light at the top of a mountain. The goal to be reached in the game is announced within the first 30 seconds of gameplay. The visual announcement prompts the player to perform a predetermined forward movement that Tom van Nuenen links to “a well-established narrative pattern [that] inflects the main story: Joseph Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ or hero’s journey” (468-69). Van Nuenen argues that this forward movement is designed to trigger an affective response which is why he qualifies the game principle as “procedural (e)motion” (466). For him, the emotional experience linked to this “unidirectional” (473) “spatial teleology” is “a cathartic experience, producing awe (…) by following the structure of Campbell’s concept” (468-69). Along these lines, the cloaked avatar follows the ray of light until it reaches the top and finally returns as a changed character.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 In Inside, the puzzle-platformer’s side-scrolling principle invariably leads players from left to right in order to reach the end of the game where the story’s resolution seems to await. However, the protagonist, a boy with a red sweater, is thrown into a dystopian world in which every social interaction is determined by a surveillance apparatus without any contextualization for the player. The constant forward movement does not reveal who the boy is, where he is going, and why he is being chased by people with firearms, searchlights, and dogs. The single gameplay focus lies on survival in a threatening and opaque system. The lack of a frame story for the events happening on screen creates a heightened sense of uncertainty and anxiety that clashes with the linearity of the gameplay. With reference to Playdead’s game Limbo, the predecessor of Inside, Graham Pedlingham connects the indeterminacy that is a primary trait of the gaming experience to
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 a post-9/11 aesthetic of uncertainty: an aesthetic that seeks to convey an anxiety around the potential precariousness of structures and systems; a sense of vulnerability and disorientation at both a personal and social level; a self-reflective engagement with the iconography of 9/11 and its mediatisation; a permeability of boundaries that are implicitly or explicitly linked with the safety of, as Butler terms it, ‘First Worldism’. (157)
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 In Inside the vulnerability of the protagonist becomes palpable through his silent isolation within a controlled environment of scientific experimentation and rigorous supervision. The perception of order as precarious that permeates Western discourses in the early twenty-first century finds its translation in Inside into a story world where control dominates. The game reduces the individual to the role of test subject and penalizes any test failed by the avatar.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 The absence of dialogue in an adverse environment is consistent with a story about control and subjection to institutional power. It calls for lateral thinking and obliges players to pay particular attention to their surroundings when searching for clues with a strong emphasis on game sound cues for player actions. In a talk at the Game Developers Conference 2016, Inside’s sound designer and audio director Martin Stig Andersen calls the platformer “A Game That Listens,” thus highlighting the audio-driven gameplay where, as he says, sound “decides when the character should walk” to survive a level (Andersen 00:26:21). Inside systematically connects threats to sonic cues and integrates sound into the process of puzzle solving. Dangers announce themselves acoustically, such as the watchdogs that hunt the avatar down at several instances in the game. Their barking can be heard before they appear on the screen, and when the player sees them it is already too late to react. The game thus emphasizes the importance of attentive listening for a successful completion of the puzzles; whenever sound cues are ignored, death becomes unavoidable.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 In Journey, the absence of language in combination with a strong focus on environmental sound is also justified by the main story that could be categorized as ecofiction. As van Nuenen observes, the adventure is “[m]odeled after [a] (…) threefold structure of rites of passage, [which] (…) involves a fixed narrative pattern of separation, initiation, and return” (469), and the separation in this case is the separation from a historical past. The soundtrack forms an intertextual bridge to a literary past: “Journey’s soundtrack (the first gaming soundtrack to be nominated for a Grammy) uses music to help trace the overarching narrative; composer Austin Wintory based the soundtrack on a musical motif, ending in an aria at the game’s end, the lyrics referring to hero’s journeys, such as The Aeneid, Beowulf, and The Iliad” (van Nuenen 469). The music thus constructs a historical lineage for the game by linking Journey to a canonical set of lyrical journeys. In such a depopulated world where sand keeps spreading over the architectural remains of an ancient culture, the use of language seems lost while nature survives.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Nevertheless, the player-protagonist can emit chiming sounds when pushing a controller button. They can use this aural signal to trigger the projection of glyphs and pictorial representations of historical records. The sonic activation of these narrative initiations referencing events that took place at the explored sites is also the key to the next level, i.e. another geographical section of the game. The acoustic command is an example of the “spatial sonic embodiment” that Collins considers as a particularity of interactive sound (57). It is always linked to the avatar’s movement pattern. Whenever one pushes the button, the figure emits a tone and performs a small jump at the same time. Collins calls this combination “kinesonic congruence.” As she argues, “players have a sonic reaction that matches the action that the body is making, thus embedding personal expressiveness into the game through the character” (57). Through the combination of movement and sound that activates the nonverbal story mode, the avatar becomes a resonance body, vibrating with the artifacts and, as a consequence, reconstructing visuals that call for narrative interpretation. The player initiating this process actively takes part in the teleological unfolding of the game by extension.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Overall, sound negotiates the tension between the linearity of the main story mode and the fictional indeterminacy resulting from the absence of linguistic support in both games. Acoustic features fundamentally shape the gaming experience. Consequently, players have articulated their involvement in the storytelling process online by developing and discussing theories about the meaning of a certain ending as well as sharing their experiences with videos featuring a particularly memorable run. This kind of involvement suggests that the gaming experience is considered personal and unique despite the necessary predetermination of the main storyline. Journey and Inside particularly encourage this perception through the conversion of the sonic gameplay features established in the story into a second type of play with sound that requires, in Zimmerman’s sense of the word ‘interactive,’ the players’ “explicit participation” (160)—a play on variation that includes the recourse to their personal imaginary repertoire.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 The sonic play with variation in Journey and Inside derives from the respective set of acoustic signals that each game establishes as part of the general rules. Therefore, these signals are already known to the player as tools they can utilize to influence the virtual environment. These sonic game elements fulfill the function of furthering the plot as much as they facilitate improvisation in a departure from the linear main pathway. As a consequence, play depends on the degree to which freedom of choice is embedded within the game and provides possibilities for the repurposing of built-in acoustic options according to the player’s experiences and imagination, even more so because these sounds are nonverbal and as such not predetermined by any language.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Narrative and agency are inextricably interconnected in story-driven video games because the tension between a fixed outcome and free play needs to be balanced. The notion of narrative agency, as proposed by D. Fox Harrell and Jichen Zhu in their article “Agency Play: Dimensions of Agency for Interactive Narrative Design,” factors this tension in. As they argue, “narrative agency is contextually situated, distributed between the player and system, and mediated through user interpretation of system behavior and system affordances for user actions” (44). They recognize two dimensions with an impact on agency in narrative interactive media: the socio-cultural contexts that inform both user and system and the aesthetic experience included in gaming. With reference to Laura Ahearn’s anthropological studies, they define agency as “the socio-culturally mediated capacity to act,” a definition they translate to digital media as follows:
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 In digital environments, a user’s power to take meaningful actions is mediated through the structure provided by the computational system as well as the socially situated interpretation of actions rendered by the user. A system’s capacity to afford certain actions, impose certain constraints, and reward certain behaviors clearly has great effect on user’s agency. (47)
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Since the system needs to interpret player actions in order to select and match responses that do not randomly jeopardize immersion, the encoded socio-cultural conjectures significantly shape its structure. Moreover, narrative agency includes the reining in of user agency because the latter “also provides an aesthetic experience and needs to be appropriate to its narrative context. A user’s capacity to act and make distinction does not necessarily entail narrative consistency” (47). In order for the overarching game development to remain consistent and reach its overarching goals, it requires the specification of a limited framework for free play or the implementation of rewards that encourage the player to return to the main story eventually.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 These aspects of digital interactivity are conditioned by agency play, according to Harrell and Zhu: “The interplay and interdependence between the two seemingly oppositional concepts of user agency and system agency provides us a starting point to systematically describe a set of possibilities for deploying agency in interactive narrative media. We call this set of new possibilities agency play” (45). The regulation of agency dynamics “focuses on leveraging the relationship between the user and system in order to create a story world that is meaningful and engaging for users to participate in” (48). Along these lines, the balancing of user and system agency is a challenging play with social constraints that Inside negotiates through sound while Journey partially fosters free play with sound cues but also highlights ideological signposts and orchestrates multimodal impulses within the game environment to pace the progression to the top. In this way, the agency play of both games listens to and plays with sound.
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Sonic play is social play because sound positions the subject in relation to others and to their surroundings and both games use this relational quality for their play with variation. Through sound, they negotiate the social norms and socialized behaviors written into the game. From the point of view that gaming consists of “enter[ing] a space between two worlds,” as Schweighauser suggests by defining “the gaming experience (…) [as] doubly real” (125), the negotiation of social dynamics exceeds the game environment because sonic play as a participatory practice has a double connection to the social both on screen and in the experiential world. In the case of fictional indeterminacy, learned socio-cultural discourses lend themselves to inform both the system rules and player actions. As Jensen writes, “the possibility space is a site of constant negotiation between implicit and explicit rules that are introduced both by the game and by the player” (76). Consequently, the sonic play with variation becomes the acoustic engagement with a game’s possibility space in which a cultural, social, and personal behavioral repository paves the way to improvisation and experimentation with in-game sounds and social practices.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Journey encourages the active usage of the acoustic command and provides gamers with creative possibilities to play with. For instance, producing the chiming sounds makes it possible to connect with the stylized flora and fauna of the virtual world, with which one can but does not necessarily need to interact. If one chooses to engage with characters resembling birds, dragons, flowers, or seaweed, one develops and embellishes the main gameplay with subplots. These side stories revolve around ideas of cooperation between nonhumans and humans in an ecologically challenging environment possibly affected by climate change, and they vary according to the player’s actions and individual creative drive.
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 The choice to cooperate is rewarded with benefits that facilitate the journey such as riding on animals for a faster progression in the level and recharging one’s floating power when calling out to the non-player characters or moving close to them. This reward system also functions within the embedded online multiplayer mode that is limited to sharing the virtual space with one random person at a time. The appearance of another unnamed player in the game is announced by a beam of light that points roughly into the direction of the other. Moreover, one can announce one’s presence acoustically by emitting the chiming sonic cue. The engagement with the other player is a free choice, and their presence can be ignored just as they may progress without acknowledging you. When the distance between the two players is too great for some time, the other disappears from the individual game space and one is alone again. In her work called How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design, Katherine Isbister notes that the player interaction is designed “intentional[ly] (…) [to promote] collaborative exploration and discovery” (118). Journey counts on the players’ joy of discovery when they are confronted with another after a certain amount of solitary time in the awe-inspiring environment. The sound pattern turns into an unspoken communication when players find each other and play with it to experiment with their newfound connection. Since the sounds are connected to movement, the first encounter often looks like a dance.
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 The impossibility of verbal communication in this context can be understood as a hard-coded guarantee that no one can openly antagonize someone else and that the game’s social dynamics stay based on the premise of cooperation. In combination with the possibility for sonic composition by the players, the lack of language therefore exemplifies the efficient version of a “manipulation rule” (Jensen 73) encrypted into the sound design of the game. Jensen argues that
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 [m]anipulation rules (…) are heavily influenced by sociocultural values and thus can develop gradually into goal rules as the “infinite possibilities of paidia become mediated by the pragmatics of interaction” (Bateman 2005). This transition is especially likely to occur if the possibilities afforded by a particular set of manipulation rules help a player to work toward a specific goal, whether that goal is defined within the context of the game or without, as in the case of culturally reinforced goals. (74)
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 In Journey, linguistic restriction becomes a shared commonality for the time of the social interaction with another real player’s avatar in the game while the play with sonic cues shapes the quality of the anonymous encounter. The underlying rules of nonverbal gameplay and basic sonic expression configurate a possibility space for communication that privileges a cooperative principle for social behavior because of the reward system connected to the sonic command when players establish a close proximity between their avatars. Thus, cooperation has the potential to become a goal in itself for the players, even though it is not indispensable for completing the game.
¶ 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 The simple acoustic command in combination with the provided opportunities to interact with other gamers (and non-player characters) equips the player with extensive narrative agency and generates a wide range of possibilities to vary and to shape the story one experiences during a playthrough. It can be a tale of solitary adventure and survival in extreme climate settings, but also one of fleeting acquaintances, cooperation, moral support, or mentorship when one player chooses to stay and help another to find all the secrets in order to unlock the ultimate trophy. With solitary progression being an integral part of the main story line, the sonic free play becomes a play with variations on the precariousness and serendipity of an encounter with life across a range of moods and tones—melancholy and exaltation being just two examples.
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 The game explicitly references the double reality that Schweighauser recognizes as a constitutive feature of video games by revoking the anonymity of the players after the end of the game. The end credits reveal the identity of all players met—even if one chose to ignore another spawned avatar—and as a consequence explicitly acknowledge their potential role as companion in the development of the story. By naming them, the game developers highlight that the virtual connection of screen is also a simultaneous real-life connection. When Jones discusses the meanings of play, he argues that “[p]laying usually involves remaining simultaneously aware of both the gameworld and of the real world, of yourself and of other players as performing at the boundary of the two” (15-16). He references online game wikis, walkthroughs, and strategy guides as examples of gaming-related zones of intersection. From a contemporary perspective, one could add let’s play videos or the online gameplay in games such as Journey to this line of thought. In this sense, the end credits are a reminder of the duality experienced during the practice of gaming. More specifically, the listed names suggest that through the random encounter with strangers within the possibility space of the game, “players engage with socio-cultural values that are inscribed in the game but that also exist in ‘real life’” (Jensen 76). The time spent while interacting in Journey is also time players spend socializing with strangers, possibly from around the world and with differing social backgrounds. The random and anonymous meeting within a virtual environment conditions the social dynamics of in-game interactions as much as it is conditioned by the alignment on cooperation built into the rules of the game. Ultimately, the transfer of the connection to the actual world or other virtual environments literally becomes a possibility through the network features of the console.
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Journey’s free play with sonic expression contrasts Inside’s focus on “active listening,” to use Collins’ terminology (2). The differing strategies of the sonic gameplay determine the contrasting social dynamics of both games. In Inside, it is the environment that sounds and that the silent protagonist is exposed to in dismal ways. The sonic environment or soundscape of Inside can be described as what sound studies scholar Brandon LaBelle calls an acoustic territory. In his monograph Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life, he argues that “[a]coustic space (…) brings forward a process of acoustic territorialization, in which the disintegration and reconfiguration of space (…) becomes a political process” (147). Labelle refers to the potential of sound to make the negotiation of power in social space aurally perceivable, and I think that this capacity is used in Inside to position the avatar as frail and impotent in light of the power structures at play. When confronted with shock waves that violently disrupt the fabric of a gigantic mechanism at the center of an industrial site, the player moves the avatar from shelter to shelter. In order to get to safety, a distinct sound loop that accompanies each disruption and is determined by a strict time pattern needs to be decoded through active listening. In order to survive, the protective shield as well as the avatar’s movement must be timed according to the rhythm of the shock waves every step of the way.
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 The mercilessness of the waves teaches players to obey the system, to fully abide by the rules in their gameplay. In social settings, blind obedience is rewarded as well (at least in the earlier parts of the game). Another scene in the game in which the protagonist becomes part of a group of test subjects can be considered a turning point in the matter. At first the game enforces conformity to the mainstream, depicted as mindless test subjects, through the necessary alignment of the player actions with their movements. Following the masses guarantees success—a dystopian perspective on social dynamics that is acoustically enhanced by muffled footsteps and the throbbing of heartbeats. Then the barking of dogs present in the room sends mixed messages. As mentioned earlier, the dogs’ sounding is connected to the action of running to the next frame early on in the game, and the player who remembers the cue in a situation that technically demands compliance and penalizes autonomous movement needs to decide quickly which one of the diverging signals to follow. However, this is a choice under false pretenses since there is only one way to survive the level, namely, to break the pattern of controlled alignment, to show initiative, and run. The in-game subversion of established rules thus proves that Inside pits the agency of the player against the mechanisms of a totalitarian system that enforces social isolation.
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 With agency play in Inside privileging system agency over user agency in the majority of cases, the narrative agency of the player only becomes evident in the long run—most notably at the end of the game or when played for a second time. The imbalance during the game reflects the inescapable constraints imposed by a power that absorbs any opportunity for agency—a power that Harrell and Zhu relate to “[a]n extreme reading of Foucault” in which “omnipresent impersonal discourses so thoroughly pervade society that no room is left for anything that might be regarded as agency, oppositional or otherwise” (47). Inside’s long-term agency scope is designed for the detection of a second, secret ending that is only revealed if the player recognizes a hidden side quest early on in the game and successfully manages to interpret the respective clues by listening closely. Harrell and Zhu consider agency scope as a regulatory parameter for the balancing of narrative agency:
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 The concept of agency scope describes the impact and narrative focus of user and system actions, ranging from immediate and local impact, such as spatial navigation ability, to less immediately apparent but more global results, such as shaping the narrative structure itself. Either side of the agency scope spectrum can be used effectively to convey meanings in addition to the actual narrative. (49)
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 The actual interpretive choice that endows the player with narrative agency is ultimately postponed to the regular end of the game with an open end that is almost anticlimactic in its lack of dramatic resolution. Inside comes to a halt abruptly after urging the player on from the beginning—particularly through the acoustic build up of suspense and urgency—and suddenly withdraws gameplay control by inhibiting the response to any kind of tactile input. The game literally expels players and relegates them to the experiential world for making sense of the story they have just experience. The second, secret ending (for which the player needs to memorize a particular musical sequence that is played back at several instances during the playthrough) suggests that an escape from mind control is only an option for the player crossing the threshold between virtuality and actuality and not for the avatar left behind in the fictional environment of the game. Hence, the finite nature of the playthrough becomes an existential question because both endings repeal the linear determination of the story line by denying an in-game resolution. In contrast to Journey, where the final credits refer to the actuality of social relations established during the playthrough, Inside emphasizes the fictionality and temporary character of the bond between player and avatar and problematizes their social dynamics with respect to the presumably inevitable obliqueness of power relations.
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Inside and Journey both convey intricate value systems through nonverbal gameplay, fictional indeterminacy, and sound. The rules that govern their digital environments inscribe the particular worldviews of each game into its soundscape, allowing the listening player to discover the dynamics and scope of their agency within their story-driven worlds through sonic resonance. Sound adds a meaningful sensory plane to cultural conceptions of the subject and social community and the role of critical listening is to uncover the discourses it initiates. The focus on sound in Inside and Journey thus not only serves as a means to make room for individual player participation in their respective possibility spaces. It can also be read as a multimodal device for the integration of meta-commentaries on the socio-cultural work of video games into the practice of gaming, such as the exploration of social dynamics in the virtual as well as in the actual world, the reflection on ideological premises that define a specific game structure and their connections to player actions and interactions, and their significance for the formation of social subjects.
¶ 54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Harrell, D. Fox, and Jichen Zhu. “Agency Play: Dimensions of Agency for Interactive Narrative Design.” Proceedings of AAAI 2009 Spring Symposium on Intelligent Narrative Technologies II, 2009, pp. 44-52.
¶ 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Jensen, Graham H. “Making Sense of Play in Video Games: Ludus, Paidia, and Possibility Spaces.” Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture vol. 7, no. 1, 2013, pp. 69-80.
¶ 63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 Schweighauser, Philipp. “Doubly Real: Game Studies and Literary Anthropology; or, Why We Play Games.” Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture vol. 3, no. 2, 2009, pp. 115-32.
¶ 66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 Zimmerman, Eric. “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, MIT Press, 2006, pp. 154-64.
¶ 67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0  Video material and gameplay sequences to both games can be found in the open access online version of this essay on xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxlink to websitexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
¶ 68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0  Collins highlights that “[s]ound in interactive media such as games is multimodal—that is it involves the interaction of more than one sensory modality and usually contains three (vision, audition, and haptics—action, image, and sound)” (22).
¶ 69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0  Playdead clearly prioritizes the integrity of Inside as a work of art in which sound and visual design are inseparable, even when it comes to press releases and reviews. They grant permission to share footage of the game provided that visuals and sound are presented together.
¶ 70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0  The emphasis on single encounters in Journey is intriguing. The game only matches two simultaneous players at once, never more. This reinforces the drive toward a dialogic communication between vocalizing and listening resonance bodies.