Limbo reconsidered, or A cheery wave from stranded developers
I bet you love Limbo, the quirky little platform-puzzler that seemed poised for a while to grow into last year’s Braid. Remember that odd little game that you couldn’t shut everyone up about — you know, the one with the spider?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong, dear imagined reader; there’s a great deal to like about Limbo, at least coming at it from a certain critical angle. The art style is really something special, and better critics than myself have expended mighty energies attempting to explain what’s so damned compelling about the creepy aesthetics and sound design.
It’s also a solid 2D platformer, which for a while there looked to be a dying genre, thankfully revived by the new indie ascendancy. More than that, it’s a game developed by people who know that things like consistent physics, inventive design and sudden twists of imagination that blow away one’s frame of reference are more valuable than a mountain of expensive textures and a million-dollar lighting model.
For those of you who live buried 14 miles beneath the planet’s surface or in tidal pools or something, Limbo was a game about running from one side of the screen to another overcoming various structural obstacles, in the grand tradition of the platformer. What I love about these games is that the designers are clearly more interested in the process than the destination — this is a scenic ramble through the Cotswolds compared to a modern shooter’s mad dash to the finish line.
In the early days of gaming, this kind of experience was a key plank of gaming’s appeal. Without the technical ability to tell an involving story or represent convincing characters, the early pioneers were thrown back on the basics; was their implementation of the mechanics of a given scenario compelling enough to convince players to keep going, to pump more coins into the slot? The fact that many arcade machines shipped without any form of acknowledgement that the game had been beaten, even in the form of trophy screen or such illusory accomplishment, tells its own story — the teams working on the games simply did not believe that any player would ever be committed enough to finish the damned thing.
That same laser-precise concentration on the mechanical achievements of the design team are at once the game’s best feature and its most serious flaw. It is hard to describe the feeling of wonder when several systems mesh to offer the solution to a hitherto unimaginably difficult puzzle; one especially memorable section forcing you to negotiate a mind-bending set of trials that involve the simultaneous manipulation of the direction of gravity, switches and difficult precision platforming challenges while the entire gameplay arena rotates clockwise, all while being menaced by awkwardly placed circular saw blades.
Conquering the toughest challenges feels like being party to an epiphany — yes, the designers at Playdead were just that smart. As with the time-rewinding hook of the aforementioned Braid, the astonishing complexity that evolves from the tiniest innovations is a measure of the amount of ore that still remains to be mined in the skill-based platform puzzle genre.
However, Braid creator Jonathan Blow himself cast a little light on the other side of the coin in an IndieGames.com interview. “I care about completeness a lot,” he said. “I will take it past the point where some people think it’s a good idea. I don’t agree that games have to be the most fun they can be; I will get rid of fun if it means I can get at something deeper or more complete.”
As a player, it’s a problem when the developer gets so caught up in their own ability to devise tortuous situations that they forget to lavish similar attention on the other aspects that go into making up a satisfyingly rounded playing experience. While those early arcade auteurs had the excuse of building games for a severely restricted range of hardware that would be enjoyed by an audience not yet privy to the expansive possibilities of the medium, their inheritors can hardly claim the same indulgence. While the technical possibilities have been dramatically revolutionised, so too have the expectations of the literate buyer.
Playdead are more than aware of this phenomenon, as playing with an eye for design choices should quickly inform you. In fact, the team has been at pains to punish the pretensions of the ‘hardcore’ gamer, slamming down the lid of the chocolate box on the fingers of players who attempt to reach too far, too fast.
Case in point: about half way through, the player has to avoid a series of crushing piston that slam down from the ceiling, pulping your avatar’s fragile frame. The first example is simple fare — just avoid jumping on the button that activates the crusher, and you’ll sail through. The second one has two areas to avoid, but a sharp-eyed gamer schooled in the traditional arts of death-avoidance might skip through unharmed. The rub comes when you encounter the third such hindrance; jumping on the button is the only way to survive here, and any other attempt will end in player soup.
The problem I have with that particular arrangement is that the game sets up a sequence of actions that the player must learn to overcome a challenge, refines them and improves the player’s skill at performing them, and then without warning turn the tables; that action is now the exact opposite of what you should be doing. There is no way sort of sacrificing yourself on the first run that a player can judge how to perform the task — until you die unexpectedly, you simply can’t logically think your way through it. That sort of laborious trial-and-error slog is common to many of the title’s challenges; unless you are driven onwards by some personal need, you could be forgiven for balking when asked to suffer death time and again through no detectable fault on your part.
In most cases, that forwards momentum would be provided by narrative; nothing is more key to drawing in the player than the sense of an evolving plot driven by understandable characters. Which is why it’s odd to see that Playdead have jettisoned that element of the design in favour of ever-more fantastical elaborations of their original thesis. That, I think, is the key to really understanding Limbo; in as far as it articulates so many of the tropes that obsess designers and builders, it is very much a developer’s game.
While there is a great merit to producing artifacts like this, unmediated by the demands of committee and focus test, it leaves me with a sense of being unfulfilled. Like a meal constructed by a master culinary scientist, it contains a galaxy of brilliant ideas that have been distilled by the action of efficient minds into the herring-flavoured sorbet gently subliming on your plate. What I’m straining for, if you’ll pardon my abuse of metaphors, is a synthesis of that offering with the crisp, fat-drenched faux cod and chips that comes wrapped in a see-through paper bag.
What I want is a visionary to come up with a workable solution that marries the bare-metal mechanical precision of an iPhone game with the uncaring wild and wandering of the best narrative gaming. But then, I’m a demanding wee arsehole.