Tuesday 11 October 2011

Thoughts on Limbo

A while ago I played through Limbo for the first time. I thought it was quite an interesting experience for many reasons and been thinking for it on and off. Now that I have collected most of my thoughts on the game I thought it was time to write a little post about it.

Starting off, I thought the game had really nice visuals that really added to the mood. Small things, like the change in light level and tilt of the camera heightened the mood substantially. Another thing I really liked was the variety of activities and lack of puzzle repetition. Too many games just try and extend play time as long as possible, and it is nice to see games going in the other direction. All this has been said before though and is not what this post will be about. Instead I want to discuss some other things I realized when playing the game.

Limited Interaction
I think the biggest take-away from Limbo is how you do not have to give the player lots of actions in order to make a fresh and interesting experience. The basic actions in Limbo are move, jump, climb and grab. These are then used in a mixture of ways, constantly keeping the experience fresh by putting the variety in the world instead of the controller. This can be seen in other games like Shadow of the Colossus (but then to a lesser degree), and I think it really helps to heighten the player's feel of presence in the game. It only takes the player the first few minutes of the game to familiarize with the controls and the rest of the game can be spent on building up immersion, instead of constantly learning and remembering controls.

It is so often that games become about the mastery of the controls and I think that makes it so much harder to become one with the game's world. The faster the flow of interaction from player to game can become intuitive, the better. We do not want players to think of what buttons to press and sticks to pull. Instead we want players to directly express their wishes from mind to game, unaware of any intermediate hardware.

Puzzles and Limits
As I played Limbo I realized that most (if not all) interactions were directly added to the puzzles you have to solve. I felt that there could have been tons of extra elements to interact with in order to make the player feel more connected to the world.

But then I realized that the design of the game went against this. The puzzles in Limbo depend a lot on experimentation and thinking "out of the box". You have to try out every object in order to find a way to progress. If the game had had superfluous elements, then this would have made the experience so much harder. Players probably would have spent much time interacting with objects that were completely unrelated to the puzzle they were trying to solve, increasing the overall frustration and damaging the flow of progress.

This means that puzzles can be quite a hindrance if you want to make a living world. If the player's goal is to solve puzzles, then that forces you into make sure the rest of the experience supports this. And because of this having puzzles excludes a lot of things that could increase the player presence, emotional connection or just about anything that might work against the puzzle solving.

This is one reason why we will try to completely remove puzzles for our upcoming game (more on that in another post).

Trial and Error
I just have to mention the trial-and-error nature of Limbo as it is something that I have talked a lot about before and it is quite a prominent feature in the game. First of all, the "repeat and try again" mechanic that is used in almost every puzzles is something that ties into the general design of the game. It is quite clear that it takes the basic design from Another World but I link Limbo is a lot less frustrating.

What I found interesting is that the most annoying parts were not the puzzles where you died and had to restart, but where you missed some part of a sequence and had go back and try again. This mainly because the latter meant you had to redo a lot more and the deaths often had a sort of fun, morbid "gotcha!" mentality to them. Also when the world is reset and the game place you at a certain point you get a greater sense of focus on and a hint that you are on the right track. Just failing to do something always give you that nagging feeling that you might not have set up everything in the proper way.

Still, dying or not, for every time I had to repeat a part of the game, it became less about being present in it's virtual world and and more about figuring out an algorithm. I felt a clear change in my state of mind after just one or two attempts at a section. I am probably a biased here, and thus not best of test subjects, so would be interesting to hear what others felt.

A final note on this: Some people have argued that the cruel death mechanic heightened the tension in the game. However, I think the most important part of creating tension in Limbo was that you never know what to expect next. I never felt any increased tension after having failed once or twice, but instead my greatest tension was from anticipation. Coming closer to some strange branches or a weird contraption, my mind conjured up all sort of imagery of what could happen next. I think this sort of build-up is a lot more powerful, than simply adding cheap engagement from the knowledge that you had to restart (which rarely worked on me anyways).

Cut scenes
The last part I want to discuss are the cut-scenes, or more precisely the lack there of. It is still so common in games that you remove control from the players and then pan/zoom/guide the camera to make sure that the player watches some event (e.g. a creature emerging).

Limbo does not do this, and it makes the events that you see so much more compelling. By using the game's space and character movement as a means of pacing, the events are very well directed, but without ever removing control from the player. I especially liked the villagers that you see running about and thought it was a shame that they were not utilized more. I would have really liked for a more coherent narrative to have come out of these encounters.

End Notes
Despite being mainly a game about solving puzzles, I think Limbo gives a lot of hints on atmosphere and narrative in games, both by things that it does good and things that it fails at. I also wish that we could see games with this kind of polish and interesting art direction, that had main focused on creating immersion, atmosphere and a compelling narrative. As seen when investigating games like Limbo, all the tools for creating truly expressive experiences already exists, it is just a matter of putting them to go use!


  1. Very interesting review.

    I was torn between trying out Limbo or Amnesia about a month ago. Amnesia won, and I still haven't quite recovered from it - which I consider an excellent thing. ;)

    But Limbo sounds intriguing and well worth a try, too.

  2. Limbo was truly minimalistic, in a sense. It's been a while since I played it - but I remember that the game lost some atmosphere halfway through or so, can't really remember but there was something that pulled me out of the experience.

    Sometimes, less truly is more.

  3. i'm in the thick of LIMBO right now, for the first time, and loving it :)
    although, i agree with you about re-trying a section over and over again... it definitely changes my state of mind, temporarily removing me from submersion, and one of the things i so enjoy about LIMBO is the ambiance.

  4. well... if you would remove the trail and error, basicaly make the puzzles so easy that its no obstacle at all you could just watch a animated short movie. It would be the same experience.

  5. "you could just watch a animated short movie"
    short answer: nope.
    long answer: I have to write a blog post about this* :)

    *I actually just drafted it, just need to clean and extend.

  6. Also, the game can include complicated puzzles, something that requires the player to do some hard thinking, however, these should be optional, and should have different motivation. The player could pass through some area without solving this puzzle, but in case the puzzle is solved, the reward should be substantial - in a whey that is not inconsistent with the design goals of the game (for example, you wouldn't empower the player in a game like Amnesia, but you could make it so that the solution provides more insight into the nature/history of the evil force, also making sure that for each question that it answers, it opens up several new ones the player didn't even think of asking before. This would reinforce the sense of dread, rendering the evil presence much worse than it originally seemed).

  7. This is awesome, you guys who make one of my favourite games talk about another of my favourite recent releases

    Limbo was awesome in a way that was so simple, and really got me into it as I tried to piece clues together (which theres loads of awesome stuff on the net for)

    Like you guys said the simplicity is great as I gave this to my younger sister and even she got gripped, even though she hated the spider ;)

  8. "You shouldnt make the puzzles too easy! If there are no obstacles, no challenge in games, it isnt a game, its just a movie. You could just watch it on youtube or make a movie out of it!"

    I hear this kind of argument a lot, especially on experimental games like Heavy Rain or Dear Esther, but also adventures from telltale. It comes from the perception of games as games, wich need to be challenging and fun. And if its not, its not worth to be a game. Games that abandon certain rules become less gamey and more movielike, and things like this have no right to exist. Its like an ideology.
    Please Thomas, write a blog-post about this, I wanna hear your superior thoughts on this :)

  9. "Games that abandon certain rules become less gamey and more movielike, and things like this have no right to exist."

    I don't think this is what Thomas was going after either considering how he has been talking a lot about how games must do what games do best, and copying movies is not part of it. Heavy Rain was an interesting game but I don't see why games should go that route. First of all, the quick time events are awful. The good thing is we are not taken to a game over screen even if we fail in them but they are just bad design choice overall. I don't feel like I'm controlling the character at all. How can I immerse myself with the character this way? Another thing about games like heavy rain is that movies do almost everything better than Heavy Rain. Why aspire to be like another media when you can never do things better? The player choice is the only thing superior, but to an extent player choice is only an illusion in that game too.

  10. You didnt get my comment at all!

    I said that most people say that if a game stops to be challenging and fun and focuses on anything else that gameplay-mechanic, it becomes to much of a movie, cause now story and atmosphere are in focus like in movies. Wich would be ok, but some people seem to be offended if a game does that, like hurting a dogma. Its not my opinion, just what I always read in certain forums.

  11. I've never seen anyone criticize a game because it has good atmosphere or a story. Those things are not what makes a game like a movie. Amnesia for example is very different from a movie yet it is heavy on atmosphere and story. Games become like a movie when it heavily abuses cutscenes and takes the control from the player. That kind of behaviour is criticized much more. That must've been the main complaint about MGS4 for example.

    How I see this thing is that games don't necessarily need to be challenging, but they need to be intellectually stimulating. If the things I do are absolute no-brainers, I lose interest.(Dreamfall is a good case in point, just running from point A to point B is way too lackluster). In Heavy Rain I liked how there was a feeling of urgency, but the game was very forgiving in reality. It kind of cheated you to think you are running out of time.(I tested this after my first play through, prolonging different scenes and I realised how things don't actually move in real time, but there are different triggers you don't notice at first. Another, a little bit more stupid thing they used is deus ex machina kinds of saves if you are close to death at a wrong time.) I am eagerly waiting how FG will solve this problem in their next game :)

  12. "I am eagerly waiting how FG will solve this problem in their next game :)"

    In theory, it's simple:

    A. Instill sense of dread/urgency/whatever - make the player believe he/she is in a difficult to overcome situation, but help him along under the hood (with no visible feedback).

    B. Detect if the player is trying hard enough.

    C1. If so, continue with A.
    C2. If not (like, just standing there), unleash your monsters or whatever at him, and say hello to the Game Over screen.

    Of course, actually implementing this requires a lot of tuning and experimentation.

  13. "I've never seen anyone criticize a game because it has good atmosphere or a story."

    Did you even read my post God damn it?

    Even in this blog someone criticized Limbo because of the things I said, wich made me to post here in the first place:

    "well... if you would remove the trail and error, basicaly make the puzzles so easy that its no obstacle at all you could just watch a animated short movie. It would be the same experience."

    And I read things like this a lot!

  14. hey what happens with your forum???

  15. "Emma said...
    I like the best in this game that part the of creating tension in Limbo was that you never know what to expect next."

    Haha, this was a spam message that I just deleted. Fun thing is that it is actually very valid and also one of my favorite things about the game.

    Thanks spammer Emma :)

  16. Thomas, did you try the extra level from the PC version? I really REALLY liked it, it's different from the main puzzle-solving gameplay but instead makes an excellent use of the atmosphere. There's barely any lights, you have to rely on the very few visual clues and rely a lot on sound. This short extra segment is definitely worth playing if you enjoyed the game.

  17. Sverd:
    Nope did not try that one. How do I access it?

  18. You need to get all the secret eggs hidden in the game and then a door will open somewhere in the middle of the game. You should be able to find the location of the door/eggs on youtube. Try "limbo achievements" or something like that.

  19. I so agree with the parts about the Cut-Scenes, always enjoyed how Half-Life 1 handled this. Just a audio-cue or visual hint making you direct your attention in the way where stuff happens, Fear 2 also used good interaction with the player character by only showing things when Player stands at a certain spot and/or is looking at where it happens. (hence crosshair aimed (ray-collide) at object while standing inside the trigger-area). A pure cut-scene should always be the last resort to keep the story moving along.

  20. Very nice !! I like this article ,welcome to my blog of giving directions ,Thank you !!


  21. What I want the most in a game is to immerse in its world, and although Limbo has no story, I connected to the character I was controlling. I liked to think I WAS the boy in that limbo... until [SPOILER] I died for the first time when running from the spider. I died almost 10 times in that part. From then on I felt like controlling a crash dummy. The game changed completely to me.

    I think the ultimate goal in videogames is to eliminate death, and use the fear of death only. But I don't know how it would be implemented in a game, let alone a profitable one.

    Have you played a game called "One Single Life". It's a simple platformer that prevents you from playing again after just one death. Knowing beforehand that you just have one shot has an awesome effect on the player.

    It'd be great if you played it and shared your thoughts.

  22. I do not agree that Limbo suffers of a 'lack of interaction'. There is just a much as necessary.
    Have you ever been in limbo? I mean, of course you probably have, you just don't remember, but some people they do. And believe me, the options of what you can and can't do there are very limited.

    The same with dreams. Have you had a dream where you want to, like, jump, but can't? Because the dream won't allow you. The same thing with Limbo and I think the game designer found a perfect, well-crafted mixture to create exactly that feel. Of the inevitable and barely controllable.

  23. I noticed that when I died while playing amnesia it severely diminished how immersed I felt. I learned what the cost of ultimate failure was--restarting a couple minutes prior. Death took me out of the game and reminded me that I was playing one.

    After noticing this I started to give people hints about the trickier parts of the game in the hopes that they will not fail because I know the game is more effective when the player does not fail.

    "Get out of the water, you'll know what I mean..."


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