Take thy sting and shove it

thpsx-castlevania-death.pngI really enjoyed Limbo (Arnt Jensen et al), holder of this year’s Portal-Braid Memorial Award[1]. Beyond being a densely packed and very clever puzzle-platformer of exactly the right length, it has some interesting things to say about the concept of “death” in videogames, and how this concept has evolved over the last quarter-century.

From its title (and unnervingly flyblown title screen) through its murky shadow-puppet audiovisual aesthetic, Limbo makes death a thematic focus long before it actually shows up as a gameplay element. And death, in the traditional videogame sense, will visit its player many, many times: your on-screen character succumbs to an obstacle, you get a little “oopsie” animation, and you must try again to overcome it.

However, over the course of a single Limbo playthrough you will die far less often than you’ll send Mario, the unironically happy little bouncyman, gurgling down into his game-over grave while learning to play his own candy-colored signature game — even though we don’t see Super Mario Bros. as a particularly macabre title. What’s going on here, exactly, beyond the obvious differences in visual design?

Among the first things Limbo teaches the new player is the peculiar nature of death in its world. As you have the hero take his first steps through its enshrouded landscape of black-on-black objects, you don’t initially realize that the lugubrious depressions in the ground will make him instantly drown on contact, or that the jagged patterns in the shrubbery are actually bear traps that will snip his head clean off in an eyeblink. But you learn quickly, because the game merrily lets you trip into each one, and bam-you’re-dead.

That sounds horrible, and it rather is, at least in one sense. But in the same stroke (ho ho), the game teaches you something else: death in Limbo might be swift and shocking, but it is never cruel. After displaying a very short animation appropriate to how the hapless protagonist met his “end”, the game immediately — without so much as “PLAYER ONE GET READY!” intertitle screen — resets itself just a tiny bit. The hero, knit back into one piece, stands a single play-moment before the point he succumbed, and the player resumes control mere seconds after losing it.

In a blog post about Super Meat Boy, another modern platform game, designer Edmund McMillen calls this the “No time for tears” principle: if the game is remorseless about killing the player-character, it should keep the player equally remorseless by never stopping the action. But Limbo puts its own interesting spin on this. Super Meat Boy, and other indie platformers of recent vintage including When Pigs Fly and VVVVVV, apply the fast-restart philosophy to making sequences of challengingly merciless mazes to navigate repeatedly and rapidly until you succeed. “Death”, here, is as clear-cut as the holes that the ball bearing drops through in classic wooden labyrinth toys.

In the particular case of Limbo, these first few deaths are less “no time for tears” as they are “no time to quit the game in disgust”. It lets you hold the outrage of your character’s swift and apparently unclued demise for exactly the length of time it takes for your jaw to drop and brows to knit, and then hurls down the other shoe a split second before you can pick your jaw back up to assist in the formation of a few choice words.

What you learn, in the first minutes of play, is that while death is everywhere in Limbo, it is neither capricious nor unkind. Even as it “kills” you, it also demonstrates that it’ll pick you back up whenever you fall, and — crucially — will never expect you to redo any feats you’ve already passed[2]. Emboldened, you carry on, and the first time you anticipate a trap just by the suspicious shape of the land, leaping over the hidden swinging blade on your first try, it feels like an especially thrilling triumph. Despite the buckets of blood and guts you spill over the course of play, you soon end up feeling indestructible. In pace with the player’s lessened worry over failing its various digital-dexterity challenges, the game gradually mixes in puzzles of increasing complexity. By the time you get to the most intricately interlocked deathtraps housing malevolent lurking horrors, it somehow seems like a laid-back experience, something to explore at your own pace, and never mind the three fatalities per minute.

Combine this with the fact that the game hides glowing extra-credit candies in non-obvious places, and you’ll quickly make your character gleefully leap off ledges or crawl into the mouths of horrible grinding machines just to see what’s there. At worst, you’ll get to watch another briefly gory death animation, which by that point appears as nothing more than a playful finger-wag, and then you’re placed right back in control, ready to see what this button does…

Of equal importance to this instant-recovery mechanic is the fact that the game, also in the mode of recent indie platformers, keeps no tally your character’s stumbles. Videogames used to have “lives” as a rule. They were de rigueur in single-player coin-operated games, borrowing a handy design element from their non-digital neighbors in the arcades. Pac-Man rolls three Pac-Men into your queue in exchange for a quarter, challenging you to get the highest score you can with each one, for the very same reason you get nine chances to peg that center ring in the Skee-Ball lane right behind you. It made sense at the time, enough that the concept carried into Super Mario Bros. and its innumerable home-console colleagues.

The world’s palate for videogame difficulty has become refined since then. When games involve lives today, they often do so out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia, usually because they’re the latest iteration of a long-lived “franchise” that mistakenly sees limited lives as an intractable part of its core definition. One of my most unpleasant videogame experiences of the last couple of years involved Bionic Commando: Rearmed, which had the misfortune to be released on Xbox Live Arcade exactly one week after Braid. I enjoyed it right up until the first time the game responded to a fumbled maneuver by showing me a “GAME OVER” screen, inviting me to try again from the beginning. “This is not treating my time and attention as precious,” I said out loud, paraphrasing Braid’s compelling tagline. And I never played that game again.

Then there is Super Mario Galaxy. While I found it fun enough to play through to the end, it insists on tracking “lives” that moderately skilled players will never deplete, apparently to give the brand-defining 1UP Mushrooms something to do. While Mario and his handlers have embraced the gentler difficulty of modern platform games, they cannot let go of this atavistic holdover from their own glory days, or invent a more fitting risk-reward system.

Like the middle-ground level of afterlife from which the game takes its name, Limbo reduces death to less of a punishment than a judgment-free consequence, and even an opportunity for learning, as the player explores the space of each subsequent puzzle. How far we have risen, says this game and its indie contemporaries, from the scalding Inferno that platform videogames once didn’t scruple to plumb — even while certain of its plumbers still struggle to rise above it.

[1] This is a name I made up just now for short, clever, beautiful console games which, once I complete them, compel me to schedule evening-long group-playthroughs at my house with my friends.

[2] Well, almost never. My least favorite part of Limbo was the one violation I encountered of this trust. It added 15 rather unfun minutes to my otherwise pure play experience, and it would have been so obviously fixed by placing the respawn checkpoint at a different location that I have to regard it as a bug in the level-design data. (Rot13 spoiler: Vg jnf gur whzc qbja gur fybcr, evtug nsgre gur pneg ba gur mvcyvar.)

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