Search Results for: limbo

Lester's Legacy

Wiley Wiggins shares the news, learned at last week’s GDC, that Eric Chahi plans to bring his groundbreaking 1991 work Another World (known as Out of This World to us Yanks) to the iPad.

What moved me to mention it here, though, is the YouTube embedded in his post, the first half of a speedrun through the game by YouTube user ghost1215. (I’ve embedded both halves to this post as well, after the jump. Edit: Oops, it looks like they deleted their account the day after I posted this! Here’s the first part of someone else’s speedrun, though without the opening cinematic, alas.) I played a fair amount of this game in college, never getting far beyond the bit with the wobbly cage, so found fascinating the chance to watch a full playthrough.

A couple of minutes in, I thought: Hey… it’s Limbo! The similarity struck me not just in the subject matter and play style, but in the overall user experience: both works are rare examples of great games that never present any messages directly to the player, circumventing the display of “in-world” information. There is no HUD displaying health or inventory, nor do any tutorial prompts to press buttons ever appear. The games offer no subtitles for in-game dialog, because there isn’t any. You learn through a moment of initial experimentation how to make the defenseless little guy on the screen jog around and jump, and do your best from there. When the control scheme is simple enough to avoid frustration, this can be an elegant way to add a layer of unsettling, even alienating mystery to a game.

Both games also gleefully murder the protagonist in dozens of creative ways before the player sees the ending screen. Something these YouTubes don’t make obvious is Another World’s absurd difficultly level. Whoever’s playing it in this video seems to possess a very practiced hand at it (to the tune of Wiggins’ “billions of times” playing it as a kid). In reality, every time poor Lester, the ginger-haired and extremely fragile hero, gets eaten or dissolved or ray-gunned — an inevitability, several times over, with each new screen he explores — the checkpoint he reappears at is often located some distance in the past, requiring replay of several challenges. This being one of the classic ways to make a game you can speedrun through in 20 minutes (i.e. two YouTube videos) feel like a weeks-long epic to a new player.

Limbo, as I’ve written about, had its release long after cruel games have fallen from vogue. So even though (judging by the lengths of its YouTube collections) a Limbo speedrun takes more than twice as long as Another World, its vastly kinder distribution of respawn points (as well as, it seems to me, its much better-clued puzzles) means that you can traverse the work from end to end in an evening or two. By crafting a highly polished and deeply evocative experience, the makers of Limbo number among contemporary designers who stake that their games should aim to have longevity in their players’ memories, not necessarily on their game consoles.

I’ll be interested to learn how newcomers react to this 20-year-old design on the iPad — or if certain tweaks have been made to it, to better suit modern players’ palates.

Note that the following two videos spoil the entirety of Another World. Proceed with caution.

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On shorter games

Quite by accident, my last post reflecting on the trend away from difficult slogs in all kinds of games fell on the same day that several indie game developers banded together to blog in support of intentionally short videogames. My post and theirs drew inspiration from the same well, though; many of these posts pointed to the brilliant Limbo, which I wrote about on Monday, and the sniping it received from the enthusiast press for having a total play-length of less than ten hours.

As expected, Jon Blow writes a compelling (and short!) entry, after which he (like all the other writers in this exercise) compiles a list of links to the other participating game developers’ short-game essays (a list which, to my delight, includes Boston-based developers and Gameshelf friends Eitan Glinert and Scott MacMillan). Jamie Fristrom also caught my attention with a look back, with some regret, on decisions he took part in producing Schizoid and Spider Man 2, both long and difficult games which very few of their fans have played to completion. (In fact, I count myself among this impressed but unfulfilled majority in both games’ cases.)

My spur to finally write this acknowledgement came via Sean Murray’s “The Long Game”, in which he stands with the short-game fans, but then flips the argument onto its head in a defense of longer games (such as the one that his own studio develops). While I do appreciate the perspective, I can’t quite cross the bridge he builds there.

Arcade-style skill contests like Geometry Wars to one side, I’m very skeptical of any single-player videogame’s ability to “amaze and delight over weeks of play”, at least not with the unremitting intensity of novelty that defines the games on the Braid/Portal axis. Members of this family are short because they end when they’re empty, when they have no new things to show the player within their intentionally narrow play-domains. The tightest examples of the form establish their rules and spaces quickly, and then proceed to explore every interesting permutation of it, avoiding repetition in either game presentation or player activity. When the whole space is explored, the curtain closes (perhaps after a finale that ties up the frame story, if necessary).

At no point does the game suggest that it might be worth the player’s time to go tromp through a fifth procedurally generated dungeon, or scan an eighteenth planet for random-number “rare ores”, or what have you. They are not about escape, of spending as much time as you can away from reality before the game comes to a close (or becomes too boring to bear any further). Escape will always have a role in the world of videogames, but there is no good reason why new games should be judged in light of how expansive an escape they provide. Some games would rather try to enhance your life with brief and brilliant new patterns that will leave a mark on your mind than deliver a slow-drip soporific.

(Yes, there are always exceptions. Most multi-player games I hold almost entirely exempt from this line of reckoning, since I find them such fundamentally different experiences. Then again, I suppose I might want to label treadmill-based MMOs as exempt from my exemption. And where do half-breed board-gamey timesinks like Sid Meier’s Civilization fit into this? Well, perhaps that’s a column for another time.)

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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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