Monday, August 2, 2010

Infernal Logic

Limbo is the arresting puzzle-platformer released in July for Xbox Live Arcade, and I wanted to talk a bit about this fascinating game through the lens of narrative design. So if you haven't played and finished it already, I highly recommend you do so before reading -- or even instead of reading. After all, beautifully crafted and artful games like this don't come around very often, though I'm not writing about Limbo here just because it's great.

In some respects, there's not much to say about Limbo's use of narrative. The game doesn't have a single spoken word in it and barely has any written words in it either. I believe "Hotel" is literally the only word that appears as part of the game itself (discounting menu text and credits). Like the rest of the narrative, I think this word ultimately is a red herring, something that probably inspires a lot of speculation about its meaning when players run into it, yet there's really not much there -- it's art for art's sake. Which is fine. This is how Limbo works.

Limbo has no real story as such. But you go through the game consciously or subconsciously looking for one, expecting one, because Limbo does such an excellent job of creating atmosphere and giving exposition, using methods that are as minimal as they are effective. Thus you expect the opening exposition to be expanded on, because of how our brains parse things shaped like stories. The game has one of the most intensely concentrated and compelling openings I've played in some years. It makes you think there's a story, and fills your head with dozens of interesting questions: who am I? where am I? why am I here? what am I looking for? who else is here besides me? am I even alive? The game's presentation is so strong that you in turn play through with the confidence that the authors of the game, and the game itself, must hold the answers. These types of questions are enough to keep you going through some extremely challenging puzzles that you'd sooner give up on if not for the game's narrative drive.

If you've finished the game, then you've unlocked all the stages in the Chapters menu. If Limbo were a typical puzzle game, that Chapters menu would have structured the experience. You would have selected puzzles from that screen, finished them or maybe not, then dropped back to that screen to pick the next one. As a result, the game would have been a pale shadow of itself. One of the things that makes Limbo so special among puzzle games and among platformers is that it offers a completely seamless, contiguous experience -- it's like one long level. You become completely immersed in it due to the flawlessly executed art style, audio ambience, and physics simulation, all delivered without interruption. At the same time, little story vignettes imply a greater meaning to the events that take place, a meaning you continue to search for until the game is over. The game breaks your immersion only when it gets too hard, which happened to me a couple of times early on then a couple of more times towards the end. But not so often that I wasn't fascinated to keep playing, to see where the whole thing was going.

It ends up going who-knows-where. The theme of the game gives it an "out" from a narrative perspective, in that a game about the place between life and death doesn't need to make sense (and probably shouldn't), and it doesn't need to provide clear answers (and probably shouldn't). Even still, Limbo's narrative felt incomplete to me in a way that wasn't entirely satisfying. I loved the starkness of the ending, the smash cut to the credits. I didn't love that things that seemed so intriguing in the game never came back into play. It struck me that the most interesting scenes were front-loaded. The game was at its most interesting when other living beings were afoot. Shadows of savage humanoids lurking in the darkness. Strange tortured souls hanging in the background. Flies swarming rotten chunks of meat. A man-made spider contraption. These sinister images are the game's most memorable. Later when it takes a shift to giant clockwork machinery and sketchy film noir neon signs, I realized that what was pushing me forward was my search for continuity, to see those dark shapes from the forest in the beginning come back and reassert themselves. And of course I wanted to see what happened at the end. It's a puzzle game and I was trying to piece together the biggest puzzle it had put in front of me. But it's the one puzzle that can't be solved. In the end, the game ends close to where it started, in the forest where the game is at its strongest. Limbo is a game about what it feels like to take a wrong turn.

I had this feeling that there's no continuity to the game in part because there was no good way to create continuity among the puzzles the design team chose to include and polish to perfection, probably from among many hundreds or thousands that they cut during the iteration process. I found myself wondering what content was left on the cutting room floor.

In the description paragraph you can read before you download the game, you're told that it's about a boy trying to find his sister. This is a surprisingly specific detail for a game that revels in unanswered questions. In Shadow of the Colossus, the ambiguity around the protagonist's relationship to the girl he seems to be trying to save works in the game's favor, to build intrigue. You're left to wonder about their relationship and what would drive the protagonist to do what he's doing for her sake. Even if it's love it takes a special love and a special woman to motivate a young man to hunt giant monsters for a woman's sake. In Limbo, you see an apparition of what looks like a girl on a couple of occasions before you finally encounter her right at the end. It's easy enough to interpret the plot of the game as something similar to Shadow of the Colossus from these scenes, yet being told precisely what the protagonist's relationship is to the girl he appears to be searching for feels unnecessary to a game that gives nothing else away. I wonder if the creators of the game had much of a part in writing that description.

I don't think most people went into Limbo expecting much of a story, and neither did I. But having a story isn't the only way to build narrative depth into a game, as Limbo demonstrates. The game may have no meaning, but man, does it ever make you search for one. At least that's how it worked on me, and I like it when games leave me with a lingering feeling, especially if they're going to be short. Did you take something different away from it than I did?


  1. I wanted meaning. I wanted purpose. I wanted a story. Limbo gave neither of that, but I guess I had some fun playing it. Puzzles were good.

    That's all I can say about that game...

  2. I think for me, the fact that I had just seen Inception colored my perceptions of Limbo. I don't know if you've seen Inception but it was a film I found utterly fascinating and yet too cold and mechanical to truly involve me. It also felt truly video-gamey to me in a way very few films if any have, and I came away from it thinking that it was the first film I'd seen that may have worked better if it had been conceived from the ground up as a game. Limbo, to me, worked as a kind of dreamworld in a way that the supposed "dreams" of Inception never did--Limbo's shadowy figures, huge, terrifying spiders and other dangers all had a kind of psychological simplicity to them that suggested they could represent just about anything. And I feel that there's a remarkable parallel between the questions I was left asking at the end of both Limbo and Inception--"Is this real? And does it matter?" Of the two, I was more satisfied with the way Limbo brought me to that point.

  3. I didn't read a story or plot into the game, really, though its progression from natural and alive to mechanical and impersonal left its own symbolism in my head. The influence of German Expressionist films seems quite heavy in the game, and as such, a lot of it seems more based on symbolism than actual story with a logical progression, which leaves it as an open playing field for how we interpret both the discrete parts and how it all fits as a whole.

    It's been almost as enjoyable reading peoples' interpretations as it has been to play the game itself (the latter still wins out, though).

  4. Nice writeup, Greg! I freakin loved this game, and really enjoyed how open-ended its interpretations could be. In fact, I thought that the XBLA "packaging" did the game a disservice by identifying the girl as the little boy's sister - that was never stated by the game, and so I treated her more as an abstraction.

    So, here's my take, for what it's worth - the boy is in the limbo between childhood and manhood. As he seeks maturity by giving up his self to be in the company of another person (a lover, a friend, doesn't matter), he must make his way through the trials of powerless childhood, to slowly evolve beyond his boyhood and become a man.

    So, he must relive his childhood fears one by one in the order he feared them - starting with bugs, spiders, eventually mastering that fear by pulling off the spiders' legs... Then on to other boys, the cruelty of other children (further "other"-ized by their lack of eyes), they shoot darts at him and won't let him into their clubhouse. Then the fear of leaving home, of displacement (the hotel), and eventually to the sorts of things that older boys play with - sawblades, magnets, deadly toy machine guns. All before finally throwing himself through the glass and arriving at the feet of another person, a woman who until then had been unaware of his existence.

    Of course, it's imperfect, and there are any number of other equally valid interpretations. Denis Farr wrote a cool take over at Vorpal Bunny Ranch, and my own review at Paste was easily the most opaque game review I've yet written... it seemed odd to write very much about the game itself.

    I love that Limbo leaves so much up to the player, and hope to see more games like it in the future. Cheers on the thoughtful post, man!

  5. You pretty much described my own feelings towards the game. I loved every second of it, but it left me wanting, no only because I wanted more of it, but because it felt abrupt - and maybe more because of lack of skill than narrative genius.

    As for the description of "the boy looking for his sister", I highly doubt that it was the studio's intention to have that around. Having this premisse (which in no way is held as truth by the game) narrows greatly your view upon that world, and takes way much of the interpretation you could make otherwise, even if you don't believe that description to be true.

    Again, I loved Limbo from begining to end, it's one of those games that gives you hope to the medium in general. But it could've been so much more.

  6. I ended up annoyed with the game for many of the reasons you cite. The game raises so many questions, especially in the beginning, that it either drops or never even attempts to answer. About halfway through the game I stopped even trying to figure out what was going on, as I realized the developers either didn't intend meaning in the events or weren't trying to tell a story. So in the end it felt like a puzzle platformer with a cool sense of style and nothing deeper.

    Wasted potential is mostly what I thought of it. A cool three hour puzzle platformer, a really cool half hour opening setting and style, and nothing more.

  7. I agree, but you could've said all that in just one paragraph. ;)

    It's not that the game doesn't give any answers, it's the realisation that there are none no matter how hard you look (after being led on).

    I didn't really mind it much since I had a lot of fun playing and like the mood all the way through, but the game could've been more than highly enjoyable. It could've been a true classic.

  8. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Not everything has to have meaning.

  9. Maybe I'm weird (okay, I am, but that isn't the point), but I never found myself looking for any deeper meaning in the game.

    For the first third of so of the game I was very interested in the brutality and starkness of the world (along with a strong enough feeling that I wanted to play Another World/Out of This World again that I hunted it down and bought a new copy).

    During the middle portion of the game I was distracted by the puzzle solving and just let myself be carried along.

    When the clockwork areas hit I was broken out of my suspension of disbelief in the "reality" of the world. Granted this should have happened much earlier, but there you go.

    But, again, I didn't really worry about the story (what of it there is) at that point as I figured it would either tie it all up or not as the case may be when I came to the end.

    For me the end worked perfectly. It was a dream. It doesn't need to be any more complex (or simple) than that. This explains everything. The transitions from grass hills right onto rooftops/city, bananas gravity, impossible mechanical machines and the box that you need to progress being right there for you just when you need it.

  10. What you said about "hotel" being a red herring made me think about it a bit more. Without being to much of a stretch, isn't a hotel just a sort of limbo between home and somewhere you are going? A place that you sleep in fact.

    Seems like perfect dream-imagery to me. I agree it's not the answer to any big question about the "plot", but it's more like an expression of the game's core premise. Pretty cool if you ask me.