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  • Design Bits Analysis: Limbo's Level Design

    - Peter Doria
  • Limbo helped break down the door for indie developers back in 2010. It wasn't the first puzzle platformer with 'atmosphere', but it was the first with capital 'A' Atmosphere. It spawned a slew of 'Limbo-likes' after it, and it is no wonder. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Limbo tackles its genre's inherent challenges like a master.

    But, even the master makes mistakes. So, as much as I will laud Limbo's accomplishments - and I will - I will also point out its flaws. Understanding the depth of Limbo's successes and failures requires some game design knowledge, SO, I will break it down step by step hopefully without boring the boogers out of you seasoned veterans.

    Chapter 1: Affordances - How a Game Talks to a Player

    Affordances implicitly explain rules by having something sound, look, or act a certain way. The more intuitive the affordance is, the easier it is for the player to pick up the implicit rule. For example: ‘handles' in Limbo. Handles can be grasped and pulled. Or, put another way, handles afford grasping and pulling. So, they are a perfect affordance for "pullables" like carts. Once the player has found one pullable thing with a handle, the player can intuit other things with handles as pullable. In this way, a game not only teaches rules - it teaches an audio/visual language that makes its rules intuitive. The more a game teaches through affordances instead of text, the more heavy-lifting your affordances have to do. Limbo tells you nothing up-front. It relies solely on audio/visual storytelling to communicate its rules. Everything must be intuited. It is a risky choice, and, most of the time, it works brilliantly.

    Chapter 2: A Puzzle is a Tutorial

    An affordance alone does not make a rule intuitive to learn. A rule's tutorial plays a big part, and for this, Limbo follows some classic rules of game design: (1) Make it easy to try again after they fail to learn, and (2) Remove distractions from teaching the new rule. Or, shortened up: (1) Safe to fail(2) No distractions. This is good, but what I love about Limbo is how it teaches more with less. In a word: elegance. In the player's first encounter with bear traps, they learn (1) bear traps kill, (2) how to move bear traps without them killing you, and (3) to do a running start before they jump to get over bigger obstacles. My favorite example is the machine gun tutorial. The player naturally jumps into the machine gun's line of sight and pulls themselves up before the machine gun fires. First time players likely won't notice the machine gun until it fires, but by that point, they will be safe up on the ledge. It's intuitive! It's efficient! It's Limbo! *chef's kiss*.

    However, Limbo isn't perfect.

    Chapter 3: When Communication Breaks Down 

    For the elevator panel tutorial, I spent a good few minutes trying random things until I realized I needed to stand at a specific point by the panels to interact with them. The only thing to suggest when you can interact with the panel is when the nameless boy's hand goes up, but that will only happen if you are already standing in the right spot for half a second. The panels lack appropriate affordances, and I think Playdead (the studio that made Limbo) kept this in mind when developing their next game, Inside. All of Inside's panels have physical buttons and switches that afford interaction, and it is clear when the player can and cannot interact with them. Many designers intentionally fall into the same trap Limbo did.

    The thinking is: "by making things vague, you make your world more mysterious." But having vague rules or affordances can be a one way ticket to bad, bad, bad station. They may initially invoke mystery, but vague rules are more likely to invoke arbitrary frustration - especially in a puzzle game where the fun comes from understanding rules and discovering their consequences. After all, trying random things is not a real challenge. The player is not making any meaningful decisions, and hunting for a solution without clues is not very fun at all. It is an arbitrary "pixel hunt" masquerading behind 'being mysterious'.

    A good puzzle requires the player to explore what they know in order to discover an unknown and surprising solution - as is often the case with Limbo. Unless there is no other way to achieve a game's goals, run away from vague rules. They cripple trust between the player and the game's audio-visual language and, in doing so, make it harder to build a common language of affordances.


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