Game Design

trial and death in the video game limbo

In celebration of spooky season, I usually write about my favourite spooky games.  In the past, I’ve written about the game design of fear in Dead by Daylight and the fun of playing Phasmophobia with friends.

This year, I’ve decided to write about Limbo.  The monochromatic puzzle platformer was released in 2010, but it plays just as well as it did a decade ago.  Limbo is known for its atmospheric sound and environment design, with the shadows and sound effects a perfect, unsettling backdrop to its greyscale world.  There is no real backing soundtrack, just the grinding of machinery, or the gurgling of water, punctuated by occasional ominous trills as the player approaches yet another challenge.  It’s a fantastic game, especially if you are looking for something creepy to play in the lead-up to Halloween.

My favourite part about Limbo‘s game design, however, is something described by its developers Playdead as “trial and death”.  This concept is that players need to die in order to figure out the puzzles and thus progress in the game.  Limbo‘s use of “trial and death” cleverly integrates its puzzle aspects into its platformer framework, and is a valuable lesson in game design for future games that intend to mix the two.

Image from: Playdead

Designing Death as a Punishment in Video Games

Some interesting approaches to death in games include Undertale and The Oregon Trail, which I’ve written about before.  But overwhelmingly, death is used in games as a punishment.

  • In the first-person shooter Overwatch, if you die, you respawn in your team’s spawn location after a cooldown timer of 10 seconds (or 13 seconds in overtime).  MoBAs like League of Legends also allow you to respawn, but typically after a longer timer up to a minute or more depending on your level when you die.
  • In the Metroidvania-style platformer Hollow Knight, death means that you lose everything, and have to find and defeat the ghost version of yourself where you died to get your currency back.
  • Many platformers (e.g. Super Mario Bros.), battlers (e.g. Super Smash Bros.), and arcade games (e.g. Pac-Man) provide the player with a number of lives, typically three, after which it’s game over.

These games use death as a way to set players back with some negative consequences, if not completely end the game.  In many cases, death in games can cause you to lose some or all of your loot, prestige or status, or have to endure extra tasks to return from a dead state.

An interesting exception is death in roguelikes, often called “permadeath”.  In games like the platformer Spelunky or the deck-building game Slay the Spire, a single death sends the player back to the beginning, losing all the loot and buffs of the previous round.  However, replaying these sorts of games is their raison d’être, since they often use procedural maps and may allow players to unlock benefits or try different strategies in future runs.

Image from: Playdead

Death as a Mechanic for Feedback and Learning in Limbo

Like roguelikes, Limbo uses death as a mechanic, rather than a punishment or end state.  But Limbo‘s approach is far simpler.  “Trial and death” is a way to help players learn.

Raph Koster connects mastery, fun and learning as core elements of game design in A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

Fun from games arises out of mastery.  It arises out of comprehension.  It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.

In other words, with games, learning is the drug.1

Mastery of Limbo means not only succeeding at the platforming, but also solving the puzzles.  In the minimalistic world of Limbo, there are no tooltips or tutorials.  Death is the only feedback, and the player’s character dying is the game designers’ way of telling the player that they are trying to solve a puzzle incorrectly.

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Learning, then, comes out of dying in Limbo.  While in other games, you don’t want to die, dying in a myriad of awful manners is one way of knowing you’re progressing in Limbo.  Accordingly, the player isn’t punished for each death.  There are some gruesome animations – decaptiations, mutilations, drownings – but you’re then returned in one piece to your most recent checkpoint where you get to try again.

That the checkpoints are invisible is important to “trial and death”.  First, there’s no demarkation on the ground that would break the immersion of Limbo‘s world.  This results in a seamless sidescroller experience and a more cohesive journey for the boy.  There’s also a tension that builds, especially when you’ve been doing well, because there’s no indication of where you’re going to fall back to if you do fail.  But most importantly, it forces players to be brave and forge ahead, because trying things is how you learn.

Image from: Playdead

In one puzzle, you have to traverse a series of neon lights spelling out “hotel”.  Like most puzzles in Limbo, it’s not immediately obvious what you need to do, but on running across a lit up “H”, my character was instantly electrocuted.  This taught me not to do that again, and gave me clues about how to solve the puzzle to get to the other side.  Okay, the game was telling me, lit up letters are bad, so you need to find out how to avoid them or turn them off.

Learning must be done through experience, or through “trial”.  To go one step further, learning happens through trying and failing.  Failing in Limbo is death, and death is inevitable, but it is also forgiving.

The Effectiveness of “Trial and Death” in Puzzle Platformer Game Design

I think the success of Limbo is due to how it values its puzzles as much as its platforming.  Some of the puzzles get pretty tricky, but the game’s “trial and death” approach ensures that the player can try again with minimal friction.  This not only reduces friction but encourages the player to make different, creative attempts at solving the puzzles, which leads to interesting gameplay.  Once the player sees death as a way to divert them away from an incorrect path rather than the be-all-and-end-all it is in many other games, the puzzles become more engaging.

By looking at death as a feedback mechanic rather than a punishment or end state for the game, the designers have hit on something important in puzzle platformers that gave Limbo its edge that many years ago, and holds true today.  The important part of Limbo is not how fast you complete it, or the number of attempts it took, or whether you can do the whole game without dying once.  What matters is trying, learning, and solving each puzzle, and getting through the game at all.

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References Cited

  1. Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Arizona, Paraglyph Press, Inc., 2005.