Monday, August 2, 2010

That One Puzzle in Limbo

So... there's this one puzzle in Limbo. Yeah, you know the one I'm talking about.

The gravity flip, the jump onto the rope attached to the zipline, the slide down that rooftop into a leap over that hidden right-arrow sign, timing the "use" button to switch the room's gravity, pushing the little boy right instead of down.

It's signposted, but it's not signposted well. Just before hopping onto the zipline, players encounter the first of the gravity-shift arrows. They're pointing up and down, and the boy uses them to coax the zipline over to him by switching the room's gravity, causing it to fall up to him. It seems like the game moves a bit quickly from there, since immediately afterward players are expected to understand that gravity can also be shifted left and right, as well as that they are being asked to time their presses in midair to redirect the boy's momentum.

Further complicating matters is the fact that there's a rope hanging right near the sign that looks for all the world like a usable rope, and yet each time I leapt for it the boy would sail past, falling to his death in a pit of spikes.

I was playing the game early for review, and although I did figure it out, it was more by luck than anything else. After dying a dozen times, I tried spamming the "use" button over the rope and in doing so I hit the arrow instead. Whether or not PlayDead had intended that result by placing the rope next to the arrow, it felt like the only time in the game that I survived on luck rather than my wits.

After I'd completed the game, I watched as my gaming twitter-friends played through it, and many folks hit the same roadblock. I could always tell when they got there; initial tweets of "Wow, Limbo is something else" gave way to "BLARG LIMBO FUUUU." Usually they'd work it out, though at one point a fellow early reviewer just went ahead and asked me what to do. It was a neat moment - there were no FAQs yet online, and the game offers no built-in hint system, so the only thing to do was to turn to another human and ask. Which in turn made me think a bit about self-containment and game design.

Do all games need to function perfectly if played in a vacuum? To what extent is it fair to assume that each player has access to a community that can help him or her through a tough spot? Certainly Demon's Souls does this - the game is so impenetrable that surviving it without aid from others seems next to impossible. In fact, Demon's Souls builds that community into the game itself - my trek last night through the Boletarian Palace was made quite a bit less daunting by the warnings that previous players had left for me, helpful crimson etches upon the castle's chilly stone.

And that's to say nothing of the meta-community that's sprung up around the game. The incredible Demon's Souls wiki is the result of countless hours of labor by those who edit and contribute to it, and each time I've felt like throwing in the towel for the night, I'm heartened by the mere fact of its existence.

Now, I don't think that pushing its players outside of Limbo was PlayDead's intent. I think that what makes that zipline/gravity-arrow puzzle stand out is that it's an inconsistency in an otherwise spectacularly polished game. But all the same, I actually liked that the upshot was to get everyone together to complain about it, I liked that it prompted a helpful conversation between me and another gamer. By not explaining itself, Limbo forced us to get by with a little help from our friends.

As Demon's Souls demonstrates, the same approach can work by design. In this age of accessibility and built-in hint systems, pushing players to help one another outside of the proper game adds a new dimension to the experience. Heck, my own review of Limbo was as opaque as it was in part because it seemed a safe bet that if anyone who read it wanted to know, say, about the game's length or its control scheme, they could find that information elsewhere in the blink of an eye. At this point, it seems safe to assume that the vast majority of modern-day videogame players have internet access.

There's a fine line, of course. But all the same, I have to wonder: must every game be playable in a vacuum? To what resources can a game assume its players have access?
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