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Analysis:  Limbo 's Completion Time - What's in a Length?
Analysis: Limbo's Completion Time - What's in a Length?
July 27, 2010 | By Kyle Orland

July 27, 2010 | By Kyle Orland
More: Console/PC

[Writer Kyle Orland discusses recent popular XBLA title Limbo -- specifically, the focus from the critical press and gaming audience on the game's length, examining the obsession with a game's length -- perhaps even over its content?]

Without a doubt, Xbox Live Arcadeís Limbo is an instant classic. The reviews are near-unanimous in their praise. Limbo is "bleak and beautiful." Itís "haunting." Itís "elegant and minimalistic." Itís "clever." Itís "gorgeously constructed." It "will stay with you for a very long time." Some are already calling it "a masterpiece." Others are breaking out the dreaded a-word: "Art."

But thereís one other thing Limbo reviewers are almost equally unanimous about. Some seem almost reluctant to bring it up. Others seem proud that they were able to find some flaw to balance out an otherwise glowing review.

Regardless, the critical consensus seems to be that Limbo is excellent but, well... itís kind of short.

The Length Complaint

"The only real complaint I have of this game is that it is so short," writes Gaming Age. "Probably the only flaws that I can think of with Limbo are that the game is sadly shorter than it should be," writes Planet Xbox 360. "If you are concerned about the gameís length, you might want to see how low the price can go," writes Cheap Ass Gamer, living up to its name by complaining about the value of a high-quality $15 game.

Perhaps nothing speaks better of Limboís essential quality than the fact that the only negative most reviewers could come up with is that they want to play more of it. Still, it seems a bit gauche to bring up the game's length when everyone seems to agree the game is almost perfectly crafted in every other respect. Itís like whining that the Mona Lisa wasnít painted on a bigger canvas, or that Casablanca wasnít padded out with more fight scenes.

But many critics seem to agree that Limbo's length is lacking, even if they canít agree what that length is exactly. "Four hours" seems to be the number most commonly cited in reviews, but plenty of critics claim it only took them three. Plenty more mention getting stuck in Limbo (HA!) for five or even six hours.

My personal favorite quote on Limboís length might come from The Review Crew, who say the game took them three to four hours, but "of course it will take you longer if you get stuck on the numerous puzzles." I mentally inserted the unwritten subtext: "Note: This game may take you a while if you are not as awesome at video games as we are."

A Matter Of Relatives

This brings us to one of the maddening facts that makes video game criticism different than criticism of most any other medium: length is not an absolute fact. Different players play at different paces -- a game thatís a two-hour breeze to some might be a ten-hour slog for others. The very idea of a set length doesnít make sense for many games. How long does it take to complete The Sims? Tetris? The Multiplayer mode in Modern Warfare 2? These games are only as long as you are willing to keep playing them.

This should be the critical length benchmark for every game: not "How long until I reach the end?" (Are we theeeeere yet?) but "How long do I want to play?" Yet publishers constantly describe the "number of hours" for upcoming games as if that was a feature as concrete as "number of players." What usually goes unsaid in these inflated marketing claims of "hundreds of hours" of longevity is that 90% of those hours will be spent mindlessly grinding for experience points, or repeating endlessly similar escort missions, or chasing down hidden doodads that have long-since ceased being interesting to collect, all in pursuit of some quasi-mythical and utterly pointless "100%" on some statistics screen.

Perhaps this marketing push is why many critics seem fixated on length. Or perhaps theyíre just used to judging games less as carefully constructed works of art (or even craft) and more as mere value propositions. "Give me X hours of gameplay for every Y dollars of my investment" is the unspoken context of this type of review.

The relative quality of those hours -- and whether all those hours eventually come together into some sort of satisfying whole -- donít seem to matter much to these critics. As long as the game is suitably distracting from the essential emptiness of everyday living, then more quantity equals more quality, as far as theyíre concerned. And hey, if that game only costs $20, that leaves $40 extra in the budget left over to take the family out to a thoroughly enjoyable two-hour movie. Er, wait...

The Value Of An Hour

This value-based approach to reviewing seems ill-suited for a game as carefully constructed and self-contained as Limbo. Heck, it seems inappropriate for any game, especially considering that reviewers often rush through their single, straightforward playthrough of a game as quickly as possible in order to meet some very tight deadlines. How are these reviewers supposed to judge replay value when theyíre expected to move on to the next game on their review pile almost immediately? In fact, youíd think most reviewers would appreciate a shorter game, given the mountains of unplayed games sitting unloved on their shelves (poor babies).

Still, it seems wrong to totally ignore the issue of game length. Games are consumer products as well as works of art, and sometimes even a good game doesnít provide sufficient value for the money. One of the most elegant solutions to this problem Iíve seen came from the sadly short-lived Game Buyer magazine, a Future publication which ran for four months in late 1998.

Each review in Game Buyer came with a horribly unscientific graph with time on the X axis and the gameís "tilt level" on the Y axis. So a game that started slow but had tons of replay value would have an upward curve, while a game that started with a bang but fizzled out would curve downwards. Bang! The value proposition in a handy visual format -- you donít even have to waste any words in the review text!

To be fair, many reviewers seem to be handling the problem of Limboís length appropriately, even without the aid of graphs. The Telegraph review mentioned a "perfectly formed running time of around four hours," while 7outof10 pointed out that the game "packs more spine-tingling wonder and horror into its opening hour as those games manage in eight or more." Some reviews, most notably Pasteís and Eurogamerís, even managed to capture the game elegantly without mentioning the running time at all (or, in the case of Eurogamer, downplaying it).

But perhaps the most elegant statement on the matter of Limboís length came, surprisingly (to me at least), from IGNís review of the game: "While [five or six hours] may sound short, it's better for a game to leave us wanting more than to overstay its welcome."


[Kyle Orland is a freelance video game journalist with over a decade of experience, if you count reviews for his college paper and fansite Super Mario Bros. HQ, and heíd appreciate it if you did. Heís written about issues surrounding the game press for a variety of outlets, most recently at his new blog, which is also called The Game Beat.]

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sam darley
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Sorry to be the pedant, but the Eurogamer does mention a three-hour running time (in the second-to-last paragraph). It just doesn't treat it as a negative, but simply a statement of duration.

Fiore Iantosca
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3 hours seems about right if you go straight through it. I loved this game. Playing on my 52" with headset at night, the ambiance and mood it created was amazing. I think GameSpot wrote it was 1 hour. That's BS. Maybe to a gamer PRO or a game reviewer like GameSpot's.

For most people it will take them longer and they may not do it in one sitting.

But in the end, it was a beautiful game.

Ujn Hunter
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I'd personally rather have a game that is 3 hours long than 60 hours long. I never finish those long games. However I will also never pay more than $10 for a digital download. So I won't buy LIMBO (no matter how good the game is...) until it goes on sale for $10 or less. If the game came out at retail I'd gladly pay $20-30 for it though.

Fiatala Salamo
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Since game time cannot be captured exactly, I think it's best in a game like Limbo to offer more information. "Our first complete play took between three and four hours. An inexperienced puzzler could expect between six and 10 hours, while our second play speed run - knowing all solutions - came in at just over 95 minutes." That gives a wide range of possible play times, but it frames the range in a way where a user, knowing his or her own experience level, could guess at the time it would take them.

I do think the reviewer has a responsibility to mention play time in any game. The reader can disregard the information or use it to further define their expected value.

Simon Carless
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Thanks, Sam - we edited to update that.

Martin Oddy
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"I mentally inserted the unwritten subtext: "Note: This game may take you a while if you are not as awesome at video games as we are.""


Rather than the subtext of this article which is "everyone else has said it's too short so I'll go ahead and say the opposite because I'm cool".

Rikki Prince
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Your point about "How long do I want to play?" is an awesome one. Games that are artificially stretched to 40 hours for the game-length-whores are the ones I get bored of after a few hours of dross, and end up never getting finished. I'd much prefer lots of games that I can complete in 5-10 hours, enjoy in their entirety and possibly replay.

Whenever the issue of violent games gets raised, the industry bleats on about the average age of a gamer being in their mid-thirties. Well if that's the case, stop designing bloody games for those that finish school at 3pm, play video games for 12 hours then go onto online forums to complain about the length of video games!

Timothy Woodbury
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I'm glad you made the movie argument. I can't tell you the number of times I've had that argument with people. The average runtime for a movie right now (based on the listings at the local cinema) is around 111 minutes. I really can't understand why people are willing to shell out what, for us, is close to $15 (per ticket!!) for a form of passive entertainment that lasts under 2 hours, but not $15 (once - regardless of # of players!!) for active entertainment lasting 3-4 hours. Even if you amortize the cost of the console with that, it still seems a better value proposition to me.

What am I missing?

warren blyth
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I can't stand the length criticism. (like most men... nyuk nyuk?).

I prefer the experience of completing games to the (far more common) experience of realizing i've moved on to something else. (i'm 32, have day job and several hobbies. thus, spending more than a couple hours on video games each night often strikes me as a painful waste of precious time.)

When I complete a more polished and condensed game: I'm more likely go back and play again.

I've played through Portal at least 4 times. I completed Limbo last night, and am now urging my girlfriend to play through it for the mood (which I'll likely watch). Sooo. Feels much more valuable to me than ME2 or AlanWake (which I play by myself in small chunks).

* Seems like I end up just replaying multiplayer games these days, so I can get some satisfaction from a "couple hours." (mostly play left4dead2 mutations & alien swarm on pc, and gears2 Horde on xbox). Is it fair to think of these games as extremely short polished experiences? basically 2 hour long games that I'm just playing repeatedly?

maybe Limbo reviewers meant to complain about the lack of breadth. I don't see a lot of "other" ways to explore the environment.

John Tynes
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When I worked in tabletop roleplaying games, there was an RPG reviewer who would generate an average word count per page for each reviewed product. He didn't necessarily want more words, but he wanted more words on each page to avoid paying for extra paper or something.

As bizarre as that sounds, there was a nugget of truth in it. At the time TSR, makers of Dungeons & Dragons, were cutting costs by reducing wordcount in their standard-sized products. To stretch fewer words onto the same number of pages, they started increasing margins and adding graphic borders. For a brief period they were publishing books with margins & borders of two inches on all sides -- big enough that it actually looked ridiculous once you blinked a couple times and understood -- and the text itself was also of generous size and spacing. It was a transparent money-grab and it left a bad taste in a lot of gamers' mouths in those days.

However, that kind of cost-cutting is not at work here. Criticisms of game length are pretty ridiculous.

Josh Green
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When it comes to games, I can summarize this very simply. 4 hours != $15.00

Lo Pan
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Limbo is the only game that has made my wife laugh her head off (at his deaths). That is worth the game's price to me! :-)

Chris Daniel
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I like short games. I have other things to do as well.

Matt Rollins
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@Ujn - You would nver pay more than $10 for a digital download but the retail version of this game is worth $20-$30 to you? So, packaging and the game data on a disc is worth $10-$20 but the game itself is only worth $10?

I'm not trying to troll or anything like that. I'm really just wondering where the perceived value of the product is.

David Delanty
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So ends the '3 hour play time' as valid criticism. If the designers can cram as much enjoyment as they did with Portal and Limbo in a three hour serving, you can't call the game 'short' as you would 'efficient.'

Gregory Kinneman
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To make a counterpoint to those claiming value is based heavily on length (ie. not the author):

My brother and I both played Dragon Age last winter. I worked full time over my school break. He decided not to work. I sunk about an hour or two every night into that game for almost a month and got through the origin, the first town and the mage tower. He finished the whole game in 6 14-hour game sessions. We both loved the game, but I couldn't help but feel that the game was meant to be played in larger chunks like he did. Some stories demand length and heavier commitment. It's hard to be epic in 3 hours. Still, I wish that Dragon Age had been shorter so that I could have finished it in a month. Sometimes things are too long, even when they're fun the whole time, because we eventually get bored of good things and bad things alike.

Ryan Schaefer
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Limbo being a "short" game is another point in its favor for me. Long games are games that I likely will never finish playing. I do think it is unfair to criticize a game for being too short because making games isn't about how long you can make the experience, but rather how enjoyable you can make it. To that end, Limbo succeeds wonderfully.

Many older, NES games are very short. Double Dragon 2 is a game I can play from start to finish in about 25 minutes and I still enjoy playing it after all this time. There aren't many games you can say that about.

How good or bad a game is should have nothing to do with its length.

Nathan Addison
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You have given me interesting questions, sir. Thanks for the article.

Grace Aust
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I don't think the length matters, it's about the experience. For example, Uncharted 2 took about 12 hrs for me to beat. I'm used to playing games that take a bit longer, let's say +20hrs, so it came to a surprise to me when I saw it only took 12hrs, because it felt so much longer. Now Fable 2 on the other hand left me with a "this is it?" feeling, and that took me appox the same amount of time.

Then again, $60 is a lot of money to spend on a game which is only going to keep the player occupied for 10hrs. With $60 I could buy a couple movies or a few books, a lot more than one game that I might not like.

Ujn Hunter
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@Matt Rollins: This is off topic now, but having a physical disc w/ manual and case is highly valuable to me. Digital zeros and ones on my hard drive, which if becomes corrupt and Xbox Live is no longer available to me, is gone forever. I don't buy MP3's either, I still buy CD's and Vinyl. I'm not paying more than $10 for a digital download that is tied to my account and my account only which can be lost forever to the void in the future. It's just the way it is.

Leonardo Ferreira
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Game criticism seem to be the only kind of criticism that grips on short lenght; a I often read that certains movies and books are overly long, and, as mentioned in the article, taking your family to the movies can be as expensive as buying a game.

Of course, movies, books and games have all different times of consumption; while a movie usually take two hour of your life, a game has a consumption time similar to a book, with relatively lenghty sessions (around one hour, at least for me -0 if the game or the book is good, of course) in certain times of the day.

Also, a game ideal lenght should not be determinated arbitrarily its publishers, but by the amount, variety and quality of new situations the designers can build around its central mechanics. At least in my little perfect world, anyway.

Kale Menges
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This game took me roughly the same amount of time on my first play-through as my first time through Portal. Like Portal, I find Limbo's length to be nearly perfect, flawlessly complementing the game's simplistic and beautifully focused game design. Any longer than it is and the designers most certainly risked breaking the game's design. Playdead made very intelligent and inspired decisions about the game's design. I applaud them for how well the game's design, amount of content, art direction and audio all complement each other in a wonderfully integrated and synergetic tapestry.

If anyone would like to gripe at game about it's play-through time, let that be God of War III ($60 game with a $43 Million budget and it only takes 6-7 hours to play through with virtually no replay incentives?). Limbo is fine the way it is. Sometimes less really is more.

Adam Flutie
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They should have made sure the game had an achievement - play for 100 hours. then 100% completion would have taken a minimum 100 hours. Problem solved right?

Maybe made an online mode in game that lets you get online and talk about it at the same time you just have your little person stand there. Multiplayer! They could have someone from your friends list play the game with you where you both can stand there and talk to each other!


The important thing is making the right game with the right features. Too many developers chase all the hyped features that just don't add to the game they are creating. I'm probably getting Limbo simply because it looks so well designed and very little criticism that matters. "It's too short!" says the full time game reviewer. Yeah, whatever it probably is a great entertainment value for me - just like Braid was.

B Reg
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Best article in a long time! Thumbs up!

Mark Raymond
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I recently downloaded two games over PSN: Vagrant Story and Half-Minute Hero. Now, Vagrant Story, I'm sure, offers more longevity than Half-Minute Hero, but I enjoyed what I played of Half-Minute Hero a hellava lot more than what I did of Vagrant Story. In the end, I felt much more pleased about my purchase of Half-Minute Hero and actually regretted buying Vagrant Story.

Now, get this: Half-Minute Hero cost me ten pounds; and Vagrant Story, on the other hand, cost me four Ė about the price of a return bus ticket into town for me.

I'm not sure what value is, but I don't think it's about length Ė at least, not directly anyway. It's an experience that's really changed the way I think about games.

John Mawhorter
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Portal was too short, but I think it is valuable to think of length not in terms of time, but in terms of how well developed the mechanic is. Portal, to me, felt like the first half of a really good game. The puzzles never got that hard and the first half of it was basically a tutorial.

I haven't played Limbo, but if it makes full use of its mechanics in the time that it lasts then it is good. A lot of short games with really deep mechanics are just selling themselves short (har har) by not developing enough level content to go with the mechanic. If the game is really simple, then I'm fine with it being short because I'd get bored of a 40-hour version of Tic-Tac-Toe with a story mode.

Andrew Heywood
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I find the argument about Limbo's length interesting mainly because the quality of the game is highly inconsistent across that length. A game being three hours long in and of itself is not a problem. The problem with Limbo is that within its three hours, it both runs out of ideas and totally abandons what appeared to be its central theme.

People seem to glaze over this. Obviously YMMV, but for me, the best 'scene' in the game came very early on (I'll just say 'mechanical spider leg'). That little set-piece was part of what appeared to be the core theme as I played the first section of the game. Namely, that of 'Others': ellusive, malevolent tormentors, chasing and disappearing in front of our lonely, scared protagonist as we guide him, stumbling, through a terrifying, foreign landscape. The rest of the game totally abandoned that theme in favour of dragging boxes around a factory, riding conveyor belts, flipping gravity, and other genre stalwarts. I found it rather jarring, as did everyone else I spoke to about it. It's as if someone zapped everyone's memory with one of those gadgets from Men In Black; I mean come on - does no-one remember the giant spider? Where did all that cool, creepy stuff go?

Too short at three hours? Two hours too long if you ask me. (Caveat: I still would have paid my £10 for the first hour alone).

Chris Taran
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I find people who bring up movie length in articles complaining about game length criticism have either never read a movie review, or do so so rarely as to somehow miss the incredible frequency that movie length is brought up in movie reviews.

And to dismiss any aspect of the game, including length, as a valid critical point, is absurd to me.

Andrew Goulding
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My game development genre of choice is adventure games, which are basically a whole load of scripted scenarios with very little asset reuse. My game - Jolly Rover, has been criticised for its price vs length, even though it likely cost a lot more to make than a puzzle game or platformer of equal or greater length for the same price. If we value games based on the number of unique experiences you have rather than on length I think we'll have a better rationale for pricing. I applaud games that don't slap on useless filler or mini-games to artificially increase the length (case in point, the Resource mini-game in Mass Effect 2). Games like Braid and Portal may be short, but you're always doing something new and being entertained by unique experiences. In our time starved world I hope we see more condensed gameplay experiences such as these that are priced on the quality of the experience rather than their length.

Rob Schatz
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Does anyone know what game engine they used to make Limbo?

Andrew Wilson
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They built their own engine.