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GDC Europe:  Limbo 's Carlsen On Making Players Your Worst Enemy And Your Best Friend
GDC Europe: Limbo's Carlsen On Making Players Your Worst Enemy And Your Best Friend Exclusive
August 16, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield

Limbo level designer Jeppe Carlsen considers the player his worst enemy, but also his best friend. Through simplicity of control, but also by frequently leading players to their untimely demise, the 9-person Danish team at Playdead created a challenging XBLA title with over 300,000 copies sold thus far.

Carlsen began as a game programmer, but became more design-oriented over time, though he had no design background. The game's design was set by the director in the general sense, with a detailed video of the mood and setting, alongside the idea that the game should only use directional control and two buttons (jump and grab), and should never have any tutorial text.

They ran into problems from the beginning. The team had a scenario where the player needed to get up a ledge that was too high to jump onto, and there was a boat to pull, but since there was no tutorial, players had no idea what to do. Nobody knew to grab the boat, because the character had just ridden to this scene on it. So they made a new scenario, and forced the player to wind up near a pullable object, and put the character's arms out when he was nearby. They stick you there until you learn.

"You could call it a learning-by-dying game," he says. "We wanted the player to die a lot in this game, I think it really works with the theme."

Carlsen's level design methodology tends to center around leading the player to believe one thing, then pulling the rug out under them. When you're being so difficult to the player, "It's important that you also treat him nicely," he says. "You don't ever really get penalized for dying, it's just how the game plays."

Puzzles have no replay value, so the fun is in finding them out, Carlsen adds. In that case it's important to make the player learn from their deaths, and make them look entertaining.

He also alters level designs in order to make the player feel something different. "Earlier in the design (of a certain puzzle in which a spider knocks down a bear trap that's vital for continuing) we had the trap in the scene with the spider," he said, but this caused players to focus on the trap, not the spider, so they moved it away to another screen. He wanted them to feel helpless, and to use that space to experiment. "I think it makes the scene work a whole lot better, giving the player this slight frustration on not knowing what to do," he said. But they based cues on sound, you can hear when the trap falls, and so forth.

The rules set out at the beginning of the project "didn't make it particularly easy" to design the puzzles, he admits. Thinking of how to lay out and design the simple elements, and you may want to try to predict what players can do. Present one element so that they have to do it, like a switch that they will most likely push by running past. Then trick them to make them think some solution is the answer. This will force the player to really stop and think about what they're doing.

First, he says, think of the player as your worst enemy, and then create the most devious puzzle possible. But then from there, try to work with the player as your friend, so that you can give them the right clues. Start with tough stuff, then scale back.

Carlsen showed a number of early puzzle designs which were far too complex. They would see what worked in these puzzles, and take that one element, but through this process he admits that "we had to throw out a lot of work all the time."

"It's very important that the correct solution is fairly easy to execute," he said. If the player can't make the correct approach work, after a few times, they will stop trying that correct idea. "It takes the player a long time to go back to an idea that he had previously discarded as not being possible," he says. So, the wrong approaches should clearly present that they are wrong. If they can get close with a wrong approach, they can get very attached to trying that idea.

Limbo is linear, so you can get really stuck, and there's no hint system. "That's not really a fortunate situation to put the player in, but we didn't want to have any in-game menus or anything."

"The biggest rewards come from finally finding the solution to a puzzle you had to struggle with for some time," he concluded. "Getting that balance right is really important in making a puzzle game that's entertaining to play."

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Bart Stewart
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I don't know if I'd personally say that Limbo looks like a "fun" game, but it was certainly worth making if only for the great questions of game design that it raises.

1. What is a "puzzle game?" There are challenges you can solve by thinking about the elements and clues and reasoning out a solution. And there are challenges that require you to try and fail repeatedly until you stumble onto the developer's intended solution.

That first class of challenge seems like a puzzle to me -- is there any serious dispute about that?

What about the second "trial and error" class? Does everyone agree that it qualifies as a puzzle? If not, then what is it?

Do Limbo and Portal both treat the player the same way, or not?

2. Limbo clearly fits -- by intention -- into the "hose the player" school of design. (Or maybe "ha ha, you fail, keep trying!" would be a more accurate description.) There are definitely gamers who find that entertaining; they take the challenge personally and feel great satisfaction in refusing to lose.

On the other hand, there are gamers who find that kind of design abusive, who don't find it enjoyable at all to have their pattern-recognition skills toyed with. Do these gamers have a point when they describe Limbo as a "bad game?"

Is it OK if they only go as far as expressing a strong personal distaste for Limbo?

3. Related to that second point, Adam Bishop has a very good essay and thread going (
hould_Have_Clues.php) on the question of whether Limbo plays fair with its players by giving no clues to when it's changing the rules on them.

It seems to me that the reactions people have expressed are highly dependent on their playstyle preferences. Those who like simple, trial-and-error challenges that can be ground out with enough persistence will probably enjoy Limbo. But those gamers who find it fun to use their perceptiveness to recognize solution patterns will probably have strongly negative reactions to games like Limbo that actively subvert pattern-seeking behavior.

It makes for interesting discussions, if nothing else!

Andrew Wilson
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"1. What is a "puzzle game?" There are challenges you can solve by thinking about the elements and clues and reasoning out a solution. And there are challenges that require you to try and fail repeatedly until you stumble onto the developer's intended solution."

I disagree. I think all puzzles require trial and error in some fashion. Reasoning out the solution just means that your very first attempt was a success.

If there is a ball under your bed and you are trying to get it, you will probably try the most logical thing first, to reach under and get it. If you realize that it's just out of reach then you might go and get a broom or perhaps you'd move the bed. This is trial and error problem solving. Every time you try something you learn that it didn't work and why and then you try the next most logical step.

If a puzzle game exists where you can just work out the solutions without any trial and error then show me it. I would argue that it is not a puzzle game at all.

The thing with Limbo is that if you have fear of failure then it is not a game for you. Almost universally the people who dislike it are those who feel frustrated when they died; but dying is not supposed to be a frustrating experience in limbo. It is a learning tool. You shouldn't feel like you screwed up or you're a failure because you died.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Hm I'm really going to have to play Limbo sometime, despite my lack of an XBox. It seems to me like it's very similar to one of my favorite games from childhood "Heart Of Darkness"...

Ofer Rubinstein
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Your analasys seems to be out of touch with reality and too much rationalizing. I don't mean to offend though.

What you basically say, some people like to think, and some people like mindless activity like LIMBO offers. I think you are wrong in several ways.

First, the perceptive gamer as you call it, might be considered as someone that is not thinking to find a s olution as well. What does he do? He just observe to try and find clues and find patterns.

Finding patterns might be considered as thinking, but it is a more subconcious automatic thinking, you just try to recognize patterns you have seen before.

Not only this does not require you to think logically and solve logical or practical problems, but also if you encounter new patterns that are different than previous patterns, or seem similar but are different, it will confuse the perceptive player.

A perceptive player is bad at recognizing new patterns.

The achiever player, as you call it, have to actually think. You say he is only doing trial and error. That is, he tries something, if it's wrong he goes to the next solution and tries until he successed.

That is not what happen in LIMBO.

Trial and error only works if each time you try and fails, you advance a little further to the solution until it converge. This is not the case in LIMBO.

As the author said, in LIMBO there is only one good exact solution. If you try other solutions, you will understand they are not possible by the nature of the game. However, if you try the right solution, it will be more easy to see you are going in the right direction.

If we compare this to math problems. Then the perceptive player is more like getting questions of 4 different shapes, and he needs to pick one from another 4 different shape that mach the pattern.

This is not entirely a conciouss process.

In LIMBO, on the other hand, it is very similar to an analytic math problem. You are given a question, often not entirely understanding what is the question. Then you can think of solutions and try solving them. You usually can't think of the solution in it's entirely before you start to write down on paper, because it's almost impossible to do all the math straight in your head.

So you start writting it down until you reach a certain point you see your solution is impossible. Much like in LIMBO.

When you try the right solution, everything suddenly falls in to place and work out smoothly in harmony.

Charles Forbin
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You know, most of the puzzles in Limbo can be solved without dying. The "you have to die to figure out the puzzles" thing is being WAY overstated. Most times I died because I made a mistake and did not accomplish what I intended, much like any other platformer, like when Mario misses that jump in SM Galaxy and drops into the screaming, infinite void of space.. There was only a few places where they game got snarky with you with a trick or surprise. You're supposed to laugh at it, not ponder the Meaning Of Life.

Some of you folks need to step back and take a deep breath, and stop trying to psychoanalyze people because they liked or disliked a game. I loved Limbo, but I love all sorts of other games. I don't have a consistent "playstyle" and none of the other gamers I know fit neatly into little pigeonholes some folks here love to go on (and on) about.

Brandon Sheffield
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Bart, thank you for consistently bringing intelligent discussion to our comments.

According to Carlsen, Limbo intends to give players clues, but it just doesn't always do this as successfully as we might like. There definitely does seem to be some trial-and-error to the gameplay, but on the whole, they wanted to lead the player to the solution - or away from it - but either way to lead them somewhere. If indeed the gameplay winds up being trial and error, I would think that Carlsen would consider this a failure on his part.

One part of the talk that I didn't write up, in the interest of not making it too long, was his discussion of a puzzle in Prince of Persia (the 2008 one) in which there are several pools of water, and you have to make the water flow from one to another, 11 pools away. you rotate these pools with switches, and are supposed to look at all of these things and determine the solution. But he says that this is way too much information for a player, so this definitely boils down to trial and error. You just mess with them until you kind of get it. He really doesn't like this sort of puzzle, because there's no real hint to the solution here, you just bang away at it until you succeed. He wanted Limbo to be a different kind of game, so trial-and-error was the antithesis of what he wanted to achieve.

Ofer Rubinstein
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Charles, I do agree with you that over analyzing is overrated. First, as a player that would definitely ruin your experience and immerssion. And as a developer, you can't really expect to be able to analyze every aspect of a game, and exactly predict what kind of experience your game will bring.

So you better lay of the rationalization a bit and combine a bit of thinking with enthusiasem.

Games is not an accurate science, and even accurate science has a lot of flaws.

John Krajewski
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They say great art comes from great constraints, and I think the constraints they imposed on themselves for the design of this game had that exact effect (no tutorial text, only two buttons). The result is an experience that is never dumbed-down, never coddling to the player. Where most games seem to take it as an edict that they must make the player feel like the greatest hero in the galaxy/kingdom, the lack of tutorials and indeed instructions of any kind promoted a feeling of intense vulnerability (I'm lost in this world of darkness without a guide, I dont know what's next and I dont know how to survive), mirroring the situation of the protagonist. You have only your wits to get you through.

The puzzles themselves fit this role perfectly - discovering the means to solve them is as much a part as actually executing the solution. With the mechanics and presentation unified with the story and art, the result is a game that feels whole and an experience that is intensely focused - atmospheric, haunting, and above all vulnerable.

I couldn't help thinking as I played it that I was glimpsing the future of games, thinking 'finally, someone gets it', that to craft an experience every aspect needs to be in congruence, and things like tutorials, complicated controls, a hint system, etc are often detractors to that experience. Definitely the most interesting game I've played in years.

The one thorn in my playthrough was the popping up of achievements periodically, but I bet that was more Microsoft's fault than theirs.

Bart Stewart
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Thanks for the comments, all (and for the kind words, Brandon).

1. Ofer, no offense taken. People can have differences of opinion with no insult intended or perceived.

You're completely right that I've come to the view that for some people, trying to solve problems through active logical reasoning is fun, while for others, "fun" is about following simple mechanical rules so that heavy thinking or feeling aren't required.

Of course most people aren't *just* one of those things; that's a common but unfair criticism of playstyles. People are adaptable, they're capable of doing lots of things... the question is whether there's a pattern to what they normally prefer to do. I think there demonstrably are such patterns, but people are free to suggest their own explanations for why individual gamers often prefer one kind of game over another.

2. To the criticism of over-analyzing: If I'm going to be guilty of something (according to someone else's opinion), I guess I'd rather be guilty of over-analyzing than of missing an opportunity to better understand why a game works or not.

And to "Charles Forbin," I freely admit I've been riding the playstyles hobbyhorse for a while here at Gamasutra. Heck, even I have been thinking that I've been on that subject too much, so I can't say you're wrong there. I mentioned it with respect to Limbo because the comments seemed like a pretty clear-cut case of playstyle-driven analysis, and I thought pointing that out might add something useful to the conversation.

I also think that understanding why different gamers like different things in their games could be an extremely valuable tool for designing better games, but I don't see much discussion of that specific topic. This area -- how certain game features satisfy certain playstyle preferences -- seems like an important and fertile field for research and discussion. I'm no "Colossus" in the game development community, but I'd like to make some useful contribution. I donít see much talk about this, and it's something I think I have some insight into, so I talk about it... but yeah, probably too much.

3. To Limbo specifically, I appreciate the additional information, Brandon. Maybe if this tells us anything, it's that it's very hard to give good clues.

Give too many hints and there'll be complaints that the game was too easy. But give too few hints (especially in a game where changing the rules is part of the design) and some players are likely to feel that the challenges are random and just bang on them via trial and error until they quit in frustration.

On balance, most designers these days seem to be leaning toward "better too many hints than too few," maybe on the theory that gamers are more likely to finish an easy game than one that's too hard. If so, then it's actually good that there are games like Limbo that ask the player to put in some effort if they want to win.

The question I was asking was, what *kind* of effort does Limbo solicit, and why do some people react positively to that and others negatively? That might explain how polarized the comments about this game have been.

Bart Stewart
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And I'm still curious to hear whether people felt the puzzles in Portal were more or less fair than those in Limbo.

Bear in mind that in Portal, you also had someone toying with you (the player) and even trying to kill you (the character), even going so far in one test chamber as to tell you, "The test in this chamber is impossible. Make no attempt to solve it."

If the puzzles of Portal felt more or less fair than those of Limbo, why is that? This isn't an attempt to try to insinuate that Limbo was somehow "bad" -- I'm asking whether there are any design elements in these two games that affect how they've been perceived.

Charles Forbin
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>>>"And I'm still curious to hear whether people felt the puzzles in Portal were more or less fair than those in Limbo."

I thought they were more than fair in both games. Death was only a tiny set back, and as you got into the game, death occurs less frequently as you begin to get into the head of the developers. Well, that's what *I* do. Too many profiling books for me, maybe. (^-^)

Half way through Limbo I actually wondered for just a moment if there was any pollen shared between the Limbo and Portal teams. "Here's a thing. Figure it out." I guess I just love that sort of thing.

I remember leaving work before a three day weekend way back when and feeling a flu coming on, so I stopped and picked up that game Myst that everyone was talking about. I was sick for four days, but barely noticed because I sat at my old Mac IIsi playing the damned game almost constantly. I'd been gaming regularly since the late 70s, but that game was a real eye opener for me in terms of what was possible. That moment, for example, when you realize you have to match a *sound* to another sound.

Ingo Warnke
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> And I'm still curious to hear whether people felt the puzzles in Portal were more or less fair than those in Limbo.

I think it is still ingrained in players that death in games is a failure. It doesn't matter that it may be inconsequential, that you continue (almost) where you failed, etc. At least some players consider it a failure if 'they' (their avatar) dies.

In Limbo it seems (I can only go by descriptions, not having played it) death is unavoidable and a byproduct of learning the rules for the puzzle at hand. In Portal, there are only a few mechanics that can kill you, and they are introduced rather late (I think it is level 15 or 16 when you first meet the turrets) or are not primarily designed to kill but for puzzles (those energy balls that have emitters and receivers that act as switches). Long before the turrets it is only this green-brown sewer-type goo whose only function (from the player's view) is to kill you.

Portal needs to ease players into its world because (for a long time) the real danger is not players dying when trying to execute something, but players simply becoming stuck and not knowing what to do. This is the central problem with adventure type games, where you can get stuck if you don't realize that you can combine object X with object Y. Portal makes sure that players learn how the game world objects interact by for example providing a single small room with only a large button, a weighted cube and an exit door, before you even get a portal cannon. This way, because of the limited interaction, players can only do very few things and they will necessarily stumble upon picking up the cube and putting it onto the button. Portal then makes you repeat these things a few times to have this 'sink in'. That's way most of the later puzzles seem fair, because you have to apply your previously taught knowledge.

David Fried
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The puzzles in portal felt more fair because 90% of the time you could figure them out without dying.

In limbo I felt like the designers were repeatedly kicking me in the nuts because I had no way of knowing what was coming without dying. I remember in particular one set of "puzzles" where I was moving past an area and it triggered a trap that swung through and killed me. So I ran through, avoided that trap and then was immediately struck by a second trap that swung through from the opposite direction. The correct solution was to run, stop and run again. If you played too cautiously you died, if you tried to run straight through, you died.

In my book, that's NOT a puzzle. That's trial and error, which is pretty much what Limbo was to me. I would say its complete opposite is Braid, which to me is still the unparalleled pinnacle of a platform puzzle game.

Limbo has several issues with its "puzzle" elements that transform them into trial and error nightmares.

1. Everything is black... EVERYTHING... I get it, it's a dark foreboding world, but there is absolutely nothing to distinguish things you can grab from things you can't. I lucked into accidentally grabbing climbable objects out of desperation on several occasions. Give me a bit of color to distinguish it or at least a distinct look to show I can grab and climb certain things. I figured out ropes after the first 20 minutes, but pipes?? Still never sure when I can climb or grab onto those.

2. There aren't enough visual cues to even have an inkling of what might happen. For me to consider something a puzzle, I need to be able to analyze what's going on, think about what tools I have at my disposal and come up with a solution to the problem that I then must execute. Much of the gameplay in limbo (particularly anything involving brainworms) forced you to die repeatedly in order to get all the clues to understand what one solution might be.

3. Limbo then takes number 2's kick in the nuts a step further, because some solutions to early problems will get you killed on the next part of the "puzzle." In particularly I'm thinking of the floating box puzzle, where it seems like you need to move the box all the way to the right, but that kills you when the water flows up and instead you had to figure out to move the box part of the way, then pull on a pipe to allow the box to pass through on the left side as the water rises rather than on the right. Again, the pipe is completely black and when closed, you can't be sure you can touch it at all.

4. The sense of accomplishment when you finally figure out the correct sequence is very subdued. Most of the time you just get this flash of anger. "How was I supposed to figure that out other than dying a minimum of 3 times?" Maybe some people do enjoy that, but I just feel cheated. However, if I had played KNOWING that the intention was to die multiple times to figure things out, maybe I wouldn't have felt as bad... Or more likely, I never would have begun to play to begin with.

I think I played Limbo for about 2 hours. The part of my brain that needs to accomplish things forced me to endure the continued punishment. This was at a party full of game developers who also commented that the designer was obviously being a dick. =p

I have no desire to play again, but I do encourage other designers to play it to learn what not to do in a platformer. It's a great case study.

On the positive side, the narrative of the game and the mechanics are pretty much in sync. You literally feel like you're in some form of purgatory or punishment limbo. I can appreciate that, but I don't want to play it. I will likely watch a full playthrough on youtube at some point. =p

Steven An
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Actually your last paragraph hits the nail on the head: It's just not your kind of game. But don't call the designer a dick - he was designing a very specific experience, and apparently lots of people appreciate that kind of experience. Cha-ching!

It's like calling Spielberg a dick after watching Saving Private Ryan because you don't like realistic depictions of war, and prefer happy Disney movies instead.

Steven An
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@Dave: I must disagree with you. What's so bad about punishment by death? In most games, death is indeed bad because that means you have to sit through a long loading screen or go back to the beginning of the level. That, I agree, sucks. But in Limbo, the auto-saves are so generous that this is negligible. I didn't really see death as death in Limbo, but rather just a subtle "nope, not the right answer" nudge. And I think it worked brilliantly, as it kept me on my toes, provided me with many "whooaaahhh that was nasty" moments, and reinforced the oppressive atmosphere of the game.

I think both Limbo and Braid handle death very well, and as such, are more similar than opposites.

David Fried
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Punishment by death feels intrinsically wrong. If you die, the immediate reaction is that you did something wrong, and in Limbo, that is the case. You died because you did something wrong.

The problem is, there was no way to know that what you were going to do was wrong. To me, that feels wrong, and thus I instinctively dislike the game.

Steven An
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@Bart: I think a difference between Portal and Limbo is that Limbo features more trial & error puzzles and puzzles that introduce new, unforeseen mechanics, which are less "fair". And I commend it for that because it fits its narrative: the atmosphere is oppressive and sinister. In fact, if you played through Limbo without dying once, you'd be missing out. The death animations are very much a part of the experience. And Limbo does a great job with auto-saves, so death is not frustrating and tiring for the player. In fact, I kinda looked forward to it.

(Rant that has little to do with your post) Puzzles don't need to be fair. Games don't need to be fair. Get over it. Life isn't fair, so if games are supposed to reflect human experience to some degree, fairness cannot be a sacred cow. It all depends on your personal preferences at the end of the day. Some ppl don't like sad movies, but that doesn't mean sad movies are worse than happy ones.

David Fried
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Correction to your comments Steven.

Death is not frustrating and tiring for YOU. As a player of Limbo, I found death very frustrating.

As to games being fair. My understanding of games, is that you have an opportunity to avoid punishment through careful thought or skill. Limbo denies me that opportunity over and over. At some point, it ceases to be a game and becomes repeated snuff film quicktime events that you must watch at least once to get to the next quicktime snuff film event.

I gave Limbo a fair shot, but it's definitely not my cup of tea.