So, the setting is chosen more for the atmosphere it provides, rather than for the sense of progression?
AJ: Yeah. I think so.
One of the hallmarks of the game is just how atmospheric it is on every level, from sound design, to visual design, to animation. There's something of a debate on style versus substance. What amount of style is substance?
AJ: It was very important for us to create gameplay. For a very long time, there were no graphics or sound in it. We knew that it was important to have fun while playing it, or else it didn't matter. We couldn't save it with graphics and sound, so we really put a lot of effort in making the boy controlling as we wanted, and having good puzzles, and just making this blocky graphic fun to play.
We tested it on a lot of people, and we would see they had fun, and then we thought, "Okay, it will only get better when we start putting all these graphics and sounds in this."
DP: We were in a fortunate place because Arnt, he did the graphics like way before I met him.
AJ: Yeah. It was like the first thing we had.
DP: The first thing we had was the graphics. [Addressing Arnt] And you were not scared at all then.
AJ: No, no. It was like, I knew we had that covered. The gameplay was the big concern.
DP: "Can we reach this?" And then he'd go like, "Yeah, no problem. I know what it takes. I want the gameplay done." So, it was really boxes and things, boxes and still objects, once the graphics came on.
What was important was to have the gameplay before the graphics went on. We had the spider chase, which was a killer box, a red killer box, until very late in production. And it was so fun because it was so scary, this red box. If it touched you, you died.
AJ: Why did we change it, then? [laughs]
DP: Why did we change it, yeah? It was actually more scary as the red box.
I don't know. I think the spider is really scary. It's pretty creepy.
DP: But it was cool because it was fun and scary before the spider came in, and it just got worse, or better, when the spider came in. It's just really scary now.
AJ: We came in really late. Really late, we put in the animation.
DP: But it was important to have all the things. And it was a fortunate place because it's easy to make gameplay when it's graphics are thought of. And we just reskinned afterward. And again, when they were skinned, a lot of the gameplay was not changed, but like moved accordingly to fit better.
I think that's one of our forces. Like we had everything integrated, the sound, the graphics, and the gameplay, everything of those affect each other. Back to the original question, it's not that I think we have emphasis in some of them, but it's all like having them fit together in a single piece. I think that's where we can do something bigger companies can't do, because they really have to modularize everything to have people work on it.
You talked about bringing in people to play it when it was still in the box state.
You tested it a lot?
AJ: Yeah, a lot. We had several hundred people in the office.
DP: 150-ish tissue testers [Ed. note: testers who are used once only] who just tried it for the first time.
AJ: Yeah, it was really great. It was so important. We learned so much just sitting and watching people. Usually we didn't say anything. We just give them the controller, and then we sat behind them, and we didn't ask any questions.
We were arrogant enough... We didn't want to know what they were thinking, because we think we're the best to decide what's great. So we didn't ask them anything. We just watched them and saw if they had any problems. That was it. Could they solve the puzzles? What should we do to make it easier to solve them?
DP: Or harder, if it was too easy.
Was there much harder, or more easier?
Much more making it easy?
AJ: Yeah. There were definitely a lot of puzzles harder than the stuff we came up with in the end. I think we did a lot of weird, hard puzzles.
With the new game, are you going to do as much, or more, testing?
AJ: I think it's going to be the same. It's very natural to start watching people, and there is so much that you don't think about. It's just great to do it the first time. You go back and you are all depressed because they can't play anything of what you thought was so easy, and they don't see it, they don't feel it. It's really important. It's so important to test.
One of the things I liked about Limbo is the simplicity. Everything you run into is concrete enough, for the most part, that you can figure it out. You don't need things like health items or anything. But that doesn't keep it from being deep. I think that a lot of times mainstream games, they think depth and complexity are the same thing.
AJ: Yeah, I hate that. I can't play those games. We talked about it in the beginning, and I insisted on having very few elements and no inventory. Dino was like, "What? It's an adventure game. There should be an inventory. We can't do deep gameplay without this inventory!" [laughs]
DP: I don't remember that.
AJ: I just kept insisting on it, and I kind of knew that when we had the right mechanisms, we could always make it deeper and deeper. I think at the end, we had a lot more ideas. We could keep on going, but we just had to end it somewhere. It's the same approach now. It's great to put mechanisms in, instead of all this inventory crap.
DP: But Arnt's brilliant simplicity was because it's really hard to make something simple and deep at the same time. It's not easy. I think good games unfold. [Addressing Arnt] Like, remember? We had a joke -- I can't remember if it was three or four or five elements.
If there were more than this in the game, it would be a joke in the office. "Ah, there are six elements in this! There's a box, and there's a rope and, there's a lever. And you have to do this! And it's too much!" or something. It was really funny. We really searched for like something where there's only one mechanism -- if we could have one mechanism work in good gameplay.
AJ: I think a lot of gameplay designers put in a lot of mechanisms. We talked about it, and said to each other, "What is really necessary for this puzzle? What can we throw out? What doesn't have to be there? Just throw it out."
DP: And we had some beautiful iterations where we started removing mechanics, and it was like, "Okay." We ended up where the swinging rope was the core of this puzzle.
AJ: "What's the fun part of this?"
So you tried to strip things out as much as possible for specific puzzles.
AJ: Yeah. All the way.