Playdead on Limbo's puzzles

GDC 2011: Danish developer's lead gameplay designer opens up on the 2010 puzzle platformer, explaining how he envisaged players as both enemies and friends.

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Who was there: Playdead's Jeppe Carlsen was the lead gameplay designer on Limbo, the Xbox Live Arcade indie hit that kicked off last year's Summer of Arcade promotion. Carlsen was the designer responsible for all of the puzzles in the game, joking to those who'd experienced them that "I'm the guy you wanted to slap in the face."

Carlsen demoed the game's powerful puzzle creator on his laptop.

What they talked about: Limbo was a major critical and commercial success when it was launched in July 2010, earning a 90 Metascore on aggregation site Metacritic and clocking 600,000 unique leaderboard entries since launch. Part of the game's success was down to the simple yet fiendish puzzles, which often saw the protagonist killed in a variety of creative ways.

Playdead's Jeppe Carlsen was bullish on why he felt that the puzzles in the game worked--they were boiled down to as few elements as possible, but he felt it was still rewarding to see the pieces click together. Carlsen showed examples from modern 3D adventure games such as Uncharted 2 and 2008's Prince of Persia. He showed a puzzle in Naughty Dog's game where players had to climb a huge structure and line up mirrors to shine light onto certain objects.

"We felt like we were solving this incredible puzzle, but in my opinion, there was no puzzle to be solved," Carlsen moaned. On Ubisoft's game, he showed an example of a puzzle that had seven different mechanics that he felt made it too complicated. "I just can't be bothered to analyze this thing, so I just use trial and error," he said.

According to Carlsen, puzzle design should be a delicate balance between frustration and satisfaction. "I have this idea of how I want the puzzles to be played, almost like a script," he explained. "I want you to die, I want you to be slightly frustrated. However, the correct solution must be easy to execute and it should be very rewarding to see the puzzle pieces click together."

As players progressed through Limbo, the puzzles became more and more complex, culminating in a number of memorable set pieces that revolved around gravity. However, this gameplay mechanic was added only in the final stretch of production. Thanks to the development tools that Carlsen had at his disposal, which he spent half of his GDC session demonstrating, he was able to implement an idea he had when he was at home drinking coffee. "Pretty late in development, I came up with the idea that we might do some cool ideas with gravity. Honestly, in one or two minutes I had the mechanics I was after."

Quote: "Because we're not designing Uncharted [2], we want there to be a little bit of a trick to this." Carlsen made a sly dig at the ease of puzzles in Naughty Dog's adventure as he constructed an example puzzle for the GDC attendees. However, he also complimented the PlayStation 3-exclusive, saying, "I played through [Uncharted 2] a second time recently, and it's a phenomenal game."

Takeaway: Unless puzzles can be boiled down to a few constituent parts, they shouldn't be included in a game like Limbo, according to Carlsen. However, creating simple ideas still takes a great deal of time--it took three and a half level designers three years to design all of the puzzles in Limbo, which is a relatively short game.

Discussion

22 comments
blackace
blackace

@AncientDozer And that's where we differ. Everyone has a different opinion. I still enjoyed the game and I did use my imagination to fill in the blanks. I also read reviews and blogs from other gamers who had played the game and filled in their own blanks. Many people had different stories and ideas. I would have loved to have know what the developers stories and ideas were though since they made the game.

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

@blackace I thought we already arrived at the conclusion they left that open to interpretation. I don't know about you, but the entire journey was the reward. I felt good figuring out each and every puzzle and felt better as I tried to put the (imaginary?) pieces together. SPOILZ ORZ It was an incredible realization that the backdrop to the menu was the same scene as when they find each other yet the ending was all (relatively) cheery while the menu screen was decrepit. Decayed. Rotting. Death. Was it a before or after? What happened. My imagination filled in those blanks for me with many possibilities. I don't think a good story has to throw out all the pieces for you or fill in the blanks for you at the end, it just has to inspire you.

blackace
blackace

@AncientDozer It wasn't so much the beginning I had a problem with, it was the end. After you found her, nothing was explained. Till this day, everyone has their own theory of what happened between the boy and his sister. I was hoping the developers who tell us the whole thing once the game was over. We didn't get that. No real just rewards. I loved the game play and the puzzles. Game reminded me of "Out of this World (NES)" & "Heart of an Alien (SegaCD)".

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

@blackace Because that's all it needs. In the description, it tells you you're looking for your sister and that's it. But that's enough. You start out with two concepts before jumping into the game. 1.) You are looking for your sister and 2.) You are in some kind of limbo. It's up to you whether or not you like that design decision but to me, I think it would've ruined it if they included any indication in the actual game. Words, voice, anything overly complex. Part of the mystique would be lost, in my opinion, if you saw your sister right off the bat. The game went for a simple, dark, and creepy approach. Which it nailed pretty well. We can sit here and argue about how "deep" it is or what really happened if you want, but you learn everything you need to before you start and that's fine by me.

blackace
blackace

@AncientDozer said: @blackace I'm telling you. Straight up. The Game TELLS YOU that you're looking for your sister. It LETTERS. WORDS. It tells you. Literally tells you. ******************************************************************* I know. It's on the description when you download the game. What I was saying is there's nothing is the game that tells you this. Where in the game does it tell you that you're looking for your sister? When the game starts, your laying in the field under the tree. I don't remember seeing any words pop up telling you to find your sister.

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

@blackace I'm telling you. Straight up. The Game TELLS YOU that you're looking for your sister. It LETTERS. WORDS. It tells you. Literally tells you.

blackace
blackace

@AncientDozer @blackace Yes it does. You're just not paying attention. And while you do have a right to dislike the story or the game, I don't believe you've given it the chance or much thought at all. But let's give you the benefit of the doubt. The ending. What similarities did you notice. . between the ending scene. . and the background. . of the menu. What do you walk away with knowing that the name of the game. . is Limbo? Do you know what limbo is? ***************************************************************************************** I know what Limbo means. It's a game you play where you bend backwards and slide under a stick. LOL!!! j/k Anyway, I understand what Limbo is and you're still missing my point. Which is, you don't really know what's going on until you get to the end and see the girl. Even then, you don't know what relation she is to you, because you are never told. All you know is that you are in 'Limbo' somewhere and you have to trek to the right of the screen, solve several difficult puzzle and get to the end. I understand that at the end is really the beginning. He's in the same place he started, but he's out of his Limbo and probably in the girls 'Limbo'. The game just ends though. It would have been a far better game if the full story was told with animated scenes at the end. Maybe they will make a Limbo 2, but I doubt it since it took them 3 years to come up with the puzzles for the first game.

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

@blackace Yes it does. You're just not paying attention. And while you do have a right to dislike the story or the game, I don't believe you've given it the chance or much thought at all. But let's give you the benefit of the doubt. The ending. What similarities did you notice. . between the ending scene. . and the background. . of the menu. What do you walk away with knowing that the name of the game. . is Limbo? Do you know what limbo is?

blackace
blackace

@AncientDozer said: @blackace You have a simple explanation. You are trying to find your sister. Everything else is left up to the imagination in conjunction with visual cues, set pieces, and ambient sound. ********************************************************************** Did you read my post? There is nothing in the game that tells you that you are trying to find your sister. That's my point. If I gave you the game and didn't tell you anything about it, you wouldn't even know what the goal was until the end. Even after you found the girl, you wouldn't know if she was your sister or not. You definitely would know why you were trying to find her. I understand the developers left it up to your imagination to create your own story, but they could have at least left a "spoiler" option you could click on and watch the story unfold. That would have been cool. No matter what, I was still unsatisfied with the ending.

HaloPimp978
HaloPimp978

I loved Limbo and thought it was the best Downloadable game last year though I wished it was longer.

blackace
blackace

AncientDozer Posted Mar 3, 2011 4:11 pm PT @blackace You have a simple explanation. You are trying to find your sister. Everything else is left up to the imagination in conjunction with visual cues, set pieces, and ambient sound. ******************************************************************************** You wouldn't know that initially though. If someone booted up the game and sat you down to play, you would have no clue what your objective was. I didn't even know the character was laying down on the screen when I first booted the game up. If I didn't move my controller and watch him pop his head up, I could have sat there for 10-15mins. The fact there was no explanation at the end was just dumb.

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

@TheRealLisaAnn Don't blame Microsoft. Call of Duty isn't exclusive to the Xbox. Blame the gamers. Apparently a lot of people love lots of different kinds of shooters.

AncientDozer
AncientDozer

@blackace You have a simple explanation. You are trying to find your sister. Everything else is left up to the imagination in conjunction with visual cues, set pieces, and ambient sound.

pie4all88
pie4all88

"it took three and a half level designers three years to design all of the puzzles in Limbo" ...what?

blackace
blackace

Limbo was a decent game, but it was just a tab too short. The fact we didn't get any explanation at the beginning or end of the game really ticked me off.

rigzzsy
rigzzsy

the bit with the sliding box done my head in but other than that i didn't have much trouble with it, would love to see a limbo 2 in the works

TheRealLisaAnn
TheRealLisaAnn

Look folks, games like these are what keeps the industry fresh and innovative. You can only have so many HALOs and their clones. Darn Microsoft and the FPS flood.

lamprey263
lamprey263

he gives himself too much credit on those puzzles, it was nothing a little trial and error couldn't solve with ease, still though a fun unique game and they did a good job on it

m64
m64

@buft .. to me .. it was as magical as magic can be .. the only problem i had with this game is the length >_

buft
buft

limbo was good but i really didnt think it was as magical as people make out