Limbo's lessons for the mainstream

In this commentary piece, GameSpot AU's Laura Parker looks at XBLA indie title Limbo and the need for new experiences in the AAA space.

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Limbo is a game that forces players to take risks. Light on context and purpose, it asks players to feel around in the dark for the parameters that will define their experience, encouraging experimentation and the acceptance of frequent failure. Death is Limbo's only tutorial: If you die enough times, eventually you'll discover how to survive. The key is perseverance, innovation, and the willingness to try--time and time again--until you get it right.

The games industry has a lot to learn from Limbo. More and more developers making mainstream, big-budget AAA titles with mass-market appeal are becoming complacent, brushing aside the drive for innovation in favour of big-name sequels and blockbuster titles that guarantee profitability. It’s hard to find a AAA title in the current marketplace that redefines its genre or says something new. Regardless of how the specifics are tweaked to fit certain environments or stories, our expectations of playing a AAA title these days almost always match our experience. While there are some in the industry who believe experimentation should be left up to indie developers, the argument for new gaming experiences in the AAA space is growing stronger every day. The growth and evolution of the medium relies upon developers taking risks and asking themselves if there are still ideas left to explore, questions left to ask, and journeys left to make. Like a player stuck in Limbo, it’s time for the games industry to take a leap of faith.

No Caption ProvidedIf you die enough times in Limbo, eventually you'll learn how to survive.

Inside Limbo

The parameters that define Limbo's creation are rare. Playdead--the Danish studio behind Limbo--worked on the project completely solo. There was no outside influence from publishers, no deadlines to meet, no marketing budgets with which to adhere. Arnt Jensen, Playdead's cofounder and Limbo's creator, doesn't like to talk about the game. He wants nothing to taint the game's true vision; nor does he want people to be told what they should think. Instead, Limbo's producer Mads Wibroe is left to field questions about how the studio turned one man’s creative vision into an indie hit.

"I think it’s rare that a game development process starts with as strong a seed as was the case for this game," Wibroe says. "For all of us who stood on the sideline, it was immediately clear that this was amazing material. It is also rare, I think, that a vision is allowed to be so fully developed into a final game without influence. Those two factors are the keys to understanding what shaped Limbo."

It’s not hard to see why AAA developers cannot function the same way: Huge budgets, publisher demands, consumer expectations, and the pressure of meeting very strict deadlines quickly turns game development into an assembly-line business.

"I think we as games developers should just concentrate on the process of creation," Wibroe says. "I mean, I'm convinced that Arnt [Jensen] is not getting up in the morning to create 'art' or 'culture,' but eventually, if it works out, perhaps it’ll turn out we are doing that after all."

The increasing popularity of platforms like Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network means even the smallest development teams can now make and distribute titles on their own. As a result, indie developers are spending less time worrying about who is going to buy their product and more time making the kind of games they themselves would want to play. The difficulty is bringing the same work ethic to the AAA space. While all games begin as an expression of a particular vision, one idea in the hands of four developers produces a very different end result than the same idea in the hands of 400.

Nels Anderson, gameplay programmer at Hothead Games in Vancouver (DeathSpank, Swarm), thinks the mainstream games industry should pay attention to how indie developers handle their IP.

"Indie developers represent a different way of making games. Small teams are able to take risks that large institutions simply cannot. They can actually create a game with a single, coherent message that’s more substantial than 'Chainsawing aliens is awesome!' If you have hundreds of people making a game, it's incredibly difficult to get them all on the same page. Direction often ends up being comparative. It's easier to say 'We're making a shooter like Modern Warfare but set in Vietnam' than focusing people on making a '2D platformer about regret and loss vis-a-vis time manipulation.' [aka Braid.]

"This year's E3 and its burgeoning payload of off-brown shooters requiring you to mow down hordes of vaguely foreign nationals and/or aliens shows there's still no small amount of emphasis on safe, repeatable success," Anderson says. "But between the trees there's a lot of weird, wonderful stuff sprouting, and that's very exciting to see."

No Caption ProvidedMuch-loved indie title Braid was the brainchild of just one man--Jonathan Blow.

The problem with taking this weird and wonderful stuff and spreading it around is that, as Anderson points out, having a message beyond "Hey, isn’t this fun?" is an uncommon practice in most mainstream titles. Even when a developer tries to do something different, this usually results in a very obvious, disingenuous attempt at diversity. Creating what Anderson calls "bridging" games like Portal--a shooter-like experience that is not traditionally violent and dexterity based--may be one way to break the AAA mold and begin to experiment outside the formula.

"If we keep focusing on doing interesting things that aren't just about 'roided-up bros fist bumping after viscerally wasting some dudes, I think the medium will be just fine."

Indie lessons

While the rigid nature of the AAA development space doesn’t allow developers much room for innovation, this doesn’t mean the yearning for it isn’t there. Indeed, innovation is sought after, desired, and coveted. Who doesn't want to be thought of as original in the games industry? But breaking the mold and making titles worthy of both critical and commercial success without risking financial stability is something very few developers are prepared to do. At least, not yet.

Newly appointed senior level designer at BioWare Montreal and former lead designer at Raven Software, Manveer Heir, believes the drive to create new experiences is very much alive in the AAA space and is leading some developers to look at ways of implementing the ideas coming out of the indie space as a way of bridging the gap.

"I think all developers, no matter what space they work in, think about creativity and doing something new or major," Heir says. "Indie developers are extremely important to the medium because they can try some new, risky, crazy mechanic and not have to worry about what everyone thinks. I think this leads to them inventing, discovering, or showing the world new experiences that can be leveraged. If an indie game pulls off something new and amazing, you can bet that the big boys will ask themselves, 'How can we apply that to a much bigger game?'"

Not worrying what everyone thinks is something most indie developers can afford to do; it’s not a luxury afforded to developers in the AAA space. It’s not unfair to say that the majority of core gamers are initially reluctant to accept change, particularly when it threatens to impose on the established gaming culture and shift it toward something completely different. Social gaming is a good example of this reluctance. While it’s natural to be afraid of the unknown, there are some in the industry who are looking ahead. During his keynote address during this year's Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Deus Ex and Disney Epic Mickey creator Warren Spector asked all gamers to accept the industry’s shift toward casual and social gaming. Spector told gamers they must be ready to welcome the idea of gaming as a mainstream medium; only with this acceptance can the medium grow and move forward to become "an art form worthy of study."

No Caption ProvidedEpic Mickey creator Warren Spector wants gamers to demand more from mainstream gaming experiences.

Spector finished his address by asking gamers to demand more from gaming experiences; ask for something new, something better, Spector urged. He also asked publishers to be supportive and trust the creativity and experience of developers who want to go down that road.

Spector is right. How else does a medium evolve if not through change? How else does it progress if not through trying new things, challenging the mainstream, and pointing audiences toward a place they never thought to look before?

Perhaps what the gaming industry is most afraid of is failure.

"We have to be willing to fail, over and over," Heir says. "Designing a game is all about failure, and the same goes for new experience design. When a game comes out that speaks to a large group of people in such a profound manner, we cannot help but be amazed. With video games still being so young, we are still discovering so many new, amazing experiences. We have to start thinking outside the normal circumstances a game exists in. I think this is the only way to keep moving the industry forward. We have to keep experimenting, failing, and trying new things. Eventually, someone will come across the next big thing."

The idea that there are other genres or cross-genres to explore in game development is common among developers. The problem is that many don’t believe there is a need to look for new experiences when the ones we have already work just as well. They may not say anything new or force gamers to think about their world in a different way, but they serve the purpose of games as consumer products: They sell. Heir has his own ideas about the kind of games AAA developers could make if they tried.

"Are there new experiences that aren't about survival or saving the world, since that seems to be what the majority of games are about? Are there new and interesting protagonists to be had that aren't just the white, male space marine or the sexy, busty, scantily clad woman? Can we have an old man as a main character or a homosexual woman?"

Most of us are comfortable with experimentation and ideas that sit outside the mainstream when they are presented in a different form--in a book, on television, in a film, and the like. Not only do we accept and engage with being challenged this way, but we also seem to savor the intellectual experience. Games can do things that no other medium can, so it seems obvious that we should be engaging with games on a higher intellectual level than other media. So why isn’t this happening?

No Caption ProvidedGames like Portal break the AAA mold by exploring new ideas, earning critical acclaim, and selling well.

Tom Armitage, a web designer working for the London-based studio Berg, believes it all comes down to the ability of gamers to read the medium and become "game literate." Using Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker to demonstrate, Armitage says developers have the ability to place symbolism into the very fabric of their creations.

"Cow Clicker is a Facebook game about repetitive Facebook games," Armitage says. "The symbolism is not just in the name--it’s in the mechanics. More complex gaming experience might not be understood [by gamers] immediately, but that’s not because of stupidity or ignorance or a lack of desire; it’s just down to learning to read a medium."

Take Limbo, for example. According to Armitage, the literate response to the game is about the frequency of death versus the fairness of it. However, not everyone is going to read the game this way. Creating an experience with no higher aim than to entertain does not necessarily render that experience meaningless. It is OK for us to just want to be entertained by a game without seeking a deeper, critical engagement. A game like Gears of War does not contain much more meaning than what can be read on the surface, yet that does not mean we don’t feel something when we play it. However, the fact that Limbo allows for so many different interpretations is what makes it different. It’s only when we start asking ourselves why we’re being entertained that we become aware of a deeper, more profound gaming experience.

"The particular strength of games is in their visceral forms of emotion: not just fun or entertainment, but the more subtle aspects of those; both the fun of exploration, curiosity, the fun of overcoming something difficult, the thrill of competition, the challenge of understanding a system. If you’ve made something good, and you’ve made it well, then it will have meaning. There will be depth and something to explore. You don’t have to set out with that in mind; it’s just a function of successful art. The answer is to just make decent games. It feels a bit adolescent to be proving oneself; why not just let the proof be in the artefacts?"

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