In a nondescript office suite in the Gramercy section of Manhattan, I was getting ready to control a boy who, I think, was rising from the dead. He carried no weapons and couldn’t cast any kind of malevolent magic spells. This was new for me.
Most video game demo meetings happen in swank hotel rooms or in fancy event spaces, catered with the temptations of an open bar and free food. When I got my first hands-on time with Independent Game Festival award winner “Limbo” two weeks ago, it happened a dark, foreboding recording studio. Sound plays a major role in “Limbo,” so it was only fitting that I was playing it while nestled in a full movie-quality surround set-up. The game itself was being projected onto a giant screen. This elaborate presentation, while lacking in delicious mini-burgers, effectively served as an entry into another world. And that’s really what “Limbo” felt like.
The game sports a ghostly look and drops the player in cold, with respect to narrative. You don’t get a screen crawl or a cutscene setting up the story. Instead, you watch as the nameless lead character rises from a pile of dirt and leaves, stepping tentatively from the left of the screen to the right. There’s no music in “Limbo” and the whole affair is wordless, unfolding in hazy, soft-focus black-and-white. “Limbo”‘s a platformer, that hoary video game genre where players control a character running and bounding across the screen. The game seem so anemic and feeble that you’re never sure if you’re going to make it when the boy attempts to jump. When you do miscalculate a leap, his legs snap painfully, an arm can go flying or his head can roll gently down a slight hill. I first saw “Limbo” at the IGF Awards ceremony and was entranced by the inky aesthetic. I wasn’t the only one hypnotized by the game, as it’s won awards for Visual Arts and Technical Excellence.
The parts of “Limbo” I played made me feel as if my fingers had just touched a video game made by the Ingmar Bergman. The bleak Bauhaus palette, hollow-eyed central character and his creepy and sudden deaths all spoke to a stark single-mindedness that make playing the game chillingly addictive. Despite the fact that its affect is almost completely flat, “Limbo” delivers a mix of horror and humor that makes you laugh, too.
After bathing in the game’s quiet, mysterious world for almost an hour, I wanted to ask some questions of PlayDead, the Copenhagen-based development studio behind the game. PlayDead’s CEO Dino Patti graciously took out time from giving “Limbo” its final bits of polish to get back to me.
How big is the PlayDead staff currently? How many people were there initially? How did you guys first meet?
Our team maxed out at 16 people at the peak of production, and we currently have eight members of staff. PlayDead was started by Arnt Jensen and I, based on a game idea that he had some time ago. We met in the 2006, and our only goal was to make “Limbo” a reality.
This might have seemed like a long time to take to make the game a reality, but both funding and finding the right people has meant that we’ve had to take our time.
This is your studio’s first game. You’ve won a major award and gotten picked up for Xbox Live. Many studios who are more established don’t accomplish either one of these things. Does this meet or exceed the expectations when you had development started on the game?
We have been sure from the start that we had something really special with “Limbo” — and it seems that creative freedom and a clear vision has paid off. This combined with agile, iterative development and only working on the most important tasks has seemed to be the right mindset to make the game.
Personally, I always expected “Limbo” to get big. I’ve been in love with the title from the start, but must admit that it’s already exceeded my expectations.
“Limbo” is very minimalist. It’s not only stripped down in terms of its looks but also in the way the player’s supposed to find out how to proceed. What drove those decisions as far as the look and game design?
It’s really simple — and we really love to keep things simple.
Which came first, the gameplay or the aesthetics?
What really sparked “Limbo” was the first concept trailer made by Arnt, and the video shows a bit of both. I would say the aesthetics were very important to us, which then combined with a vision about how the gameplay should be to make what “Limbo” is today.
“Limbo” is more starkly horrific than a lot of other indie games, yet the platforming style of gameplay evokes a certain kind of nostalgia. This left me feeling a little uneasy when I died a particularly gruesome death. I remember thinking to myself that Mario would be decapitated like if he fell into a pit of spikes or missed a jump. Did you mean for players to feel this kind of tension, this feeling between nostalgia and horror?
Our aim has been to reach in and touch players’ emotions, and the tension you felt is part of that goal. I think that new media has a lot more censorship than they used to, and we really haven’t felt bound by cultural constraints.