Limbo | Why I Love
Monokel creative director Daniel Wagner explains how Playdead's debut turned a lapsed gamer into a studio co-founder
Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Daniel Wagner - the co-founder and creative director of indie development studio Monokel that today released the dystopian cinematic puzzle-platformer White Shadows on PS5, Xbox Series X|S and PC..
Here's the beginning of a story.
A little boy, maybe aged 9 or 10, is trapped in a dark wood. An eerie silence has fallen over the place. All the boy can do is to keep moving. To use what the forest offers him to escape. And so he climbs up a branch, evades a trap. Jumps over a chasm filled with spikes, looks up at another branch. Only to realize the branch is a giant spider leg. His blood freezes in his veins. He might make it out of here, he might not. He probably won't. Doesn't really matter. Now he's here, he has to try, to see what's next. For him -- or rather, for the people playing him -- it's the journey that counts.
There's another little story.
A slightly older boy, maybe aged 29 or 30, feels trapped in a different kind of forest. He feels like he has a little bit of talent, but no place to apply it. Every branch turns out to be a spider's leg. No picnic for someone with a slight case of arachnophobia. Writing and visual arts feel hollow, mostly things to be pursued alone. He wants to create things -- but with others. And wherever he can find gigs, people only seem to care about doing things cheaply. Until he stumbles upon the story of the other boy, and he sees a dimly flickering light somewhere in the forest. He might make it, he might not. Doesn't really matter, it's the journey that counts.
The first story is, of course, the beginning of Playdead's wonderful Limbo. The second one is my story, and how it intersects with that short black-and-white platformer that took the world by storm more than a decade ago. Playing Limbo did not just inspire what was to become White Shadows, our first game, but in part also the creation of Monokel, the studio behind it. Without Limbo, I wouldn't be making games. I probably wouldn't even be playing them, aside from the odd half-drunk session of FIFA on a friend's sofa.
Before Limbo came out, I had sworn off video games. I'd been entranced by them as a kid, the disparate worlds of Prince of Persia, Wing Commander, and Under a Killing Moon pulling me in. In a way, I found video games more than just fascinating. They were the closest thing to a perfect fantasy. Fully immersive places, magical. And in being magical, it seemed obvious that they must have been made by magicians. It seemed preposterous that there should be normal humans putting them together -- or that I could learn to be a magician.
As I got older, I gradually fell out of love with video games. I grew older, more critical, a bit less childish, and games seemed to have less and less to offer. Just clichés and juvenile power fantasies. Maybe that wasn't fair, but that's how I felt. My cool friends looked at games with a sort of knowing disgust and after a while, I agreed. It's about the year 2001 or so, the world is getting darker, I'm into rock 'n' roll, girls, and brooding philosophical books. Video games seemed like a rite of passage I had completed, a childish idea to shake off on your way into adulthood.
10 years pass. A friend (a fellow graphic designer, who had, unlike me, not complicated his vocational ideas by studying philosophy) puts Limbo in front of me. My perception changes, almost overnight.
For a decade I had resigned myself to think of video games as basically stupid. Limbo helped me to reconsider games - not just as something to pass the time, or as even an art form, but as something that I might want to dedicate my professional life to. I had tried academia, writing, and graphic design. I had a pretty nice job in an ad agency. I was going to be successful -- and really bored. I was ready for something to come along and shake me up.
Limbo didn't look like a game. It seemed... different. Simple, yet grown up. Close enough to video game tropes to be immediately accessible, but not yet another video game cliché. It looked unexpected, like the paper cut-outs that used to hang on the walls of my grandparents' basement. Graphics that seemed to spring right out of some designer's notebook, channeled through Photoshop's layer effects. It was beautiful, and yet it seemed achievable. It was made in a language I understood, at least in principle. In short, it made me think "I can do this."
Little did I know how hard it would be to actually live up to that idea. I think I still haven't.
There's nothing harder in design than to make something appear simple. Designers should know this. Except they're also humans, so they don't. They get fooled like everybody else. And Limbo had fooled me. In at least one aspect -- its wordlessness, if that is a word -- it felt revolutionary. I'm not sure if it was the first of its kind. But it sure was to me. It might seem trivial right now, but let's recall the silent shock it produced in everyone who played it. There were no apparent tutorials. No UI past the menu. No cutscenes. No dialogue to tell its story. Really no apparent story or backstory at all, just a kid in a forest without a purpose. And yet, on a visceral level, you had no questions of what the game wanted from you. You were inside of it immediately, and after about two seconds of playing, wondering about the controls was the furthest thing from mind -- and then, as suddenly as it had started, the trip was over.
Limbo eschewed all the rather patronising ways in which games spoon feed information to players. And to finish off the litany of apparently irresponsible design decisions, it was over in three hours. And yet, at least to me, there had never been a narrative game as immersive as this. Or as complete as this. All explanations were missing -- which means you had to play and make up your own. Turns out there's no better way to tell stories in a medium that has historically struggled with storytelling. Turns out all you need to do is respect your players.
I'd like to have more for you. I'd like to have some distance and explain my affection for it in a more professional, designer-y way. Even I recognize that Limbo isn't perfect; I never really liked the ending. I thought the Lord-of-the-Flies-type children were criminally underused in the game's narrative. And to be frank, it is probably only Playdead's second best game. Their follow up, Inside, is in many ways superior. A further distillation of the concepts first experimented with in Limbo. It's a tighter, much more polished experience, and a greater technical achievement as well. But Limbo was there first and what appears today as rawness, as imperfection, is maybe why so many people fell in love with it. You can polish something, but never get back to the creative urgency that only wild early drafts can have. It felt like its designers were on a mission.
Maybe that's why Limbo felt revolutionary for me. Maybe it's because of where I was in my life. Or maybe it's simply that I felt taken seriously -- I felt addressed by a video game in a way that only films or novels or paintings had managed before.
If there's only one thing I could take out of Limbo to bring with me to Game Designer Island, it's that. Take your players seriously. Respect them as people, with limited time and a life outside of your game, but also as intelligent human beings who are more than willing to engage. You don't need to spoon feed them. They are smart.
They'll appreciate it if you are brave, if you trust them with difficult questions, if you fulfill your end of the bargain and make the game responsive to their inputs. If you see the game, even a single player experience, as a dialogue between artistic intent and your player's choices and input. If you open it up for them to have their own experience, even with a linear story. Maybe especially with a story -- but not as you tell a story in a book, or film, or any other medium. Limbo told its story as a video game. It was the first time I had seen that happen. There's this brilliant phrase from Brenda Romero that neatly sums up the game design principles I'm talking about: The mechanic is the message. How it feels to play - that is the story. That's Limbo to me.
It sounds so simple. It's so hard to do.
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