Level Design in Limbo

Today I would like to talk about Limbo. It’s a dark and moody puzzle-platformer, and in my opinion one of the best representatives of the genre out there. It’s short, but it provides a very specific and concise experience of us journeying through this bleak, dangerous world and overcoming the hurdles it throws our way.

One of the interesting things Limbo does, is teaching player with death. This is evident pretty much from the very first jump we have to make. When it comes to teaching jumping in side-scrollers, in general you first want to create an area with a ‘safe jump’, where if you fail you just have to go back a bit and try again. This way the player would get the hang of the game’s jump mechanic without facing any penalties. And later on the player’s newly-learnt skills would be put to the test in a non-safe environment.

Level Design in Limbo

Limbo on the other hand, doesn’t have a ‘safe jump’. The very first pit is filled with spikes that gruesomely kill the character if you fall into them. What would otherwise be a big ‘no-no’ is fine in Limbo for several reasons:

1. There is no penalty for dying, Limbo doesn’t have lives or score.
2. You don’t respawn at the start of the level or a chapter, but very close to the location where you died.
3. It enhances the overall atmosphere of Limbo’s dark world where you mustn’t feel safe at any point.
4. There’s really not that many deaths that are unexpected, most of the times when you die you can understand why you kinda should’ve seen it coming.

And, last but not least, even though you jump a lot in Limbo, it’s not a game about jumping, like Mario or Super Meat Boy. While you need to learn how to use jump properly, you don’t need to practice and get better at your jumping skills to better navigate the ever increasing challenges of the game as you go on. Limbo is a puzzle game, where jumping is a tool used to solve puzzles. So death is basically one of the indicators if the solution you’re trying out is a correct one or not, therefore death provides additional information that will give you the ability to not die and find a correct solution.

And what makes Limbo such a great puzzle game, is that there’s really not a single puzzle that ever repeats itself. Yes, it’s only a couple hours long, but it’s a couple hours of constantly appearing new challenges to the player that he wouldn’t encounter in the game previously, even when it uses elements introduced earlier in the game.

As an example, and after this sentence there will be SPOILERS so beware, I would like to talk about the bear trap, one of the tools Limbo utilizes for its puzzles.

Level Design in Limbo

When we are first introduced to bear traps, there’s just two of them on the screen, placed very closely to each other. The player’s first instinct is to jump over them. However, the character can’t jump the length of two bear traps. And the player, by dying, will learn that he can jump only the length of one bear trap. Since there’s nothing else on the screen, the player realizes he can interact with bear traps (like he interacted with other objects previously), and move them apart. Thus, the very basics of bear traps are learned – they kill you, they can be moved.

Level Design in Limbo

In the next situation we have to jump on the cliff to the right. However, the rope is brought down by that… corpsy thing, so the player won’t be able to make the jump with his weight lowering the rope even lower. The bear trap is strategically placed right near the spot where the player will land when he first tries to jump – usually the player won’t land straight on it, but close enough for him to think, ‘You know, I need to move this.’ And the natural place to move it seems to be beneath that corpsy thing. So when the player tries to jump on the rope again, the corpsy thing will be brought down and the bear trap will spring on it, lessening the weight bringing down the branch with the rope and allowing you to climb high enough to make the jump to the cliff. So the player now knows – bear trap affects other objects in the world as well. Which may seem like an obvious thing, ‘Duuuuuuh, OF COURSE bear trap affects other objects in the world’, but it’s games we’re talking about where there are different rule sets. In some games, obstacles like this affect only the player, so it’s important to teach that it affects other objects as well.

Level Design in Limbo

Later, after some other puzzles the player will see a bear trap strangely located on a tree. And right after that tree, there will be a huge spider. In essence, the puzzle is designed in such a way that first you don’t have any tools to deal with the spider and just have to learn how it attacks and how to evade it. After the spider will hit the ground several times, the bear trap will audibly fall from the tree. And now the player can combine the knowledge about bear traps and knowledge about the spider to defeat it by making its legs getting caught in bear trap at correct moments.

Level Design in Limbo

This is the main usage of the bear trap in the game. It will be used several other times for some other puzzles in the next couple sections, with bear traps connected to swinging ropes, placed at a spot you have to jump on (forcing you to find a way around), and a few other situations neither of which truly repeats or reiterates the puzzles you’ve already seen. And then, bear traps will disappear from the game. There will be other puzzles and puzzle elements, requiring different solutions, but the player won’t have to use the bear trap to defeat some boss again, or to jump over it, or to avoid more swinging rope bear trap contraptions or anything like that.

Now, I’m not saying that a puzzle game can be great only if you don’t have repeating puzzles with different variables. However, I do think that Limbo in particular benefits from that greatly. You never really know what’s waiting for you, which is important when you want to create a dark atmosphere. And if you’re making a puzzle platformer, I would definitely recommend to look at Limbo for inspiration. Thank you for your time, hope you’ve enjoyed the read. If you have any comments, you can leave them in the comment section.

Posted on January 20, 2016, in Game Design and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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