As kids, my two brothers and I devised a game called Traps. Influenced at least in part by playing Spy vs. Spy on our Master System II, Traps would see one of us design an obstacle course around the house and yard (usually just the yard as we would concoct games such as this when our parents kicked us outside) that the others would have to navigate through. As the name suggests, the course would be littered with traps. The most enjoyable part of the game was trying to invent new and exciting traps that our player (‘victim’ almost seems like a more fitting term) would not be expecting. We would lean buckets of water atop doors; hide small ditches of spiked twigs under leaves; and force each other to climb the sun-baked metal of the slippery slide.
The game could not have been any more linear. You finished by completing the course, but you were not allowed to deviate from the course at any time—not even to avoid traps. This meant that the course could only be completed by activating every trap along the way. Even if you saw the spike pit under the leaves, walking around it would be cheating. Interesting gameplay was not the primary concern in Traps—the traps were. While the player had an essential role in the game, that role was the equivalent of a lab rat in a genetics experiment.
Playing Playdead’s beautiful debut XBLA game, Limbo, last night, I found myself reminiscing about Traps. Limbo’s beautiful, beautiful monochrome levels (did I mention they are beautiful?) are littered with dangers that seem to have been extracted directly from the mind of the playable boy—giant spiders, spikes, bear-traps, other children, brain-eating leeches to name a few. Many of these dangers are not meant to be noticed and avoided the first time. Dying is a large part of Limbo and a lot of care has gone into the morbidly varied death animations. The designers have used many a cheap trick to ensure the player is dead before they even realise they are being threatened. Limbo is not about avoiding death; it is about dying. Again and again and again.
This relates to a kind-of-theory-thing I have recently been trying to no avail to flesh out into coherent thoughts. My justifications for it still need plenty of fleshing out but the essential argument is this:
The player is not the most important element of all videogames.
I mean that quite specifically. The player is still very important (essential, even) to all videogames, and they are indeed the most important element for a lot of videogames. However, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that allowing the player to stand unchallenged atop the pedestal of priorities they have held for decades can be detrimental to creating more meaningful games. Okay. I know. I am crazy, but just hear me out before you scroll down to write an angry comment.
Based on the assumption that the player is the most important element of any game, gameplay considerations are almost always prioritised over all other considerations (such as coherency, believability, themes, aesthetics, etc.). In the article “Brave New Worlds” in GamesTM No.95, Rocksteady’s principal designer, Bill Green, says:
“Inevitably, sometimes we have to sacrifice believability for the sake of gameplay, and the player must have a smooth, readable ride even if that ceiling wouldn’t pass a civil engineers assessment. The player is the most important person in the world when you’re designing, and they must be able to read the environment, knowing up-front how they can interact with it and where they can go.”
The ludology line of thinking would completely agree with this. As would anyone with any financial interest in seeing a AAA title sell enough copies for them to keep their job. I completely respect that. Games are games and should be about the player and gameplay first and everything else second, right?
At the risk of being slaughtered by a mob of said ludologists, I would answer no. Some games have (or could have) a greater interest in elements other than gameplay and the player’s convenience and, dare I say it, enjoyment. Perhaps the flight simulator is a good example of this (then again, the genre is practically dead, so perhaps not). Certainly, the player’s ability to play the game is important, but is it more important to a committed simulator than hyperrealism? Sometimes yes sometimes no. All I am trying to say is that the player is not always the most important thing. In some games other consideration are just as (if not more) important.
Limbo is one of those games. The player is an essential element of the game; without them, the boy would just lay there, sleeping forever. However, the player is essential in the same way the player of Traps was essential—as a lab rat. The player exists in Limbo to run their rat wheel and allow the stunning aesthetic and thematic design to really shine. And, considering Limbo’s most potent theme is death, the lab rat player must die a lot of times.
Is this a justified strand of game design, where the player is not empowered but exploited? It is not something I have fully explored or entirely made up my own mind about. I was not planning on posting such thoughts for quite some time yet, but the few hours of Limbo I have played (I have not even finished it yet!) really made me want to get this out.
So please, rip my kind-of-theory-thing to shreds.