Playing video games is like driving. You need to learn how to do it. Many triple-A titles include thousands of hard mechanics, that evolve as the game and the character does, widening the possibilities of what you can and can’t do. Those are long games, with a semi-open world or with open world scenarios. But it is not that easy to learn how to play this games.
Casual gamers or even non-gamers, those who have never played a video game or those who have played a few, are not used to mechanics or things that hardcore and regular users do without even thinking. That’s why I think Limbo is an amazing game.
A heartbreaking story: let me think
I prefer to read a book rather than to see the movie. I love visual arts, I love the way some actors and actresses show emotions, how they make me feel, but is there anything better than to create yourself the story? When reading a book, I am the one who decides how the main character looks like and I am the one who decides how does the scenario look like. Because of that, a book can be completely different for two readers.
A book gives you the freedom to build the world but (excepting some cases), they give you the story. A video game gives you the scenario but can let you build the story.
This is what Limbo does. They give you a little boy. They give you the control. And the most important think Limbo offers you is the story. From the very beginning, you ask yourself: Who is this boy? Where is he going? Is he running away from something? Is he looking for someone? And the pace of the game, the way it is told favors thinking about how to answer this questions.
There are thousands of theories about what does Limbo mean. The best thing, however, is that it is still unknown. This means everyone is right because everyone lived the game in his or her own way.
Simple mechanics = Accessible game
Have you ever bought a game, played it a whole day, then went to work, study, or whatever normal people does, and when you got back you didn’t remember a single control? I’m not talking about playing a fighting game, with combos and with different characters. It may seem that if a game has simple controls, the game is going to be simple too. Limbo shows how this is not true.
Limbo shows how this is not true. The joystick, X and O (PS4 version) are all you need from the beginning till the end of the game. And that’s why I loved to play this game. Because it started as it finished. Laying in the grass, waiting for something to happen. The character does not evolve but the environment does and so do you. The magical moment when you realize that everything you need is around you, that it’s you and the sound of your steps, the game changes. The one who is learning how to play is the main character, not you, and this feeling is amazing.
Simple movement mechanics may turn into repetitive and boring scenes, but as I said, while you don’t change so it does the environment. In an almost perfect challenge curve, the game teaches you how to play while an overwhelming silence surrounds you.
Flowing like Csikszentmihalyi
Why is this review in a psychology blog? Because this game shows how a deep game can be accessible to everyone. How the power of the story that you create gives you the motivation to continue. And how as you walk, the scenario talks itself without any word needed. How everything clicks and how this feeling of achievement is always present.
How you flow with the game. Flow is a psychological state described as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake […]. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one […]. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost” (Csikszenmihalyi, 1990).
It is thought that people are happier when they are in a state of flow. But it is not that easy to enter this state. As shown in the figure, same levels of challenge and skills are required in order to achieve this state of flow. It is in this terms where Limbo excels.
The challenge evolves with your skill. Each new situation requires a little bit more, but you are ready to learn this and to improve your skillset. Just at the beginning of the game, you see that everything you need to continue your adventure is there. New game mechanics appear in a simple order, and most of them are easy to learn but difficult to master, what makes this flow feeling last from the beginning to the last scene.
Another characteristic that eases the achievement of the flow state is the story. As I said before, a non-told story, with lots of questions and no answers. The pursuit of something you don’t know but that every time is more difficult to achieve, more challenging but with more resources gives you a feeling that can’t be easily explained.
Although it’s not a new game, some years have passed since it was released, but many games should learn a lot about how to tell stories, when not to tell them and how to make gamers feel that is the character the one who is evolving and not us.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row