One hour and twenty minutes of playtime in, I’m souring of Limbo’s world; or maybe it is the experience I find tiring and tedious. Watching my character work its way along the screen’s X axis is like watching an ant in an ant farm, trapped in sandy tunnels between two sheets of glass. Over and over I thud into some new nasty trap and die until I figure it out. This was the first session where I racked mental focus from Limbo’s gorgeous, auroral grays and blacks, becoming conscious instead of its bluntly punishing rhythms. In the words of a former student, the game’s mechanic started to stick out.
My alienation might also stem from my first encounter with destructive forces embodied not in sharp-edged objects, unjumpable gaps, or giant hairy spiders, but human beings like myself—a gang of imps shot blew darts at me, chasing me back along my path until I was able to crush them between two stomping hammers. (It took about six deaths to learn the correct sequence and timing of jumps to bring about this result.) Discovering that this already unpleasant place had characters in it working to make things even worse was mildly angering, and I was pleased to smash the motherfuckers. I suspect I have wandered into a Lord of the Flies situation, and I have never had any illusions that in such a pecking order I would be anywhere besides the base. I wish we could all get along, but failing that, I will survive by any means necessary.
A central problem of game design is the calibration of challenge and skill, the parceling out puzzles and obstacles poised just slightly ahead of the player’s growing repertoire of game-specific talents and tools. It is essentially a pedagogical process in which each test is also a lesson that feeds into the next incremental advance. Videogame as tutor code, by turns irritating and inspiring. Get the mix wrong and the game is boringly easy, or paralyzingly difficult.
But even as I pin my reaction on the game, I realize that local, player-side effects are conditioning my response. I ended today’s session in the middle of a puzzle I can’t yet crack, a baroque interrelation of pull cords, turning gears, two large blocks whose lifting and falling is key to safe passage. There’s a push cart I haven’t figured out how to use, although it is reassuring to trust in the parsimony evident throughout Limbo so far: if it isn’t important to the solution, it wouldn’t be there.