John And Kieron Argue About Limbo

Kieron sneaking up on John.

Every Sunday, we reach deep into Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s 141-year history to pull out one of the best moments from the archive. This week, we revisit August 4th 2011 to find John and Kieron bickering about influential platformer Limbo.

Having played and reviewed Limbo, John found himself at the end of Kieron’s (particularly sweary) disagreement gun, and as is always the case the two of them argued about it. An argument that can only be shared with the world. Whose side are you on? FIGHT! (This contains significant spoilers, folks.)

Kieron: I should finish playing Limbo and do my evisceration of it.

John: Do you hate it?

Kieron: Moderately famously so.

John: Oh. Well, you’re wrong, cos it’s great.

Kieron: Rick Dangerous for Goths.

John: Except nothing like that.

Kieron: Total trial and error game with a dark, edgy aesthetic. It’s incredibly mean spirited.

John: Have you read my review?

Kieron: Yes.

John: I’m fairly sure that’s the point.

Kieron: You’re forgiving it. I’m not.

John: I’m not forgiving. I’m recognising that it’s deliberately forcing trial and error to change the atmosphere.

Kieron: It’s a tosser of a designer laughing at you, every step of the way for being a fool. It’s the world’s most dickish DM.

John: It only comes in after you’ve started using dead bodies to walk on, caused people to be hanged to progress, etc.

Kieron: Edgy!

John: You’re aware that’s not an argument?

Kieron: I sort of suspected I’d hate it from the second I jumped off the first log and it kills you for it. “Prick” I think at the designer.

John: I’m not aware of a point where you die in that way.

Kieron: Go to the first log and jump off it. If you fall, you’re fine. If you jump off it, you die, because you fall just too far. It’s a designer who finds that kind of thing funny.

John: This does seem to be your issue rather than the game’s. If a game is deliberately designed to have the design be mocking you, that’s a clever experience. It’s when it’s because it’s poorly thought through or badly made that it’s an issue. You don’t like being laughed at. Tough shit – get over yourself.

Kieron: Clever, but cuntish. And all about the designer. It’s just Rick Dangerous with a different aesthetic. That’s exactly how the game works.

John: No – all about the experience you’re having. The designer isn’t there.

Kieron: The designer is there. They created it.

John: Don’t make me hit you with Barthes.

John: I’m amazed that a game fucking with you bothers you this much. Rick Dangerous was just badly made. Limbo is deliberate, and carefully timed.

Kieron: Firstly, It’s your problem not the game’s,” is a silly argument. Of course it is. It’s like me saying you giving Magna Cum Laude 3% for its outrageous sexism was your problem, not the game’s. Something can be completely accomplished in what it’s trying to do and still be rejected, because the philosophy the object expresses is vile. And you’re deeply underestimating Rick Dangerous – it wasn’t incompetent. It was how the designers thought games should be. They thought that killing you without warning was funny and did so with all the craft they could muster. Which sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it?

John: I think you’re being a priss. The game one-ups you, and so you’re trying to get it back.

Kieron: For a man who hates April Fools so much, it’s an interesting argument to take.

John: Because there’s no embarrassment or humiliation here. You go, “Oh, you fucker!” And then you adapt.

Kieron: As an aside, I’ll admit that Limbo does its best to sell the joke – that its deaths are so well done tries to transfer death to a moment of joy.

John: Yes. Especially when you see entrails.

Kieron: But even then, I’m left rolling my eyes and thinking “Well done – you have complete control of reality and have managed to make me do something stupid. You must be a fucking genius! I’m so impressed. And with a dark and edgy aesthetic too!”

John: But that’s the point! The whole game is about being controlled, about the mindlessness of going from left to right at any cost, for no purpose.

Kieron: So what?

John: The fact that you’re dragging dead bodies to use as platforms in water before you reach any of the trial and error stuff – it’s a really interesting statement on what we’ll do to go from left to right.

Kieron: Or just gothic nonsense, seemingly powered and inspired by the same emotions which make kids tear legs off spiders.

John: See, it’s too easy to say that. To sneer at the aesthetic because you don’t like it messing with you just looks weak.

Kieron: I’ve written positively about sadistic games. And I’ve written about incredibly hard games.

John: If the game didn’t mess with you this way, of COURSE you’d be praising how lovely the presentation is.

Kieron: I’d probably praise it anyway. But since I hate the game as a whole, I can use it as a symptom of a wider malaise in the developer’s thinking. It’s a coherent statement, sure – but it’s a coherent statement I disagree with absolutely. Thinking this is a good idea is a terrible idea.

John: But you look like you’re desperately clutching. “And… and… you’ve got a stupid hat!” Especially since it’s not flipping gothic. It’s just black and white. There’s nothing gothic about it. It’s noir, if anything.

Kieron: Nah, it’s forming a coherent argument rejecting the whole thing.

John: It’s not coherent to say, “And you’ve got a stupid face!” because someone annoyed you. It’s silly.

Kieron: I may have read more pop gothic-aligned culture stuff than you, but the mixture of gore and death and sadism as comedy is pretty much how it’s done. I mean, you read Johnny the Homicidal Maniac? This files next to that. Thinking about it, I’d do a compare and contrast with VVVVVV. As the “man can withstand anything but unfairness” line I came up in that does leap to mind. That the payoff of the “punchline” in Limbo is having to traipse through a bunch of stuff to try again. It’s a waste of my time, because I’m only having to traipse through it again because the developer has forced me to do me so. And life’s too short.

John: There are only two points in the game where it makes you traipse. Otherwise the checkpointing is perfect.

Kieron: Traipsing even across a screen when it’s not my fault is a “fuck you”. Don’t waste my time.

John: Have you considered that the problem might be that you’re just a big wuss baby?

Kieron: Says the man who doesn’t like hard games. I do.

John: That’s penises you’re thinking of.

Kieron: I do like hard penises. This is also true. I just can’t stand unfairness. It’s a waste of my fucking time. And a developer who thinks wasting anyone’s fucking time for (primarily) his own sadistic amusement? Fuck him.

John: Well, we’re back at the start of the argument again.

Kieron: RICK DANGEROUS FOR GOTHS.

53 Comments

  1. Stijn says:

    Great article (Kieron!)

    I’d appreciate a link to the original posting of these things, so I can read the comments to the original (though maybe the comments on that posting would need to be closed then, but that’s no great loss for a 3-year old article)

  2. leeder krenon says:

    This is a wonderful thing.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    I’ve seen John and Kieron argue on twitter – it’s like they’re both mortal enemies.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    Also Limbo is fucking wonderful, dying unavoidably the first time you hit an obstacle IS the entire point.

    When you play it a second time (or 3rd or 4th probably) you can run through faultlessly and then it’s your turn to sneer at the designer.

    • Wret says:

      But the point is dumb!

      *war ensues*

      I started reading RPS shortly before Kieron left I think, which is a shame because it’s absolutely cathartic to know someone else exist that can say a designer knew what they were doing, and still call bullshit on it

    • qrter says:

      Why would it then be your turn to sneer at the designer? You’ve just been a good boy and learned to exactly do what the designer wants you to do. Doesn’t sound like much of a victory to me.

  5. Zallgrin says:

    I didn’t like Limbo much. It wasn’t the difficulty, because I thought it was relatively well balanced and frankly all platformers are punishing for me.

    But the parts that should have disturbed, left me cold and unaffected. Yes, it’s awful things happening to children and I think recognize some of the metaphors (the mindslugs are probably drugs, the cogs are the factories, the first boat is the immigration), but it does not go anywhere interesting with those metaphors. It’s several set-pieces thrown together and without a coherent thread to tie them together.

    I don’t think Limbo is a bad game or anything, because it does many things very well. But as I’ve said, it failed to grab me.

  6. Tom Walker says:

    LIMBO annoyed me and as such I gave up on it. I wanted to finish it, but just not enough.

    I miss this sort inter-writer arguing on RPS. They seem happy to agree to differ now. Shame.

    • amateurviking says:

      I’m not sure that any other members of the hive mind can sustain that level of extreme contrarianism. John despite being a big hug monster disagrees on a nuclear scale.

      • Baines says:

        John’s…excessive antagonism can certainly make him look poorly when he tries to talk with someone who has a different opinion.

        Even here, it felt like Kieron was criticizing the game while John was criticizing Kieron. A second read shows that John wasn’t lobbing quite that many attacks at Kieron, but there were some shots and some belittling present. (And the apparent gay joke that twaitsfan mentioned.)

  7. Synesthesia says:

    This is awesome! The “don’t make me hit you with barthes” line made me laugh more than it should’ve.

  8. amateurviking says:

    I kind of see keiron’s point here but shortly after I sat down to play Limbo (shortly after this was originally published) my girlfriend popped into the room, saw it on the screen and sat down to watch/help me play it – she had never done that before and now we play games together all the time. As such it’s an indelibly positive memory for me.

  9. LogicalDash says:

    I guess the checkpointing might just be too perfect, because dying in Limbo didn’t feel particularly significant to me.I liked the visual style well enough and it had some nice puzzles. Felt sort of insubstantial really.

    This argument looked like it was going somewhere interesting when it hit Barthes and then…just kind of glanced off him I guess? Could have told me something useful about distinguishing auteur-type interpretations from others. Like, Kieron’s response to the feeling of being mocked is to identify who’s mocking him and be like FUCK THAT GUY, right, and I think that’s a totally logical response to the feeling. So it appears that there are certain reactions one can have to games where Death of the Author actually serves to restrict the range of valid readings, rather than open it up, which I thought was the point of that school of criticism.

    Discussions like that have happened around more passive media but I think games are especially good at provoking “Fuck you, designerman!” type reactions. It’s a fine line between Limbo and eg. Amnesia.

    • LogicalDash says:

      I also kind of want Kieron’s opinion on I Wanna Be the Guy.

  10. Halk says:

    My take on Limbo: “It gets better later.”

    In the beginning you walk around, you die, you retry, etc. All that while the game tries very hard to be dark and depressing and meaningful. But doesn’t really pull it off, and the result is just boring.

    But in the second half of the game the gameplay starts. And there are some rather clever puzzles to be found. I really enjoyed the second half.

    And of course there is the very hardcore hidden zone. Nice.

    • qrter says:

      Anytime someone says something like “the actual game starts in the second half”, or “the game finally gets goods after the first six hours”, it instantly turns me off said game.

      To me that just implies bad game design. I’m with Kieron on this – do not waste my time.

      • grover says:

        The game is only 5 hours long (if that) so it’s pretty unlikely it would be universally acclaimed based on like 2 hours of gameplay. I don’t remember it as 2 halves at all – it was pretty thrilling throughout.

    • lomaxgnome says:

      Totally disagree, it only gets worse at it goes along, because the interesting atmosphere wears out and the counter-intuitive trial and error only gets more annoying and frustrating. It’s a terrible game with a few inspired moments that isn’t “hard,” it’s horribly designed. You don’t have “ah ha I figured that out” moments, you have “oh look, I found the magical precise combination that works” moments. It’s like the worst adventure game puzzles translated into a platformer.

      If this game had released now instead of right at the front of indie boom it would be ridiculed for being derivative and badly made. Instead the inspired initial atmosphere created a need for everyone to justify why they like it and ignore all the obvious flaws.

      • subedii says:

        Leaving even that aside, I just didn’t think the game was as emotionally resonant as everyone seemed to make it out to be.

        The atmosphere was great, but I felt Limbo could have been SO much more. Because it’s pretty obvious by the end that they were basically just winging it with regards to story (or narrative? I guess?). The theme / setting shifts from woodlands to hotels to industrial to… gravity space tech? All without any real rhyme or reason behind it. The usual bull about “it’s up to YOUR interpretation” just doesn’t fly with me, the devs made it for style, and that can be fine, but I feel like it’s just another of those games / films / books where a tonne of pointless symbolism is thrown in in the mistaken belief that people should interpret it as “this is deep”.

        John: But that’s the point! The whole game is about being controlled, about the mindlessness of going from left to right at any cost, for no purpose.

        Kieron: So what?

        My thoughts exactly Kieron.

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          SuddenSight says:

          I sort of agree with you, but I really like the game. It is cleanly implemented, with wonderful sound design and a distinct art style. Anyone who says this was only successful because of indie cred or a lack of platformer competition is simply wrong – especially on the latter point, as this came out relatively recently and we haven’t had a shortage of good platformers in years.

          However, the best parts of the game were the very beginning and the gravity spinning bit near the end. The end gravity spinning was probably the only bit that actually felt like an innovation on platformer mechanics, though other games like the Bridge do this much better.

          But the theme was interesting for the first half. Killer spiders and murderous kids in black and white, austere settings. No idea why you were going right, but it is the only way to go. And the payoff is terrible. There is some girl at the end? Who? Why? What happened to all those murderous kids and spiders?

          So while I agree that the story is rubbish, and it doesn’t really innovate that much on mechanics, it is wonderful in terms of setting, sound, and visual design. Also, Kieron’s complaints about difficulty/fairness are simply wrong. I don’t know what game Kieron played but this one was perfectly balanced.

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            Phasma Felis says:

            The Xbox 360 description says something like “A boy enters a dark forest to search for his sister.” This is never mentioned in the game, of course, but going off that I assumed from the end (boy falls, lands flat on the ground back at the beginning, stands up and walks a bit, finds a little girl instead of a giant spider) meant that had laid down or bumped his head, had a nightmare about searching for his sister through hideous trials, and finally woke up.

            I realize that “it was all a dream” is pretty cliched, but I thought the execution was subtle enough to sell it. And of course I could be wrong!

        • Merlin the tuna says:

          Leaving even that aside, I just didn’t think the game was as emotionally resonant as everyone seemed to make it out to be. The atmosphere was great, but I felt Limbo could have been SO much more.

          That was pretty much my take on it as well. More than anything, I felt like I was playing a high-resolution version of a Kongregate game; it had a neat visual style and clearly aimed for some kind of deep, introspective feel, but ultimately just felt like a mostly-boring platformer.

      • Caiman says:

        I agree with your total disagreement. Many games start off well, but wear out their welcome long before the end, and Limbo was a classic case. Once you killed the spider, it lost that strange energy that it had, and became merely a trial-and-error platform puzzler. I slogged through to the end, where it improved somewhat, but I didn’t feel like I really enjoyed the experience.

      • Gus the Crocodile says:

        Yeah, I feel it was worth playing and I would and have recommended it to others, but I’m definitely in the “got worse as it went” camp. I really liked the “first act”, but once the spider was gone, despite some still lovely environments and puzzles, I do agree with others that the game gradually began to feel incoherent. Each new puzzle started to feel artificial, like it was there because there needed to be another puzzle in the game, rather than because that was where the journey had led. Especially once I hit the antigrav stuff – that just didn’t feel like it had any point being in the world at all, and that tends to grate with me. I get that you’ve built some clever puzzle out of it, designermans, but really, I’d much rather you saved them for another game than force them in here.

        This is my main complaint. I don’t care whether the game is “unfair” (my ~11k Super Meat Boy deaths can attest that I’m okay with trial and error as long as I don’t have to redo significant amounts of level). I didn’t feel like the designer was laughing at me. I just feel the game lost the magic of its world in its desire to introduce new “moving parts” to play with.

        Maybe that was all “part of the point” or something. I don’t know. I suspect I wouldn’t find it a very interesting point.

        Also I recall finding the ending kind of a slap in the face, but I can’t remember what really happens now so I’m not sure if I’d still agree with my old self on that. You die, I guess. Spoilers.

  11. Turkey says:

    I’ve never really liked the cute mixed with macabre goth crap, so I’m with Kieron on the aesthetics part. Game was alright, though, like a floaty physics-driven version of Another World.

    • jrodman says:

      When Another World was arbitrary, it typically made sense and it typically was a flaw. This one strives for it.

  12. Geebs says:

    There’s only really a couple of sucker deaths in Limbo. Most of the rest are perfectly avoidable if you pay attention.

    Calling any game Rick Dangerous is always disproportionate.

    • Urthman says:

      Yeah, maybe Kieron just gave up when he hit the first couple sucker punches, but if you’re getting killed like that the whole way through you’re just bad at the game and not paying attention.

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      Rick Dangerous: the Hitler of gaming?

      • Geebs says:

        Rick Dangerous is the Kim Jong-Il of gaming: it’s kinda bizarre that people were willing to put up with either getting a nearly-identical sequel.

    • Hypocee says:

      I must just be weird because I didn’t die a lot when I played Limbo, and didn’t mind when I did? Sure I died at the log the first time, but there’s a reason that’s at the start of the game – it’s a tutorial on The Rules. It teaches that there’s fall damage and that there’s no partial damage. Otherwise, I’m guessing maybe I didn’t know what the bear traps were from their profile without dying but beyond those two it was dexterity failures and stupid analysis that killed me. I wound up proceeding cautiously through a foreboding place, scanning carefully for dangerous things (hint, it’s a horror game, if there’s a thing it’s a dangerous thing) just like my character. I remember Limbo as a really mellow, pretty little stream of moody art and amazing physics-driven animation.

  13. grover says:

    Until I played Last of Us, Limbo had my favourite videogame ending ever I think.

    It’s basically a perfect game – the pacing and physics-puzzlyness evoke a sortof Nordic Half-Life 2 imo.

  14. BooleanBob says:

    To this day the only time I’ve know Kieron to be wrong about anything.

  15. Alberto says:

    In my case, I enjoyed the aesthetics until they become boring and repetitive.
    The same can be said about the gameplay, which I found extremely annoying ON PURPOSE. There was a moment when I just didn’t give a damn about the puzzles, the kid or the hidden white thingies.

    It simply ran out of ideas much sooner than I ran out of patience.

    Tequilaworks Deadlight, as example, does the same job left-to-right with zombies and traps, but is way shorter and knows when its time is done and then ends before you just get bored.

  16. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    I remember reading this once and finding Kieron’s ideas completely impossible to relate to. Surely just because a game flashes a GAME OVER screen and says you died it shouldn’t necessarily mean it’s spitting on the grave of your forefathers? There were a few sucker deaths in it, (including one that was so heavily signposted that you’d have to be incredibly thick not to catch on – the one where you have to press a button to do a thing, then avoid an almost identical button to do a thing) but most of the deaths were a thing of beauty, a waltz of grim physics, almost a reward.

  17. Wi1son says:

    Limbo is my favourite game. The vast majority of people who I have seen who don’t like it have the same view point as Kieron. They feel like the designer is laughing at them or that they are somehow a failure for dying in the game. It seems to make them feel very frustrated.

    I had the exact opposite reaction. I remember at 2nd brain worm there is a part where you have almost solved the puzzle but you need to wait on the ladder for the water to rise high enough, if you get eager and go to early then you will run into some perfectly placed spikes. I died here as I was so focused on the previous part of the puzzle I didn’t even notice the spikes till I had pressed jump. Afterwards I sat back and laughed knowing that the game had been play tested so much that they had predicted my behaviour. I loved that the obvious thing to do was not the right thing to do. In most games you can run through it without even thinking. In Limbo they purposefully made the most obvious solution to a puzzle the wrong one so that you had to actually think and try something different. For me it was very rewarding figuring out the solutions to the puzzles.

    I don’t understand why you would think the designer is trying to laugh at you or put you down. They didn’t design the game to mock the players. They designed it to force you to think so that ultimately you would have more fun solving the puzzles. Every puzzle (in any game) is solved via trial and error. It just so happens in Limbo that frequently that error means dying, but it’s not a big deal since you respawn very nearby almost instantly. You are encouraged to experiment and try things since the punishment for mistakes is tiny. You shouldn’t feel bad for dying.

    Limbo isn’t any more unfair that any other puzzle game that doesn’t make the solution immediately obvious. Is it unfair that I had to try 5 different items in Grim Fandango before I found the correct one? If the solution to every puzzle was obvious then the game would be boring. The feeling of unfairness really only comes about if you have some sort of issue with making mistakes or dying. I agree that it seems to say more about the psychology of Kieron than it does about the game.

  18. kwyjibo says:

    Kwyjibo’s Komment Klassics

    Limbo descended from exploring the dark secrets of the forest to contrived, arbitrarily manufactured (in a factory no less) game puzzle sequence. Instead of prodding with the wildlife and the environment, you got “look! A puzzle! This is a game!”, “look! Push a box! This is Broken Sword!”, “look! Flip gravity! This is a shit version of VVVVVV!”

    From RPS’s Closure review, 2012 –
    link to rockpapershotgun.com

  19. Shazbut says:

    Limbo doesn’t push the philosophy that Kieron attributes to it very hard. It’s not long and it’s not too difficult. This smacks of unnecessary intellectualism.

    Dark Souls does the same thing and the penalty for death is far greater

  20. twaitsfan says:

    Wait a second… was that a gay joke at the end of this article? From the social justice warriors? Where is the outrage?

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      Oh, dear. Someday you folks will figure out that social justice does not mean “stamp out all mention of sex or genitals.”

      • Iscannon says:

        Come on now, that was a lazy gay joke by John. I don’t want to get my pitchfork and start a riot or anything, but he should at least be consistent. That’s exactly the kind of thing John would get up in arms about.

      • twaitsfan says:

        And someday ‘you folks’ will understand hypocrisy.

  21. Jackablade says:

    I’m with Keiron on this one. There was a lot about the demo, which was as far as I ever got, that made my bad designy senses tingle.

    Observe the floating barrel puzzle/red herring in the demo as an example of the designer mocking the player.

  22. trjp says:

    I view my time with Limbo more as an experience than I would with most games tbh

    It was Christmas and I had a virus/fever so I was home-alone whilst the family was out having a good time. Why I chose to play Limbo I’ve no idea – I felt grim, the game felt grim – but I played it anyway.

    I slogged through it for a goodly while – I remember wondering to myself why I was continuing with it because it wasn’t doing much for my mood but then I did this really nifty jump, perfectly timed I flew through a wall and there was my (in-game!) sister, the object of my quest!

    I think I probably cried at that point – it was pretty amazing because I had NO idea it was coming..

    Few games have done that to me – but then I don’t generally play a game from start-to-finish in an afternoon whilst rocking a fever ;0

  23. Joshua Northey says:

    It was ok, I found some of the puzzles too trial and error. I don’t like trial and error as a puzzle type, my time is too valuable

    • Wi1son says:

      What other methods are there to solving puzzles besides trial and error?

  24. Quinnbeast says:

    Rick Dangerous 2 was amazing. Get off my internet!

  25. Sir Frederick says:

    Ahh, I remember this post! My take: I can’t quite understand why anyone would look at Limbo’s trial-and-error gameplay and assume that it’s about the designer laughing at them. I mean, it’s not like a detective story where the shy sympathetic supporting character is revealed to be the axe murderer in the last ten pages, and you hate yourself for liking them in the preceding twenty chapters. It’s a puzzle platformer – you die, you respawn immediately, you solve the puzzle, you move on.

  26. draglikepull says:

    I think Kieron’s description of Limbo as having “the world’s most dickish DM” is right on the money. For some players that obviously worked. For me it didn’t. I found Limbo incredibly tedious and arbitrary.

  27. LaundroMat says:

    Rick Dangerous was all about memorizing traps and paths. Finishing a level unscathed gave (and still gives) me an extraordinary feeling of accomplishment. The same goes for old arcade games such as Wonderboy, Shinobi or Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. Either you like that type of games, or you don’t.

    I like RPS (I come by every day), but I could do without these kinds of articles where two opinions clash solely based on the protagonist’s game preferences.