Death by Trials and Limbo

In light of an upcoming Cane & Rinse on Limbo, I’m reposting my thoughts here:

Failing in games has become more of a rarity in recent years. When we started out in the late 70’s you always had a life count, a number of retries before the game called time on your attempts and sent you back to the beginning. Born out of the arcades this was inevitable, however as we progressed and computers and consoles became the home to gaming such methods slowly started to ebb away and we moved to life bars and shields which eventually started to recharge themselves. Death became more of an unlikely scenario replaced by duck and cover techniques, trying an approach then falling back when it did not work to recover before trying again. Some see this as a lessening of games, of making them somehow worse. For me it’s more removing of annoyance. The idea is still the same, trial and error but removing the complete failure to a more unusual outcome and keeping the flow of the narrative going.

However some games still make use of the death mechanic, they stand out by this in the modern age, but the approach taken needs very carefully engineering so as not to become unplayable to the new generation of gamer. Now you could say I’m not the modern gamer, being all of my 37 years, however I’ve grown up with these games, I do not always hearken back to old games in a way to say I wish new games where more like them. I enjoy old games for what they are but my opinions on games have grown with the medium. I could no longer accept some of the gameplay of these old masterpieces in a brand new IP, it would jar and distance me from their enjoyment in no time at all.

So how should a modern game make use of the death mechanic without it distancing the player from the world. Well I’m going to explore this via two of the past few years most popular arcade games. Trials HD and Limbo were both critical successes of the last two years Summer of Arcade schedules on the XBOX 360. I bought them both and played them both, however only one of these games actually entertained me with it’s play, the other frustrated and chastised me into submission and I have not, nor will probably ever complete it.

You see I can take trial and error game play, which both of these titles employ, so long as I can always see why I have failed, and often saw the failure coming and therefore could actually enjoy it. When things occur and I can learn not just that something happens at a point in the level but how my approach was wrong and what I can try to do next time then I will come back again and again to test new ideas and techniques. Trials excelled at this because it’s based in the physics of the real(ish) world. When I launch the bike into the air it does so with a given predictability, I can see from the trajectory and the weight of the bike whether what I have done is going to work, or result in a spectacular crash. When I have got things wrong I’m ready for that failure, my anticipation actually creates joy in that failure. There’s a crash, potentially explosions, then with a deft click of a button I’m back to moments before ready to try again. I only have to watch as much of that failure as I want to before I step in and reset the world.

Limbo too has a relatively low price for death. Usually you are only set back maybe 30 seconds of play so it would seem I would have no problem with this either. But I do. My death will most of the time have been unseen, or done in such a way that I’m not sure if what I tried was impossible or I just performed it poorly. Should I jump sooner, or later, or not try at all. I can not say, I have to blindly try all these never knowing if what I am doing is even the right way to go. On top of this when I do hit an unwinable position and I see the death animation kicking off, I must sit and wait like a patient child waiting for father to come home to dish out the punishment. I can have no foresight, I’m not dealing with the known physics of a bike hurtling through the air, even given apparent lower gravity, but with platforms of unseen traps and situations I can not be informed from my real world about.

I realise this is more to do with my own internal desires for what a game should and should not provide, that many will enjoy the platforming of Limbo, yet be left cold by the hard physics of Trials. Perhaps it is my latent scientific background that links me closer to a more real world puzzler than the artistic narrative of Limbo. Not that I don’t love it’s art style and feel, both of which convinced me to spend my money on it, but there will only be one sequel I would look out for.

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