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Hanging in Limbo

February 24, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

Playdead was a studio that was founded organically, says CEO Dino Patti. His original goal was just to help Arnt Jensen, his co-founder and the game director of Limbo, get his creative vision into the wild. The game studio just grew from nothing, as the vision expanded.

What's important to Patti is shepherding Jensen's creative vision. What's important to Jensen is creating a game filled with ambiguity -- one that people can enjoy artistically and also discuss and interpret in their own way. And he isn't happy when they get to close to the truth, he says.

As the studio moves forward with its second project, having thrown off the shackles of the investors who originally put up the funds to develop Limbo, Gamasutra traveled to Copenhagen to visit the studio and talk to Jensen and Patti about how Limbo was developed, what lessons learned during that process will inform the company's next project, and what we can expect from its next title.

You have that expectation now built in. It's kind of like you want to avoid the sophomore slump, right?

Arnt Jensen: Yeah.

Like, bands releasing their second album. When their first album hits so hard, everyone starts to have really high expectations for the second album. It's kind of like that with you guys.

Dino Patti: Our thing is because it's a while yet... We want to talk about it when we're satisfied.

AJ: Yeah. we have to be proud about it. That's a long way. It'll take a long time.

You're still developing the concepts?

AJ: Yeah. We're working in kind of a special way, because we haven't planned what it's going to be like, so it's more like working with some themes, and then do a lot of prototyping on those themes, and then we put it all together. There's no design document or anything...

Did you have a similar process with Limbo?

AJ: Yes, it was exactly the same. It never ended. We put in new stuff two months before we finished it [laughs]. We never ended it -- just came up with ideas and moved it around all the way through. If we came up with something better than we had, than we just changed it. So, it was very important to have it flexible all the way.

DP: And it was deliberately kept open until very, very late to be able to move things around.

AJ: Yeah. [laughs] Our producer... We were pretty anxious at the end.

DP: He was anxious. [both laugh]

AJ: We came every day with a new idea. It was just becoming too late at the end.

How did you control yourself? Or did you just eventually get to the point where it became apparent that there just wasn't time?

AJ: I don't know. I think everything just combines in the end, and you kind of convince yourself that now it's there, and now it's done. So it feels kind of natural. [laughs] We had no more money to spend, so we just have to finish it. Microsoft were pushing us and everything, so it just felt natural.

When you're really stressed in the end, you just take some big decisions, and you know it's for the better. It was okay. We will probably do it the same way again.

DP: Yeah, the problem is I don't really know how we do it, because the game was so much in pieces at one point, it was like... [laughs]

AJ: This is not going to be a game.

DP: And a lot of big decisions. We put it together. And some things were obviously cut, because they didn't meet the standards, or couldn't get in shape in time.

AJ: Yeah. We threw a lot out. We told a lot of people that we threw 70 percent out, of things. There were a lot of ideas.

Dino Patti (left) and Arnt Jensen (right) at the Playdead offices, Copenhagen

Not tempting to make a Limbo 2 based on success, and the pieces?

AJ: Well, that could be great some day, but I think it would have to evolve, and there have to be some new mechanics and ideas, before [that]. So, not for now.

That's the thing when you make a company. Making a game is an artistic endeavor, but making a company... A company has to survive.

AJ: Yeah. [laughs]

You have to counterbalance.

DP: The funny thing is, when we started, it wasn't going to be a company. It was only going to be, like, this game. I think we talked a lot about, [while] doing this game, that we also wanted a company. Because we loved the processes, and we loved the way of doing it.

AJ: Yeah.

DP: The more we found more people and found more money, it was like, "Hm, this could maybe be something bigger."

AJ: We really want it to be fun, so we really want to be inspired and having fun doing the process, so it made no sense just to make another black and white game immediately. And we could work for a big publisher instead, and that's [what] we're both scared of.

DP: But what you are talking about, running the company, it's also, I think, the opposite of what we wanted. We wanted the products to run the company, because we don't want to have a big team where, "Okay, now we have to find new projects to have the team going." It's not our goal to have a lot of people just working. It's all about having projects which run the company. So, when new ideas emerge, we get bigger. If we don't have any ideas, we get smaller. [both laugh]

AJ: We have two ideas at the same time, we'll probably make two productions at the same time.

DP: We don't want to be forced to make bad decisions because we have a lot of people working. It sounds kind of intuitive to the big companies, I think, but for us it sounds really counterintuitive, to just have a lot of people that you always need to put in new projects, to just have them work.

That depends on your priorities as well. The big companies are publicly traded, and their goal is to create shareholder value. That's not your goal.

DP: Yeah, exactly.

AJ: We bought our investors out, so it's not our concern anymore. [laughs]

DP: And it is to be able to just create or get good ideas, and do whatever it takes. I think it's a cool way of doing it.

AJ: We've been talking a lot about this. I think we'll earn our money in the end by being creative and not taking money decisions, so it will all work out.

You talked about Limbo being made of pieces. I have to say, playing Limbo, there are certain pieces that are somewhat incongruous. So, start off in the wilderness, giant spiders, with some sort of natives, or tribal people. And then it suddenly transitions into this sort of city and factory. I had the sense playing it, I was trying to piece together a narrative. What do you think about that?

AJ: I think it's pretty important to have the right feelings throughout the game. I don't know if it's that important if it's specific storytelling. I don't care about that. It's important to have those special feelings. It was supposed to feel this loneliness so that in the end, when you meet the little sister, it seems like you haven't seen people so long, the impact will be so much bigger.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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E McNeill
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These frank, free-flowing interviews are the best part of this site. Especially with indie designers! Thank you.

Jacob Pederson
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A lot of what makes Limbo so impressive is that character; the amount of AI and animation and physics that's in him is NUTS. It's not something super flashy, but its so important to the life of the character. I'm always surprised that when I go back and play Shadow of the Colossus again, Agro (the horse) is still the best NPC of all time. In Skyrim, the horse feels like a series of animations. Agro feels like a real horse . . . a character!

This is the kind of work that went into the boy in Limbo. They just never stopped working on him. You can't say, "ok, horses can gallop, canter, idle, spin, and mostly not clip into the terrain . . . horses are done now!" You have to get up every day and say, "what can make this character even more alive?"

Looking forward to Playdead's next game!

Victor Rohrer
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I attended a private showcase at their offices in Copenhagen of the engine that they used for the game. It was a very innovative and flexible way of making an engine, but one of the interesting things that they said about it was how it exclusively worked with the boy character. So not only has there been put a large amount of work into the animation of the boy, but almost all of the functionality of the game was tied to him. I think this shows how much focus they had on him and making him work as a complete character.

Bryn Bennett
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I agree. I keep going back to play Limbo and am constantly amazed by how polished the boy is.

Joel S
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Thanks for the article, good read.

I love the animation on the boy, the fluidity of climbing ledges is just great.

Jake Shapiro
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The animation of the boy is beautiful, whether it's reaching out for things before he gets to them or the way he pulls himself up from ledges.
I wonder if the game's stark minimalism comes in part from a legacy of Scandinavian design. I feel like Limbo couldn't have been made by an American or Japanese developer.

Jose Resines
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Loved the look and the physics, but hated what they did with it. And the ending. Open ended my ass, it was just lazy.

Vinicius Capiotti
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Yeah, those lazy bastards.

Pieterjan Spoelders
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Great interview! Keep 'm coming!Good that they are now fully independent.
Quite glad to see a studio that focuses so much on the creative aspect as well and rather care about a good product instead of maximizing profit selling crap and advertising.
Wish 'm all the best and can't wait for their new game to arrive.
By the way, one of the coolest moments in Limbo for me was with the critter, which you lure, running in a wheel and when you block the wheel the world short circuits and it starts to rain.. very well done. Loved the game and it was a bit too short for me but at least it was very polished.

Yuan Zhang
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The game is a work of art which you could appreciate by engaging yourself into the gameplay or by simply taking a pause and putting yourself in the mood setup of Limbo. Thanks for sharing the interview.