As Europe lay in ruins after the Great War, Sigmund Freud wrote about a child he’d seen at play. This child – a ‘good little boy’ of one and a half – had a wooden reel on a string for a toy. The game he had devised was simple – he threw the reel so it fell outside of his view, then pulled it back by the string, each time with a noise: ‘o-o-o-o’ outgoing and ‘da!’ upon its return.
Freud being Freud, the interpretation of this game was, to him, “obvious” (also, Freud being Freud, the child was personally known to him – his grandson, in fact). It was about the child’s separation from his mother (what else?), a symbolization of the “instinctual renunciation which he had made in allowing his mother to go without protesting.” By staging her disappearance and reappearance through the stand-in of the reel, the child is attempting to master the “distressing experience” of loss by making that loss itself a matter of choice, and a “necessary preliminary” to the lost object’s “joyful return.”
He – Freud, that is, not the child – called this game ‘Fort-da,’ meaning ‘gone-there,’ and it is from this example that he begins to theorize that bleakest of psychoanalytic concepts: the death drive and its concurrent repetition compulsion. This will lead to a conceptualization of shell shock, what now proliferates under the acronym PTSD, a baffling malady that causes sufferers not to repress or forget but rather relive their traumas, in seeming opposition to the practical economics of the pleasure principle.
My interpretation, in turn, may be obvious. I can’t help notice that it’s through a game that the child sutures this earliest trauma. And my natural question is a touch banal: why do we play games that terrify us, make us melancholy and confront us with our mortality? Why do we replay them?
There’s a game that I can only barely remember. I don’t remember it so much as I remember the memory. I don’t know how much of it I’ve forgotten and re-invented in the years since I played it – I couldn’t have been more than eight at the time, at a whole different stage of cortical development – but the clearest images are those of dying on an alien world. Of dark worms underfoot with hidden blades dripping with venom. Of a dark monster – une bête noire – mauling me with gleaming claws, its eyes and teeth faintly luminous in the glow of unknown constellations.
I recall this game from time to time, which is how I know I have never forgotten it. The memory is old enough now, though, that it usually requires some trigger. Some moment that sends me back to the increasingly blurry image of a game I played for a handful of hours – less even – one day, once, long ago. This time, the moment was while playing Limbo.
Limbo was developed by an independent Danish firm, the suggestively named Playdead. It was immediately hailed as an ‘art game,’ if for no other reason than its visual design – its actual art – is so stunning. Comparisons have been drawn to both film noir and German Expressionism in the manner in which Limbo creates a sinister world of sparse light and deep shadows. It lacks anything like a traditional narrative frame, leaving us with the purgatorial evocation of its title and the tagline the developer provides: ‘Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo’.
The game itself begins in a state of suspense and uncertainty, with a ghostly, monochromatic schwartzwald resolving slowly into view. A supine figure lying on the ground opens its lambent eyes. It’s a little boy. He gets up. You get him up. He’s you.
Limbo falls into that early-established category, the ‘puzzle platformer,’ of which the Prince of Persia series is one of the oldest. Nintendo’s Mario also qualifies, particularly in its initial iterations – in fact it’s the earlier version of these games, 2D Sidescrollers in which the character traverses the game as might a mobile figure on the Bayeux Tapestry, from left to right, navigating obstacles and dangers that block the route to the objective. It’s a form that has strong native parallels to literature – the term itself, sidescroller, already refers to a much earlier literary medium.
The controls for Limbo – as is the case with most classic sidescrollers – are simplicity itself. The player can move the boy left or right, make him jump, and make him grab onto things – nothing more complex need be mastered to play. Some things he can swing from, others he can drag, still others he can activate like a switch on a circuit. Navigating an unknown and extremely hostile environment with just these limited methods of interaction make Limbo both challenging and approachable.
Limbo is also unsettling and grisly, as befits its mournful namesake, and its world is a place of death and decay, a place where nature does not hide its rottenness and where cities crumble like mold-eaten tree-trunks. It is a place where you will die, over and over, in often shocking and visceral ways. Bear traps will decapitate you. Great boulders will dash you to the ground. You will drown. You will be crushed into paste. You will be pursued by a great black spider and you will never know why.
The developer describes the style of play as “trial and death,” an apt if not terrifically artful descriptor – the presentation is artful enough. But when a luminous worm fell onto my character’s head, seizing control of the ill-fated little boy as a fluke worm controls an ant and guiding him to his death, I remembered the nameless game with its own deadly worms and luminous eyes, and I thought: why am I repeating this trauma?
Freud could give you my inner, psychic reasons, I’ve no doubt. I have other reasons, however, ones that double as excuses, since I am not reviewing a new game. Limbo was released back in 2010, but I only just played it because it was offered along with the fifth Humble Indie Bundle package or, more colloquially, the Humble Indie Bundle V. The offering itself is already over – this letter comes too late – but the thing keeps recurring, so all you need do is wait.
The games within the Bundle are all sold separately – the Humble Indie Bundle is, in essence, a promotion. But it’s one that’s profoundly consumer-friendly, a kind of e-liberal dream. Every year since 2010, a number of independent game developers – as distinct from the big studios and their wholly owned subsidiaries (roughly analogous the indie/studio split in Hollywood) – offer a package deal on anywhere from four to eight of their most successful games.
The deal is this: you pay what you want. As much or as little as you want. You also get to choose where each cent of what you paid goes. The default split gives the bulk to developers and charity, while reserving a little for the service itself, to cover the cost of bandwidth and hosting. You can change those percentages as much as you want, however.
And, unlike some games we might mention, all these games are entirely DRM free. Which means they can be pirated to your heart’s content if you are really so morally depleted a human being. Statistics on donations are kept and displayed, though anonymously, so your shame need never be known. Fascinating purchasing trends emerge. Windows users pay the least on average – $7.98 for eight games, less than a dollar per game. Mac users are a little more generous, or maybe just more wealthy. Linux users, who often have an ideological stake in supporting open models, always give the most by far; maybe they’re just better people, as they’ve always suspected. The promotion made over $5,107,715 in little over a week.
One of my favorites, Bastion, was included but I still haven’t played it again. I wasn’t up for the heart palpitations I would surely suffer if I tried out Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a survival horror game where you don’t even want to look at the monsters let alone fight them. My other copy of the bizarre and beautiful Superbrother: Sword & Sworcery EP is on my phone, and Tim Schafer’s peerless Psychonauts is, I find, better suited for console play. There were other games included in the package, less familiar and thus promising – but Limbo had triggered the dark whir of my repetition compulsion. I didn’t just want to play, I wanted to replay.
Also included in the bundle was Braid, Jonathan Blow’s brilliant debut piece; it was added as a bonus a week into the event, an unexpected encounter with an old friend and a fond memory. I’ve written about this game before – specifically on its mature themes and the ethics of its creator. Designed and developed by this Australian auteur, Braid is the result of Blow’s personal investment, a self-commissioned commitment to the tune of $200,000.
The similarities between Braid and Limbo only just begin with their affiliation through the Humble Indie Bundle. Like Limbo, Blow‘s opening opus is a puzzle-platform sidescroller, designed to be easily played if not easily mastered. Both are work of focused, driven auteurs with creative visions they refused to compromise. This focus makes the games distinctive, but even their differences are complimentary. Where as Limbo is the story of a young boy traversing the adolescent realm of bodily violence and antipathy, Braid is the story of a man and his incessant desire – the kind of desire that dominates so many adult lives. And where Limbo represents the intersection of visual art and gaming, Braid is self-consciously literary. Most importantly (for Sigmund and me), both rely heavily upon the Fort-da logic of ‘trial and death,’ as well as its underlying motivation: the attempt to recover the lost (female) object. What little we know of Limbo‘s story tells us the protagonist is searching for his sister – Braid further embraces this Freudian ambition, making its lost object ambiguously and simultaneously lover, mother and daughter. In this regard they are both taking their cues from those aforementioned elders of the genre – Mario and Prince of Persia – which both involve quests to rescue a princess.
Braid is too sophisticated, however, to lean entirely on such an unsubtle motivation. More than anything else, Braid is about the need to take things back. The first selection of text the player encounters, a brief passage in a green book found in the cloudy antechamber bannered ‘Chapter 2 – Time and Forgiveness’ , begins with the standard declaration: ‘Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster’ – but follows immediately with the caveat: ‘This happened because Tim made a mistake’. And ‘not just one’, either. Braid garners limited sympathy for its protagonist, whose prevailing trait is a self-destructive romanticism combined with a self-serving but relatable wish:
What if our world worked differently? Suppose we could tell her: ‘I didn’t mean what I just said,’ and she would say: ‘It’s okay, I understand,’ and she would not turn away, and life would really proceed as though we had never said that thing? We could remove the damage but still be wiser for the experience.
In Braid this wish is granted. You can rewind time: no mistake is permanent. Death itself is a dream you can wake from, wiser. The main character, red-headed Tim, leaps from platform to platform in search of this princess who is invariably in another castle, while music unwinds and rewinds each time he makes a misstep, encounters an all-too common peril, or runs afoul of any of the strange, hostile creatures that dominate his watercolor dreamscape. In the clouds he reads books, filled with glimpses of the story he keeps on living, left to right, like words on a page.
While more ambitious and complex in its gameplay, Braid‘s controls, like those of Limbo, obey principles of sidescroller simplicity. Indeed, neither game requires a tutorial; each is made to be picked up and played. The storytelling, which consists of text (like the above quoted), puzzle pieces and highly suggestive visual semiotics, is anything but simple. Braid takes its narrative cues from its inspirations: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams and even David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Over the course of the story – whose experimental construction is evident from the moment the author decides we ought to begin with ‘Chapter 2’ – we see that Tim is, like the trauma victim, always returning to the site of his trauma even as he chases the girl of your dreams. Indeed, the player can begin to discern that they are one and the same – the poison is the cure, and vice versa; a prescription from Plato’s Pharmacy.
Its ambition is undeniable, but the elegance of it’s execution is debated. Fast-talking British writer and critic, Ben Chrowshow (better known to his viewers as ‘Yahtzee’), suggests that Braid‘s gameplay and story are ‘kept in separate rooms’ with the player “in the gameplay room looking into the story room through a tiny hole in the dividing wall.” This is a frustration to him, but as a literary critic I find some textual ergodism (not trying to be obscure, just trying to be descriptive!) appealing in its own right. Maybe it’s perverse, this willingness to peek in order to catch a glimpse of the ‘naked’ text. After all, what does Yahtzee’s metaphor evoke but a peepshow?
Of course, maybe it’s just that I’m not expecting something clear and distinct, something I can hold in my hand and say I wholly comprehend. That sense of mastery is comforting, certainly. And it’s precisely that feeling we’re after when we play and replay games, particularly the games we love, until we finally ‘beat’ them – the aggression implicit in the very term suggests a profound ambivalence.
Indeed, the culmination of Braid rests upon just an ambivalence. The most significant in-game sequence I will leave unspoiled – it would be a crime to ruin that experience – but the ‘completion’ of the game I feel safe about giving away. The truly dedicated player finds all the stars hidden throughout the game, bit by bit assembling the constellation Andromeda in the sky. When the constellation is completed, we see an image of the constellation’s namesake – a woman in chains. Grim, but chains for some is the condition for the mastery of some others.
It’s also an illusion, this mastery. As Freud observed when watching an infant playing with a reel, games are – from the first – conceived to cope with anxieties. Will she leave me? Will she come back? – over what is essentially beyond our control. You can’t go back again, and even if you try, you can only ever end up back where you started.
Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.