The writings of psychologists, psychoanalysts, and philosophers are rarely geared toward the design of video games. However, many of the ideas presented by writers like Freud, Barthes, Althusser, and Silverman are applicable to the art of creating games that are enjoyable to play and leave a lasting impact on the player. This paper will attempt to relate some of the concepts of these authors to video game design; particularly, to designing video games with worlds that feel complete, immersive, and impactful to the player. It will examine concepts such as interpellation and narrative progression and relate them to LIMBO's design.
Althusser's concept of interpellation into a culture through seemingly innocuous "hails" can be applied to immersion and video games. While Althusser was writing about cultures and societies, his concept of interpellation is highly applicable to video game design, specifically to designing worlds that feel complete and that are capable of fully immersing a player. LIMBO in particular has a unique feel and space that we become immersed into while playing, and this immersion occurs in a manner similar to what Althusser describes as hailing. Althusser states that "all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects" (Althusser 1971). For our purposes, the "ideology" that Althusser refers to is the game designer's world and their intent for the atmosphere of that world, and the "individuals" which are interpellated are the players of the game. Althusser uses a police officer calling out to a passerby as an example of one of these hails, which are small events that you don't consciously register as meaningful but which slowly conform your ideas to be in line with an ideology. In a similar vein, LIMBO hails the player into its world through the introduction of unique mechanical and atmospheric elements until the player is immersed in the game.
The mechanics of LIMBO's puzzles can be interpreted as hails1. The player solves puzzles by analyzing the game's environment and piecing together clues. In the end, the player feels that they have achieved something by solving the puzzle, that the solution is something they have found independently. In reality, the player was carefully led to the solution by a series of hails: the slow introduction of mechanics and the clever design and placement of objects in the game's world. This is similar to Althusser's description of hails; they work best when they are presented to us in a way that makes them almost invisible, and encourages us to accept them.
This clip shows an example of a simple hail in LIMBO's design. At this point in the game, the player has been introduced to breakable branches. The player can see that the branch leaning against the tree will break when stepped on, and that the log will fall. The branch leaning on the log is a "hail" to the player; it leads them to the solution without explicitly giving them the answer. LIMBO builds in complexity and difficulty by layering these hails throughout the game, with each puzzle introducing the player to new mechanics and embedding the player further into the world of the game.
Narrative progression, like hailing, is another way designers can draw a player into the game's world. Barthes states that good narrative moves between predictive and descriptive elements, like breathing in and out; predictive elements being those that move the narrative forward, and descriptive elements being those that are extraneous and not required for the narrative to progress (Barthes 1968). The mechanical hails expanded upon earlier in this paper are LIMBO's predictive elements, required to progress through the game, while the atmospheric background sights and sounds are descriptive elements. The flow between the predictive and descriptive while playing LIMBO is expertly designed; the game is full of smooth transitions between travel and puzzle solving. The back-and-forth swing between puzzle solving and moving through the world, absorbing the sights and sounds is very effective at creating a flow-state of immersion that sucks the player into the game.
This image shows the subdued and balanced style of LIMBO's design. Throughout the game, there are objects in the background that the player can see, creating a sense of three-dimensional scale to the world despite LIMBO's two-dimensional movement. The designers at Playdead did an excellent job of balancing foreground and background elements. The background elements are always present, but never overpower the view, only existing to enrich the atmosphere in a way that the player rarely takes conscious notice of. In the image above, there are several layers of background detail: a chimney emitting smoke, a billboard on top of a building, and even further back, almost invisible, the outlines of very distant buildings. These details would likely be run past by the player, barely noticed, but their presence throughout every scene of the game gives LIMBO's world a sense of being much larger than what the player experiences.
Sound design is of equal importance to visual design when creating a game world that immerses a player, and also falls under the umbrella of descriptive elements in LIMBO. The sound design of LIMBO is very passive; there is not much music, only noises and ambient tones, which serve well to unconsciously draw the player into the world.
The above example shows the sounds of electricity in LIMBO: loud, jarring, and powerful. The spectrogram (made in Sonic Visualizer) allows us to see the points of attack in the electrical noise and the drawdown between each spark. Often, well-crafted sounds like this one go unnoticed by the player. They slip into the background of the player's experience, subtly deepening the sense of "being there" that is essential to immersion. Excellently designed details like this sound are not required to build a finished game; their presence is often most noticeable when they are not well designed. It is important to consider that the designers at Playdead were not required to spend an extended amount of time designing these small details of sound and texture that are present throughout LIMBO. However, it is clear that the game is more immersive for their efforts, despite these elements not being necessary for a complete game. Small details like these invoke a sense of connection to the game, similar to Kaja Silverman's notion of "suture" (Silverman 1982).
In summary, immersion is created by a confluence of many factors: small hails which invite the player into the world of the game, effective narrative progression, and rarely noticed details of visual and auditory design. Often, the most important elements contributing to immersion are those which the player only notices in absence. Aspiring game developers can benefit from reading philosophical and psychoanalytical texts by gleaning insight into methods for effectively implementing these near-invisible elements.
List of Work Cited
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin and Philosophy. Ben Brewste (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971)
Barthes, Roland. "The Reality Effect" in The Rustle of Language Richard Howard (Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1984 (1968))
Silverman, Kaja. "Suture" from the Subject of Semiotics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982)
1: I use the terms "interpellate" and "hail" very loosely throughout this paper. When Althusser uses these terms, they are meant in the context of Marxist theory, class struggle, and oppression. I very loosely relate the idea that Althusser puts forth (that we are interpellated into the culture and values of our society through "hails" that work best when they are nearly invisible, and that once interpellated, ideas that may seem to be entirely our own are actually the result of having been hailed/interpellated since birth) to the idea that good video game design requires a similar structure of hailing to immerse the player in the world of the game and provide the player with the tools to succeed in the game, without the political context that Althusser intended when he defined these terms.