An exclusive look into the creation of Limbo and Inside, as well as the studio Playdead itself, through an interview with former staff member Peter Buchardt
By Jeremy Hosking
Commissioned by Kotaku UK
Published 16th February 2018
This article contains spoilers for Limbo & Inside
Peter Buchardt is currently a game designer at Studio Gobo in Brighton, England. Growing up in Denmark, Peter’s entry into videogames was through countless hours of playing on the Commodore 64 and Amiga 500, and his parents later buying him his own PC when he started college. Uninspired by his informatics course at Aalborg University, he and his classmates decided to make an adventure game together, a process that proved to be far more fun than optimising ticket ordering systems. As a result, he decided to focus his masters on game design, landing his first job in the industry a few years later at Guppyworks in Copenhagen.
Soon enough, Buchardt joined Playdead on 2nd February 2008 as the studio’s 8th employee. The studio has never grown especially large subsequently, with the maximum number of staff being around 25, and not an enormous amount is known about the creator of some of the modern age’s most memorable games. When Buchardt joined, Playdead was working hard on creating their ‘vertical slice’ of Limbo, putting together 12–15 minutes of gameplay in order to attract investment to finish the project.
“The important stuff to me was, as far as I remember at least, was that I was going to work with something cool,“ says Buchardt. “We were very new to the industry and when I started at Playdead I think we were just like, ‘this is amazing, we’re being paid to make cool shit! Let’s do this for the rest of our lives.’”
Being paid to make cool shit might sound like a cliché, but here’s the thing about Playdead. The developers have to make the cool shit over and over again, prototyping and producing new ideas on an almost daily basis.
“We would basically take a puzzle idea or whatever and push it because we just believed in it. We didn’t have to know that it worked, more ‘we believe this can work.’ Then we would put that idea in a box and continue on new ideas. So that meant that even though you might have had two weeks where you came up with five, six really good ideas, you could still sit and have to come up with new ideas. It’s not like you could take that idea, take it all the way through production and then finish it and then start something new. No. it’s like, ‘hey, I just came up with something cool. Now let’s do it again.’ That mentality and just working a lot too, like we didn’t mind if we had to work 50, 60 hours or whatever because it was our first game.”
Many in the industry will shake their heads at that. But young developers working long hours is not an uncommon story and, at least in Buchardt’s case, was inspired by a genuine belief in his work.
“I remember some of us went out and had beers and we would be like ‘OK, what would you do if the company can’t continue? Would you work for free?’ And we had that discussion. Most of us agreed that if that company didn’t have money to do it we would just stay and make it anyway because we wanted the game to be done. We were so invested in it. I’ve since learned how much to appreciate that approach, but then again Playdead is a very special institution in the fact that they wanted to, and they still want to I believe, take the time it takes. Let it brew for the amount of time it needs to brew.”
This approach was supported by Playdead’s team structure. An open plan office, there was very little hierarchy and team members could freely work with each other as needed without needing to go through any formal chain of command. Peter himself didn’t have a line manager. Such an approach extended through to joint schedules and staff perks, creating a unique culture.
“At Playdead, the perks were different because it was just a family where if somebody did something we all did it. One of the first things they wanted to do was ‘yeah, we should definitely eat together.’ Every Monday we would go down to the cantina at the IT University and [Playdead co-founder] Dino would pay for breakfast. That’s not a big thing at all but it was a cool thing that we sat down in a meeting room and had breakfast together and everybody would be talking about what games we played at the weekend.”
“Like, I have even been sent to Germany to pick up an award and that wouldn’t happen in any other company,” says Buchardt. “That a small-time level designer on a team would be allowed to reap a little bit of the fame that he helped create, it’s just not happening! When we finished Limbo, the entire team got I think an extra month of salary and we were invited to go to Tokyo Game Show for a week with the company. So it’s those things where we would do stuff together, there was a lot of family about it. Yes there was no gym membership, but we had that stuff.”
Playdead’s first title, Limbo, went on to become a critical and commercial triumph. Releasing on 21st July 2010 as part of Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade promotion, it achieved lifetime sales of over 3 million units across all release platforms (as of June 2013). Following such a successful release, the Playdead founders chose to invest fully in their next project.
“With Inside, we had the earnings from Limbo and the cool thing was that my bosses, they put all the money into Inside. I’ve seen a lot of other companies where suddenly the big bosses they have new cars and they move into a bigger house. I’ve had them a few times and that didn’t happen with Limbo at all. Everything was put towards the new game and that was just really amazing, being part of a team where I know success is going to me and my colleagues’ salary and not just you buying new shit or whatever.”
Harnessing all the lessons it had learned, Playdead began development on Inside in 2010.
“So when we started working on Inside, it wasn’t Inside. It was a completely different game. It was sort of set in space and the idea was we’d give you as a player more tools because I think as designers at least, we were like, ‘that could be really fun to do.’ At some point in Limbo we experimented with the boy being able to throw rocks — very simply in the line of what Limbo is. But that didn’t work, so it didn’t go in the game. But for the second game, I think at some point the boy could shoot. You had a little gun, you could shoot just one bullet and you could throw a grenade. It wasn’t gonna be an action game at all, it would just more be like you were there, you could do these things and that was it. Again it was 2D and we experimented for maybe half a year but [Playdead founder] Arnt [Jensen] didn’t feel that it was the right approach for the game.”
“So we dialled back from that and we actually ended up with just what we had in Limbo — a boy approximately the same size, same everything. Then we started thinking, ‘OK ,what can we then do with this?’ and it became clear early on that this game was gonna be a little bit more about exploring the environment compared to Limbo. Because in Limbo usually everything you need is within the screen, you can see all the elements and can solve the puzzle almost just by looking at it. Whereas with Inside, it is OK that there is a puzzle that is just you going in, moving around for a little bit and then pulling a lever to see something cool happen. There’s a little bit more of that, where you don’t have to solve a hard logic puzzle, it’s just more about being there.”
The game’s use of depth helps demonstrate this shift in approach from the very beginning of the game. For example, during Inside’s opening scene whilst the boy is hiding, a torch points directly towards the player into the camera, a marked departure from Limbo’s strictly 2D design.
“We knew it would be 2D but wanted early on to experiment with depth, so there was especially the thought of when the boy would run from A to B on a 2D plane, he might be able to run between the trees. In Limbo, if you want to get the other side of a crate you have to climb it and go down the other side. But why can’t you just walk past it? Then when you suddenly can walk past it, you suddenly start thinking about depth as a player. For the artists, there was way more room to do story that was outside of our puzzles but we had a huge problem in the beginning. The graphic artists would put in something super awesome and the player would think, ‘It’s right there, there’s a path there — why can’t I go that way?’ So suddenly it became evident that this path needs to go, we can’t have something intriguing like a door that is ajar. It has to look less interesting going into the picture, or be more dangerous.”
Playdead’s particular approach to development led to the relationships between the game’s components and how one affected, or even inspired the other. For example,Inside’s cornfield stage didn’t originally feature rain. Martin Stig Andersen, the game’s sound designer, liked the idea of it raining and applied the relevant sound treatment: the team reacted so positively that the scene was changed in response. Water, in fact, became a notable feature of Inside — from torrential rain above to the industrial depths below — and came about through accumulation of ideas rather than a specific environmental choice.
“Actually water is probably the only really, really big difference between Limbo and Inside, right? In Limbo, water kills you. But in Inside we wanted to make it something that would create different gameplay. For example, the fact that the boy can hold his breath for a certain period of time until that constraint is lifted. Then it’s a medium — basically you’re flying when you’re swimming in water right? You can go in all directions which was really cool and that was something we did want in the game ’cause we knew that would give us new tools to do puzzles.”
This key gameplay shift is linked with an encounter between the boy and the underwater hair creature. In one scene, the two come into contact with each other and the the boy descends to the depths. Once the player resumes control, the boy can seemingly breathe freely underwater without any clear explanation.
“So the thing you can compare it to in Limbo is when the boy gets tangled up in the web? Right? And he has to get out of the web. That was a huge thing — how do we get him out of the web? I’m not going to try to take credit or anything for this, but I’m pretty sure that earlier in that discussion it’s like, ‘Why don’t we just have him fall down a hill and then it unravels and it’s fine?’ But we were like ‘No! We have to make an epic puzzle where you have to solve getting it off you!’ We were totally onto that, and we prototyped for days and weeks and in the end it was like, ‘we can’t come up with anything, maybe we can have him fall down a ledge and just…it’s off, that’s it.’
“Sometimes that simple solution is just the best one? The idea is still is that people can get whatever interpretation they want. And I know that [in Inside] some of the artists even put in small hints here and there to what they maybe wanted to tell in the story but it’s there for you to just basically interpret yourself. What happened? I don’t know. We only take two different pieces of logic, and then by putting them together, we create maybe a new sort of logic people can interpret. We had different ways we liked to think about what the game was.”
Mechanics surrounding control, including the mind control headgear and the chickens’ implementation, also came from design discussions with no clear understanding at the time where they would fit in the game. This presence of a control theme within Inside becomes clearer as the player discovers the game’s collectible “orbs” — each with a distinct glow and hidden off the main path. Tied closely with achievements, their evolution as such a reward extends from lessons learnt during Limbo’s development process.
“In Limbo Arnt [Jensen] didn’t want achievements,” says Buchardt. “Because the game is about the mood and you don’t want green pop-ups going ‘bloobity-bloop!’ on the screen. Everybody on the team understood this. Microsoft’s hard requirement was when you finished playing an Xbox Live game, you need to have gotten 50% of all the achievements. We didn’t like giving an achievement for doing just playing the game; that felt wrong to us.
“When we then started working on Inside, I think we all were like ‘we know this is going to be out on PlayStation and Xbox whatever at some point, so we might as well put it in in a way that really, really fits the game.’ We wanted it to be just off the beaten path, but quickly we found that there were these ‘darlings’ — puzzles that somebody really wanted in the game, so there was an extra chance for them to say, ‘OK we can use this puzzle down here for this little thing’. For example, we couldn’t make the torch and the dogs work properly in the main game so we ended up using that down there. Again hopefully it’s only people really interested in the game that find those areas, so they’re OK with it being maybe a bit more difficult, mysterious or whatever it could be.”
From gameplay design and programming through to artwork and sound design, every element of Inside is more involved than its predecessor. Though recently released on iOS, even in the original PC and Xbox One release there were performance challenges.
“One of the areas we really, really struggled with was when you traverse onto the rooftops just before you go into the lineup. That rooftop section, there’s some places where the camera pans and looks more ahead than it usually does and that meant that the entire world would just load into memory. The second place that was really, really heavy was that area where you park the submarine the first time — in the background there’s a big piece of glass. There’s almost a whole forest inside there with so many polygons but because the glass was tinted you couldn’t really see through it. At Playdead — and I think this is actually an important point — the artists are not asked about updating their sprint tasks or production management tools, they’re just asked to do awesome art and then the producer would take care of those things for them. So that works for Playdead, but that meant that after they had touched an area it was necessary to send in one of us level designers or designers to clean up after them. And I’m not criticising anyone for that, it’s just what worked for Playdead.”
As Inside enters its final chapter, it leads into the standout sequence in the game. The boy is seemingly morphed into one humungous, fleshy mass; comprised of all manner of bodies and body parts, it rolls and ambles through the environment invoking terror and destruction throughout. The player is in full control, grappling with its physics-grounded heft and momentum whilst smashing through walls, windows and crushing all in its path. Again beginning life as a basic idea, it continued to be worked on for more than 4 years of the game’s development.
“I think in the same manner as you learn to breathe underwater, the desire to change things up a lot was there. To just change it up. Then Arnt in his head had this thing about becoming something else and it wasn’t clear from the beginning what that should be. Exactly why it was a big lump of 19 or however many people — ask him, I don’t know! We were really busy making the game then and actually didn’t have time to pursue it, but we wanted to prove to Arnt whether or not it was worth going down that avenue. So we hired in this consultant who in one month hacked together this ‘thing’ that looked like [the finished creature] which had legs that would touch the ground, the walls and all that stuff.
“At that point we all tried it and were like, ‘we need this in the game because this could be so much fun running around with,’ and we dedicated a programmer from then on for the rest of the project. Early on, Martin [composer and sound designer] would jump on an idea immediately and would make something that to us sounded like finished audio — I think a lot of the stuff with this blob as well was like that. He got this group of about five to seven improvised theatre people and went into the forest where they were all tied up, moving around like a big thing and he was recording all the footsteps on the ground. I think getting all that stuff early into the game and just making this thing come alive so early pushed this to actually start living as something that was definitely going to be in our game.”
Inside’s ending, the various nods to themes of control and other story elements all leave the player with a lot to take away and interpret. Since their release, both of Playdead’s titles have spawned a huge fan response, including satirical comics, fan art and countless theories regarding the games’ stories. In sharp contrast to the tightly scripted works of Hideo Kojima, for example, there were never any formal documents or detailed reference material explaining ‘meanings’ within the game.
“It’s actually funny because with both Limbo and Inside, we never had that like, meeting, where Arnt would sit down and explain his whole thing. It’s more like he would whisper a little bit in somebody’s ear, some other thing in somebody else’s ear and it would always just be what those people needed to do their job at the time. The closest thing we had to a story written out was that when I started, very early on they had this big concept art poster and it was huge, it was like 3m x 2m. It covered, like, an entire wall. And it was the world of Limbo.
“So it basically showed in miniature each of the areas that the game should consist of. So there would be a forest that would turn into snowy mountainous, then it would go down and there’d be an industrial underground, and there would be all these areas you’d definitely look at and be ‘OK, that’s Limbo.’ We took a lot of inspiration from that piece hanging on our wall, because we would be like ‘yeah, we should try to build an ice cave this week where there’s icicles falling down on your head’ or whatever. In fact, we really wanted a white instead of black level in there and we tried a lot with the snow but again it didn’t become a thing.”
Even Arnt, the creative director, didn’t necessarily have a totally clear idea of how all the elements being created would fit together.
“I think that’s a good thing. I think for him it was also a process it seemed very much, because else I think when we had talked about the entire game he would be able to tease a bit what he thought about what the ending should be? But the fact is we made, I would say, at least five very different endings to Limbo. And some of them were fucking awesome! But we just couldn’t pull it off, we couldn’t make it work properly enough.”
That’s the Playdead playbook writ large — try lots of things, bounce off one another, and find solutions in your working-out. No player would wish Limbo or Inside were any different, though what is tantalising is the huge leap forward represented by the latter. The third is in development and we know nothing about it, which is part of the magic when it comes to this studio. Playdead makes Playdead games, with a unique atmosphere you can almost smell. The games are pregnant with meaning and misdirection, lavished with care in the tiniest spots, brutal, emotional, and fascinating. Little wonder then that, even to Playdead, parts of the process remain a mystery.