I played Merritt Kopas’s Lim a couple of weeks ago. I was very impressed, but thought it was too obviously brilliant to be worth writing about. But now it’s been featured on Rock, Paper Shotgun and commenters are calling it ‘pretentious’, and saying it’s a bad game, and nothing more than an art exercise, and feels like a drawn-out level of Dys4ia, so I feel I have to write something. Spoilers follow, as well as triggers for bullying and gender dysphoria.
Play and strategy
Lim is a game about fitting in. It’s a metaphor constructed out of game mechanics – the playable character is a square that is able to take on the colour of the majority of surrounding squares – or it can just stay the same colour as it already is. It’s up to the player to choose. The level design takes the form of a labyrinth. When the protagonist is spotted not fitting in, it is attacked by the surrounding squares. There’s no depleting health, no chance of dying, but the attack is loud, uncomfortable (physically so, as the flashing and juttering of the screen causes motion sickness for many players) and makes it harder to move around the game space.
The answer seems simple at first – just always blend in with your surroundings – but as the game progresses it turns out that this isn’t enough. Some spaces are mixed, and in those spaces you’re bound to be attacked. Some squares notice you looking different before you have the chance to change – by then it’s too late, and they attack you anyway.
When things go wrong
I don’t know whether this happens for all players – it felt like a bug, but many commenters have mentioned it happening to them too – but at some point, the square may end up pushed out to the outside of the walls of the labyrinth. This makes it easier to get to the end, as nobody can get to you to attack you, but in the words of one commenter, “it doesn’t feel much like freedom.” It feels lonely and meaningless. Eventually you find another square just like you – in Merritt’s own words, ‘multivocal’ – and you stand on either side of an impermeable wall, both flashing in many colours, both free from having to choose one colour or another, but both isolated.
When this happened, I imagined that if this ‘bug’ hadn’t occurred, I would be able to actually be with the other multivocal square. I thought other players would experience the game without this unfair event, and I had just been unlucky. I was on the outside looking in, imagining that we could have been friends and supported each other if I wasn’t so isolated.
Being an insider
One of the charges of pretentiousness stems from the idea that you wouldn’t ‘get it’ unless you looked up information about its author. Merritt tweets publicly about the physical and social effects of coming out as trans and undergoing hormone replacement therapy. I feel uncomfortable describing someone else’s personal experience, but my understanding is that at the moment, she is sometimes read as male, sometimes as female, and can adjust her gender presentation for certain circumstances.
I knew this when I was playing the game, but I felt that the metaphor was much more broad than that – it’s not an autobiography, but a metaphor that represents a social phenomenon surrounding fitting in. I thought this was something we all struggled with.
I went through it a lot at school, because I didn’t hide the things about me that made me different – all the people I respected were telling me to be myself. It was only a couple of years later that I realised there were lots of other people who would have also stood out for the same reasons as me, but they did a better job of concealing them or re-presenting them in order to fit in. Even though people’s disapproval can’t hurt me the way it used to, adulthood has been about trying to find ways of skilfully and strategically re-presenting or concealing my idiosyncracies – and like all strategies, it doesn’t always work. That’s what Lim demonstrates for me.
Simplicity and complexity
The other charge of pretentiousness is that the message wasn’t ‘deep enough’ – commenters impatiently described it as ‘bullying is bad, be yourself.’ It’s ‘pretending’ to have a deep meaning, but it’s actually very simple. But a metaphor doesn’t have to be deep in itself. It’s the emotional and discursive domino-effect that it sets off that’s interesting.
Is the message of the game really ‘bullying is bad, be yourself?’ Is it telling people not to attack those who are different? There’s no good or bad outcome of the game from which to draw a moral conclusion. It’s just descriptive – this is what socialisation looks like.
As for the ‘be yourself’ side of it – for me, the game doesn’t say that at all. There is no ‘yourself’ to be in this game. You’re floating between states of presentation, and you settle upon them dependent on the situation. You would have a hard time finding ‘yourself’ in this. The reality presented by Lim is that you can’t just ‘be yourself’ without a social order structuring the entire problem – only when society is far away can you float again and not have to think about ‘being’ at all. ‘Being’ is a social question. The game isn’t preachy. It doesn’t even present a solution. It just describes a problem.
What’s really incredible about Lim is that it elegantly uses simple game mechanics and good level design to describe a phenomenon without putting language to it. This is a phenomenon that is immediately complicated by language. If it was presented as a game about ‘being trans’ then it would immediately set that ‘multivocal body’ as one thing or another.
This game was made at a time when the entire discourse around gender variance is changing. Some people identify as one gender, find themselves in the ‘body of the wrong gender’, and are simply trying to repair that dissonance by transitioning. But within this, gender identity can still be complicated for some – “Yes, I’m a ‘he’” said one person to me this weekend, “but I’m not *that* kind of ‘he’. I’m a faggy dandy kind of ‘he’. So I’m kind of ‘they/he’”. Some people are ‘non-binary’ and may or may not experience dysphoria related to their bodies. Still others are cis-gendered but still have their gender presentation policed every day because of their career, their interests or the way they look.
Lim could be about any of these people and more. And it can only be so because of the simplicity and ‘meaninglessness’ of its metaphor. How the game has been presented turns out to be just as important as the mechanics themselves – it is after all, a game about how you choose to present.