Why Lim is an incredible accomplishment

A screenshot from Lim – shows a labyrinth with walls made of black squares, the protagonist as a purple square, and other characters as brown squares, against a pale magenta background.

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.

Beyond gender

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.

There are no words to describe all of these people in a way that they would all be happy with. It’s something we struggle with at DapperQ and Saint Harridan all the time.

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.

About Zoya

Zoya is a freelance writer and historian. Their particular interest is in video games: design, history, and how virtual worlds are inseparable from real-world social and economic networks. Zoya has written a book about the Dreamcast, is Editor of Memory Insufficient games history e-zine, and Deputy Editor at Gamesbrief.
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33 Responses to Why Lim is an incredible accomplishment

  1. Corbiu Geisha says:

    I managed to get to the fork without getting attacked at all. Not sure if it’s a bug or not but just passing through those squares made me feel very uncomfortable. I was afraid that as I leave a room, I would get chased and cornered in a corridor. Or that I woudl be safe in one room but the next one would be when IT happens. By the time I got to the fork, I was too anxious to keep going.

    Pretty much how I feel being in public.

  2. Bolegium says:

    Thanks for writing about Lim, its well thought out mechanics and presentation really allows for deep reading. One thing to note: it is possible to reach the “end” without ever being attacked by always blending. This is also very uncomfortable and thus avoids feeling like a clichéd “win condition” that is usually expected in a game. Given its length and simplicity, Lim covers a number of issues quite coherently, and it’s a shame that some people would call this pretentious. I do hope more people play, and are inspired/educated by this game.

  3. prezzey says:

    I think it’s surprisingly buggy for such a simple game – my square repeatedly got attacked even when blending in (at first I thought that was the intent, but it looks like most other people did not experience that particular bug), sometimes keypresses wouldn’t work at all, etc. I did not end up outside the labyrinth though.

    It’s probably not a good advertisement for “Construct 2 — the HTML5 game creator”.

    As for the message, if it’s about gender, I’m really puzzled why the creator chose racially charged colors (brown and black) for the squares as opposed to ones associated with normative gender presentation (pink and light blue, I guess). Having had no idea of the author’s background – someone just sent the link to me sometime last week and I played the game without looking her up – I thought the game was about race or ethnicity… and not necessarily in a good way.

    The gameplay also seems to imply that difference will inevitably result in ostracism, I don’t think that’s true – at least I’d like to think it’s not true. ;]

    I wouldn’t call Lim pretentious (that’s reserved for Dear Esther ;D ), but I would call it hamfisted.

    • Zoya says:

      The more I work on gender-related projects, the more I learn that for many people, the intersection with race is very relevant and highly problematic.

    • Alex says:

      The squares are orange and navy blue on my screen.

      • prezzey says:

        They look clearly brown and black to me, so I guess it’s time to calibrate the screen… >_< But if they are orange, why does the screenshot description above also call them "brown"?

        • Alex says:

          IDK, I guess they look brown to Zoya too? The screenshot looks orange to me, lol. Granted, my screen seems to be brighter than most. But regardless, I don’t think Merritt deliberately chose black and brown for the squares.

          • Zoya says:

            They do look brown on my screen. I didn’t read that as a racial signifier though. Personally I prefer that gender-legible colours were not used – my argument is that this is more abstract than the specific question of gender.

        • Matt says:

          I see tan and really dark navy.

          The first thing I took from those colours was some kind of military or police uniform, to go with the forced-conformity thing…

  4. glitchy says:

    I found that last binary choice to be the most striking. It was hard to decide which way to go. I thought about going one way, then the other, then switched back to the first way. I kind of didn’t want to go either way. And in the room it led to, going past all the squares lining the walls was a really tense experience – what if I did something wrong and they realized I wasn’t “really” that color? I’d never be able to get through with all those squares attacking me.

    And yeah, I’m trans myself, and that choice definitely reminded me of choosing which bathroom (or changing room) to use. No matter which one I choose, I’m afraid I’ll be “found out” somehow and someone will object, and I often feel that I’d rather just avoid the situation whenever possible.

    Meeting that other changing square at the end made me really happy. :)

  5. Matt says:

    You weren’t kidding about the motion sickness!
    (The can’t-blend-anymore effect was actually almost worse for me than getting beat around by the asshole blues why do the blues hate me so much hostile squares.)

    A bit off topic, but this is something I’d definitely like to see more of this in games – lose conditions that don’t force you to repeat something until you win, but are actually unpleasant and worth avoiding in themselves.

    Is there any replay value to this besides looking for the bug? It’s sort of like, I play through once, read some commentary (i.e. this post) and that’s it, there’s nothing really much else to explore. I can’t goad the stable colours into attacking each other, I can’t choose to be a particular colour and see what happens, there aren’t really alternate routes, I can’t gather more multivocals and fuck around with the system,… if these are options however I take this back, however, as I’m not inclined to replay anyway because of the motion sickness thing.

    • Matt says:

      But now it’s been featured on Rock, Paper Shotgun and commenters are calling it ‘pretentious’Ugh! If a person’s first impression of Lim is that review I could totally understand why! D:

  6. Kasey says:

    I found the racial aspect of Lim confusing and off-putting as well. I’m not sure what the author is trying to say but it feels a little icky.

  7. wogzi says:

    I was stuck at one point in the game with a couple of navy blue squares blocking my way. There’s something to be said about being stuck at the point in the game. Without explicit ‘win conditions’ and not having read too much on Lim before I tried it out, being blocked seemed like an explicit point about being stuck in a place in your life, no matter how hard you try otherwise.

    I don’t think it was that hard to read into it as an allusion about fitting in. The effect of the camera zooming in on yourself as you were doing your best to disguise your appearance, the sound of increasing heartbeats, and so on and so forth. Simple, maybe, but it’s one of rare games that have really approached insight and neurosis from the first-person perspective.

    But yeah, I don’t think Lim is about race. What kind of metaphor is changing your skin color from brown to navy blue? The only thing that shifts that way in our lives is our own perspective. Maybe it’s not as easy as pressing ‘z’ but then again, this is just a game.

    • Matt says:

      What kind of metaphor is changing your skin color from brown to navy blue?

      As someone who has had to navigate, and to some extent pretend to be an insider of, multiple ethnic and cultural identities because of expectations related to my appearance and upbringing, I can grasp the racial connotation instantly.

    • prezzey says:

      What kind of metaphor is changing your skin color from brown to navy blue?

      Brown as a color is so extremely racialized in English-speaking contexts that many white people have trouble just saying the word. I wrote about a hilarious example on my site.

      And as I’ve said above, the dark blue squares are so dark that they show up as black on my monitor. I have a cheap colorimeter so I can do an exact calibration, but I’ve been busy with the holidays. (Also, using dispcal is such a pain!!! Even with the GUI >_< OK, that's really off-topic here…) I was sure they were black until people here told me they were dark blue (which was after my first comment).

      and +1 to Matt below (I'm a multiethnic person myself)

      • Matt says:

        Brown as a color is so extremely racialized in English-speaking contexts that many white people have trouble just saying the word….

        o_O O_o That is both hilarious and terrifying.

        In any event certainly a call to try harder to spread that “what we need is respectful dialogue not polite taboo avoidance” meme…

  8. Overthinker says:

    I played Lim before reading any reviews longer than a sentence about it. I knew from the on-screen controls and the source of the link (Anna Anthropy’s page) that it was about blending in as a transgender person. The intended metaphor, as mentioned, isn’t deep. Until you look at the experience most players have, and include that. Prezzy hinted at it.

    The message is supposed to be, If we fit in, we can get through while making ourselves sick because we aren’t capable of emulating others for an extended period of time. If we don’t fit in, others beat on us mercilessly until we are either ejected back to the room entrance or outside of the bounds. At the entrance, we repeat the process a few times until finding another in our situation, refusing to blend in, or we refuse to keep trying and stall.

    Shoved outside the bounds, as everyone I know that has played the game has been, we find no more conflicts and a new, unintended experience that trivializes what should otherwise be a harrowing journey through an uncaring construct of hostiles. It’s been unavoidable for most players, possibly intentionally so. The developer made a note of knowing the bug and it’s cause but not fixing it. For those of us who are represented by the hostile squares outside of the game, is the intended lesson ‘Pound on those who are different until they are completely excluded from society, because that makes it easier for them once that finally happens?’

    This could be a point that a lot of developers in this crowd miss. Many games along this line, and in the ‘art games’ scene, try to push that it’s the message and not the quality of the game that matters. Code quality and production quality matter. If you know the game behaves a certain way in certain conditions, and don’t change it, you probably mean for it to work like that, and any message that comes through that way as well. If not, fix it. Graphics are single pixel squares and a handful of colors, no music and simple controls express exactly what you want it to? That’s fine, but you will miss the huge crowd that will ignore your game and its message because colored squares have no immediate appeal to them. The simple metaphor here is just as simple as clear if the player’s square was a cool looking smiley face that looked less cool when it hides, or a unique humanoid sprite that throws on a long coat and hat to sneak past the identical bullies.

    • Zoya says:

      I like your conclusion that quality and polish do matter, and that mechanical quirks do change the message of a game. But the message you describe is not the only message you can take from the bug. As one commenter on RPS said – and I quoted them in the post – being pushed outside ‘doesn’t feel much like freedom’. Avoiding society and being isolated does mean you avoid a lot of conflict. Does it make life easier? No. It makes it hollow and empty, and causes you to miss out on chances to connect with people with whom you have a shared experience. In my opinion, that’s what happens if you get pushed to the outside of the labyrinth in Lim.

    • Alex says:

      Maybe the graphics are made up of squares because the author can’t draw very well? Making a humanoid character that changes clothes would require a lot more time and skill to both create the sprites and to animate them. In addition, the game gets its message across effectively just the way it is; we understand that the squares are people without them actually having to look like people. How would having the sprite actually be a person communicate the message better?

      If a “huge crowd” is ignoring a game because it’s not shiny enough, that’s the crowd’s problem, not the creators’. Expecting high production values from a game made by a single person just makes it harder for marginalized independent developers to have their voices heard.

      • KA101 says:

        Quick side-note in support: Downchecking a game for insufficient shiny not only undermines the indie scene and does the downchecker a disservice–as Alex rightfully points out–but also excludes gamers who don’t have the infrastructure to support lots of shiny. Cf. Mattie Brice’s post on the topic:

        Lim’s graphics seem entirely adequate to the task, from what I’ve read so far.

        • prezzey says:

          Why do we conflate graphics and um, the ability to run without bugs? I couldn’t care less about graphics, but any piece of software should behave as its creator intended (says the person who’s great at introducing bugs into any kind of code, mind you).

          Also, I had personally thought the game used squares because this was a reference to the famous experiments where people had to ascribe volition and social behavior to geometric shapes. (“Social Attribution Task”)

          • KA101 says:

            Dunno. I hadn’t intended to so conflate; all I wanted to accomplish there was to remind people that spending programmer time on graphics may, counterproductively, exclude players without the hardware to support said graphics.

            I suspect the “bug” of getting expelled from the maze proved sufficiently meaningful to players that it is now more/less a feature.

            (I understand the creator has been informed of the bug but has taken no steps to fix it; thus, I’m guessing the creator either hadn’t thought/known about it in advance but approves of it now, or was aware of it and deliberately left it in at launch. Theoretically it could be a limitation of the code/engine that–in this context–adds to the message.)

            Library doesn’t like HTML5 so can’t play it there. Stanging behind-the-times library.

    • Zoya says:

      Another thing that’s a main argument I’m trying to make here is that the issue is actually better expressed by a high level of abstraction. A huge part of the problem described is the pressure to present yourself legibly so that society will understand and accept you. Demanding that the game be more clearly about the gender binary supports the very problem that the game does an excellent job of solving. The game is able to focus on the subjective sense of being read and being attacked precisely because it is so graphically simple.

    • Matt says:

      You’ve completely lost me at the last paragraph. The appeal of this is specifically the abstraction, the ability to read in any analogous experience, the way emotion is conveyed only through movement and design with almost zero graphical noise.

      But then, most of what I’ve done is pretty abstract too, so I may be biased.

      That said, the “outsider” bug is an interesting development that could have done without the better-that-way subtext had it been planned or a new version released to incorporate it as a feature. Perhaps if there was something to collect inside the maze, or if there was some other disorienting or nasty effect (maybe everything becomes greyscale and shaky?), or other incentive to stay inside…

      In any event, thanks for bringing up “those of us who are represented by the hostile squares outside of the game” – not many of us would be entitled to cast the first stone in this sort of thing.

      • Overthinker says:

        I can agree that the abstraction provides for some interpretation that more complicated graphics would not. But, if I can figure out the message without playing the game, what purpose does playing serve? The game isn’t the medium for a message at that point. I still played it, and went through the first few rooms with and without being caught before being ejected. It gets the emotional response it wants to very well through mechanics, though I knew what to expect.

        The idea of making the game more graphically complicated to appeal to a larger audience follows the same emotional response curve as the idea of the Uncanny Valley. The difference is that we’re starting on the low end, and working up, rather than being on the high end and working up or down slightly. A box has little emotional connection for the majority of people. A smiley face, slightly more human looking, has a slightly stronger connection. A humanoid sprite, more still, and so on.

        If you want your game to reach the largest audience possible, you have to appeal to the largest audience possible. You can’t change the world by getting a few dozen people to hear your voice. The best product in the world does nothing if no one buys it. If people won’t play a game based around colored squares because they’re shallow people, saying it’s their problem they can’t appreciate the game for what it is doesn’t help your message any. Making the game again, or a sequel, with the intention of appealing to shallow people gives you a better chance of getting a wider audience to hear your message, even if the message has to be narrowed down a little bit.

        The actual details on the bug, which I cannot find again on a search, said something about how collisions at high speed work in Construct 2. The majority of emotional impact comes from a collision occuring, and the effects while blending in, so I don’t think that slowing down the opposing blocks slightly would compromise the message. I haven’t used Construct 2, so I could be completely wrong.

        Making the space outside the game have a secondary purpose would be interesting, but would require some thought. My initial idea would be that if you’re ejected, other block like you start appearing outside the boundaries as well. They’re bouncing into the walls, as though they were trying to get back in. If you pass near them, they’ll hover around you. Get enough of them to swarm, and they’ll break a wall or exploit the same bug to shove you through the wall again, allowing you to continue on with the original struggle. Maybe that doesn’t convey the idea intended, but it’s an example.

        I do want more voices making games. For decades, the only video games designed by a woman that I could find are Centipede and the King’s Quest series. I can’t name a modern game producer for a studio that isn’t a white guy. I want to see some variety in it, because I would expect some subtle differences in their games that bring in new players. And if enough players support a new voice, maybe, just maybe, we’d break away from copying existing games and endless sequels of the same franchises appealing to the same people. If we only ended up with copies of different games and franchises instead of Call of Duty 800, that’s still a win in my book.

        • Matt says:

          …see reply below, I got confused between this and my work computer where I haven’t enabled enough scripts and the reply dialogue always appears on the bottom.

        • Alex says:

          Why is appealing to the “largest possible audience” a necessary goal? This game isn’t necessarily TRYING to change the world, it’s just expressing a particular experience of the author’s, one that other people can perhaps relate to, or get a glimpse into someone else’s life. If it’s only played by ten people or even one other person, that’s still a worthwhile thing.

        • prezzey says:

          I can’t name a modern game producer for a studio that isn’t a white guy.

          Japanese developers? (Only speaking for myself, but I can probably name more Japanese developers than American ones…)

        • Kasey says:

          “I can’t name a modern game producer for a studio that isn’t a white guy.”

          Don’t read this as a defense of the status quo, but if this is true you simply need to do a little more research.

  9. BQ says:

    Why do you say this is about gender? I don’t disagree, but I don’t feel that gender is a subject of the work itself so much as an applicable reading of the work.

  10. Matt says:

    But, if I can figure out the message without playing the game, what purpose does playing serve? The game isn’t the medium for a message at that point. I still played it, and went through the first few rooms with and without being caught before being ejected. It gets the emotional response it wants to very well through mechanics, though I knew what to expect.

    I think we’re in substantial agreement here, except that I’d make a significant distinction between being able to “figure out” a message and really “getting” it in an intuitive, emotional sense.

    Just to quibble with your specific objection, though, I’m adverse to putting a face on this – without a detailed expression (which then becomes either offputtingly maudlin or forces the designer to make a particular human face which ruins the abstract this-can-be-you part of it) the face becomes its own “drawing with the left side of your brain” sort of icon, more a sign telling you what to feel than a (moving, interactive) picture conveying it.

    Not disagreeing with you at all on the last two paragraphs!

    • Matt says:

      …oh, wait, the “white guy” sentence was, in fact, in the last paragraph.

      My kingdom for the ability to edit my own comments here…

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