Designing Limbo’s spider
Every videogame project has a spider. Most of the time it’s a metaphorical one – the hairy development challenge with eight spindly limbs that must all work in tandem. Or the game-breaking bug that keeps slinking beyond reach just as the programmer closes in to squash it dead. But games have hatched a brood of literal spiders over the years as well.
The Zelda series is properly infested, from Gohma to Twilight Princess’s Armoghoma to the Skulltula twirling on her silken strand. Gears Of War has its leather-helmeted Corpser. Even Minecraft has spiders. Yet no specimen in the history of gaming epitomises both the metaphorical and literal resonance of the creepy-crawly quite like Limbo.
Arnt Jensen, PlayDead’s founder and game director, couldn’t pinpoint the moment Limbo’s spider appeared in his sketchbook any more than he could date-stamp the onset of his arachnophobia. Until the day he left home, he kept up his nightly bedtime ritual of scanning the room for spiders. If he spotted one, he shook his dad awake and begged him to get rid of it. “I was like 18 years old and I’d be shivering,” Jensen confesses, “because I really hate spiders. And I still do, so it was very natural to confront one in the game, and kill it.”
The basic outline of how Limbo’s boy would interact with the spider crystallised in Jensen’s mind before PlayDead’s founding. The boy would encounter a spider lurking behind a tree. The boy would kill the spider by systematically removing each one of its legs (“It’s like being a child who pulls the legs off insects,” Jensen laughs. “Some psycho children will do that”). At some point before its demise, the spider would trap the boy in a silk cocoon. The boy would wriggle free and, after a brief chase sequence, tear off the spider’s final leg. Pretty straightforward, right?
Even Jensen’s basic, early sketches of the spider encounter hint at the visual drama of Limbo’s monochromatic colour palette
If only. Development progressed for a year before PlayDead’s team could do anything beyond discussing the challenge of the spider in staff meetings. In addition to the early technical limitations of not having the tools to combine animation and physics, Jensen acknowledges every developer’s tendency to procrastinate on features that will be gruelling to implement. “The human brain always takes the easy decision,” Jensen says. “A lot of times if you have an idea that’s too complicated, you just ditch it. But this was so important. I kept insisting, we have to do the spider in these stages.”
Any other game developer would have instinctively turned the spider into a boss battle. But Jensen’s aversion to videogame clichés meant the struggle between the boy and the spider couldn’t fall back on glowing-orange weak spots or giant blinking eyeballs that beg to be bombarded with sharp projectiles. How was this small boy ever going to outwit a monster several times his size? The initial concept involved hunting down three pieces of gooey, sticky fruit in the tree’s branches that the boy could shake to the ground below and trap the spider in. A far more grisly solution would prevail.
Level designer Peter Buchardt thought it would be funny to see the boy getting snapped in a bear trap so, on a whim, he mocked up a physics-based trap. The concept circulated around the office, sparking laughter from his colleagues. Lead gameplay designer Jeppe Carlsen ran with the idea, mocking up fresh puzzles with the traps, some of which even made it into the game. “We got so fond of that mechanism,” Carlsen says, “we thought: ‘OK, what can we use it for in a more general sense?’ Then it was obvious to use it to snap the legs off the spider.”