SPOILERS: This post discusses the opening move of Merritt Kopas’s game Lim. If you haven’t yet, please play the game before reading further! I should also note that these are just my personal thoughts. Although highly abstract and mechanical, Lim is also a game that is strongly rooted in personal experience. Kopas’s intentions and any given player’s reaction will certainly differ from my experience.
Lim’s opening move sings. For me, the game achieves more in its opening moments than some games manage over the lifecycle of a franchise.
The game is hosted on Kopas’s website. I followed a link and arrived at a webpage which showed a screenshot of the game’s title screen – LIM picked out in burnt orange blocks and set against a background and perimeter of grey blocks. Underneath is a small line of text: arrow keys to move, hold z to blend in. It is not immediately apparent how to start the game, or it wasn’t for me at any rate. There is no download link underneath or ‘play’ button floating in the middle.
Eventually, I pressed an arrow key and something magical happens. One of the orange blocks making up the letter I in the word LIM slips its moorings and glides sideways out of its allotted place. The whole framing of the game collapses in on itself – this is not a picture of a game, this is a game.
In fact, I have unwittingly been playing this game since I arrived on the webpage. The game’s systems have all been in place, chugging along in the background, since the moment I saw the title screen and I, as a small orange block, have been sitting quietly, placidly filling my allotted place in the structure around me. As in life, there is no start button because it is not my decision when to start playing the game. My only decision is how I play it.
That initial reveal of my agency and identity came as a joyful surprise. It spoke of a coming of age and echoed the slow realisation of being more than just a spoke in the family wheel or a cog in the career machine. It is a moment of abstract interaction that reflects a discovery of personal freedom.
Psychologists talk about a person’s ‘locus of control‘ which may vary from being primarily external, meaning that a person’s behaviour, and potentially feelings, are governed largely by the structures and people around them, or primarily internal, meaning that a person’s behaviour and feelings tend to be self-directed. Lim’s opening move exemplifies that contrast. As an orange block, I sit quietly in my allotted place because that is where the structure expects me to be. By moving I grasp the possibility of self-direction and my locus of control shifts inwards. In doing so, I start learning who I am: I am that block half-way up the letter I. I start learning what I can do. I learn that I can leave my place in the structure and move freely around the space.
In addition to the psychological dynamic that can be read into the abstract experience of Lim’s opening move, I also see a political story. In Lim, as in life, you do not choose to play the game. When you land on the webpage you are immediately playing the game, whether you wish to or not. In life we are all born into a huge number of social and political structures shifting back and forth in slow eddies. There is no option to not participate in those structures, either you maintain the structure by staying still, or you disrupt it by moving.
In Lim, once I have slid out of my place, the structure is no longer intact. The letter I is no longer a letter I. The word LIM is no longer complete. Although the initial choice is concealed, to be uncovered by accident, it is a binary one: staying still means maintaining the structure as I find it; moving means not only abandoning my place within the structure but also destroying the integrity of that structure in the process.
Staying still, remaining inert, also means never discovering who I am, never discovering what I can do, what I can be. Staying still means being invisible, not just to others but to myself. In stillness, it isn’t even meaningful to use the word ‘I’. On first confronting Lim, there is no player character. Only by moving, by stepping out of place is the player character revealed.
The first time I played Lim, that opening moment resonated so strongly. It felt like being young and finding out that ‘yes, you can’. As a moment of interaction it is a perfectly minimalist expression of the discovery and assertion of personhood. The tragedy of Lim is how that assertion is answered.