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The Bookshelf Limbo gamifies the decision paralysis of gift-giving

Can choosing the right gift help you reconnect, or is that too much to ask?

It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.

Sometimes what isn’t said in a story is just as important as what is said. Usually, that’s because it can help provide the audience with a deeper understanding of the characters and their actions, but it also leaves things up to the interpretation of the audience. And because human brains love to find patterns, with enough information, they’ll try to piece things together for the full picture.

The Bookshelf Limbo is a game about a character trying to pick out the right comic book for their father’s birthday by perusing the shelves of a bookstore. There are only nine books on the shelves you are able to select from, and each has only a little bit of text to go with it. But much of what the game is trying to convey isn’t explicitly expressed in the text. Rather, a lot of information you can glean is from reading between the lines of what is said and in what choices are and aren’t available for you to make. This gives it a feeling sometimes that the storytelling is happening more in the negative space of the writing than the text of the work.

The game is played only with a mouse, and as you move the cursor over parts of the bookshelf, circles appear to show you which books have caught the character’s eye. Clicking on the book lets you see its cover, title, author, and a brief description. You’re then prompted with a few choices: you can read some online reviews for the book, you can read the quotes on the back of the book, you can decide this might be the book you want to give as a present, or you can put it back to go look at another.

The online reviews in particular provide some great insight into who the book might appeal to as they tend to be a pretty blunt few sentences that get right to the point. You’ll also start to see the same reviewers popping up across various books. This acts as a subtle way to get your mind to try to profile what the reviewers might like from limited information. It also plays into the fact that you don’t actually know anything about the character or their father, making it seem like an impossible task to actually choose a good present for them.

There is actually a lot of information you can gather, it’s just somewhat hidden until you have a book you want to choose. When you pick the “this might be the book you want to give” option, you are given three unique choices for each book. These choices are different concerns the character has for picking that specific book One book, for instance, has poly relationships in it, and the character remarks that they don’t want to have a discussion about poly relationships with their father.

You need to go through all three choices before you can actually pick that book for the present, but each time you pick one, the player character will put the book back onto the shelf. You then have to highlight and click on it again before you can choose a different concern. While that’s a somewhat annoying set of interactions to repeat, it does generally help give the sense of a character who is indecisive and caught in a decision paralysis. Additionally, the different reasons they come up with for not choosing a book help to provide a lot of information about them as a person and what kind of person their dad is, or at least how they perceive him.

With these little snippets of information you glean from the text, the gameplay, and even from questions, you can start to construct an incomplete understanding of the characters. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle full of missing pieces. The fascinating thing about The Bookshelf Limbo, though, is that there is just enough there that you can start to see what the full picture is. Especially if you start filling in the holes with people or things from your own life, whether from stories you’ve read / watched or your own experiences. It helps turn a simple game into something much more engaging and empathetic.

The Bookshelf Limbo was created by Deconstructeam. You can get it on (Windows) for free. It takes about 30 minutes to finish.