Limbo

Developed in Denmark by Playdead
Distributed by Microsoft (Xbox 360), Sony (PS3), and Playdead (PC, Mac)
Released in 2010 for the PC, PlayStation 3, Mac, and Xbox 360

Look, as derivative and uninspiring as today’s loud and expensive video games may be, when Activision or Electronic Arts is throwing tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of employees at a plan, the finished result almost always displays incredible commitment, even if the commitment is misintentioned.  Now supposedly, in response to this derivative and uninspiring corporate game development, we have an independent game movement as envisioned through “indie” culture.  Once again, supposedly, it is a backlash to loud and expensive game development, which features both the carefully-controlled choreography of in-game cutscenes and mechanics that provide the illusion of interactivity until you stumble over the trigger that activates the next dialogue tree.  In the pursuit of making those illusions available to a wider audience, these games then babysit the player with a non-existent difficulty level, egged on by an endless supply of continues and checkpoints.

What people didn’t realize in championing Limbo as another head of the independent game movement and watching Limbo earn a stunning 90 on MetaCritic (with a ridiculous sixteen “perfect scores”) is that Limbo is just as bad as the games they despise, a game devoid of challenge or difficulty, a game devoid of proper design principles, a game that strips freedom and choice from the player in the hope of turning an interactive medium into a rigid and fixed artistic statement.  (Hint: The medium has been commercial for over forty years now, and if you’re still searching for art in a medium featuring games such as Deus Ex, Super Metroid, Quake III Arena, and others, you’re never finding it.)

Really, the nicest thing that I can say about Limbo is that it appears to be devoid of bugs, although it’s tough to confirm such a thing when you only have to spend about four hours with the game to get “the experience”.  (It should say something that speedruns of the game usually clock in at an hour, a mere three hours less than the bare minimum amount of effort required to complete it.)  A mere second into Limbo, it becomes apparent (as played on the personal computer) that the game does not have a dedicated jump button.  Supposedly, this issue was decided thirty years ago, when Shigeru Miyamoto’s co-workers pleaded that a dedicated jump button was necessary for the success of Super Mario Bros.  They were correct, but then again, here we are.  In doing so, Limbo is announcing that its platforming mechanics do not require good tactile input, and will be devoid of the inertia and clever platform placement that defines the genre.  Ten seconds later, should you choose to go left and “accidentally step on an egg” (the game’s approach to the tired collect-a-thon formula), you will be greeted by an Achievement or Trophy announcing that you are going the “Wrong Way”.  In doing so, Limbo is announcing to the player that you will only be going right, and that in a game which is clearly using atmosphere and exploration as its calling card, its exploration mechanics will be terrible.

As you would expect, it’s pretty downhill from there.  To go with this platforming are storytelling elements which, in typical artgame fashion, are ambiguous and will never reveal any concrete details or come close to telling an actual story.  These storytelling events are completely static, and cannot be averted or tinkered with.  So, for instance, when a spider balls the player into silk and leaves its nest with the certain goal of eating the player when it comes back, you can hang around in the web for as long as you like.  The spider is not coming back until you’ve made your way out of the nest.  Rather than taking a hint from the adventure games of olden times and “rewarding” players with the occasional unique death sequence, events such as these expose the obvious nature of Limbo‘s trigger-driven event system, where the position of the player generates nearly all of the “environmental interaction”.  If you’re standing on a branch or log that is clearly too weak to hold the hero’s weight, don’t worry, it’s not going to snap until you’ve moved far enough to the right of the screen.  Do note: This is precisely why Uncharted and Gears of War and Call of Duty are so unapologetic about their body counts, because those soldiers are trying to distract you from taking glance at the god hand that makes these digital setpieces tell stories.  When your wandering mind and wandering eyes have all the time in the world to dissect the illusion, well, that’s what will happen.

These platforming and storytelling sequences are then interspersed with so-called “puzzles”, with most solutions falling into one of two categories: The trial-and-error variety where a solution can be brute-forced, or a puzzle which only becomes difficult because its rules are not appropriately conveyed or displayed to the player.  (Don’t worry, we’ll be talking about this a lot more in a little bit.)  And when you compare Limbo to recent and immediate competition, you’ll find that the puzzles lack the visual intrigue and detail of those in the Uncharted games, a satisfying individual weapon or tool that guides the Portal series, or the complexity (relatively-speaking) found in fellow indie champion Braid.  (And I’m not saying that those are great examples of puzzles in video games, but that they merely have individual components which no doubt outshine the ones in the subject of review.)  There’s barely anything worth classifying as a puzzle.  And I guess in that regard, Limbo shares a lot in common with the “puzzle” mechanics in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, which are so neutered towards the lowest common denominator that it’s impossible to think anyone thought of the sequences as puzzles.

If this game was merely carrying out the motions as an uninspiring puzzle-platformer (and it’s not as though there hasn’t been plenty of those recently), we could call it unremarkable and carry on with our time.  But Limbo has a special kind of disconnect with the word “conveyance”.  As applied to game design, conveyance is the act of using known game environments and design mechanics to familiarize the player with an unfamiliar situation.  It’s a lesson that’s been beaten into the studious gamer for decades, lest we continue to learn the lessons of World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros., where we learn how to jump over the first Goomba, where we learn that we can jump into pipes, where we learn about the invisible 1-Up block, and so forth.  It’s also the reason that “enemies which appear out of nowhere” are so reviled, especially as they apply to platformers from the eighties and their abundance of bottomless pits.  From here, it is how Limbo will infuriate and frustrate anyone who has ever spent a good deal of time with great platforming.

It’s always possible that Limbo was intended as some sort of meta-statement for game design (where the game is actively challenging established rules and conventions), but I’m not going to toy with that possibility, because that would also be dumb.  Limbo simply fails to convey any meaningful information about its environment until death is staring your hero, a one-hit-point wonder, dead in the face.  And if the game didn’t bother with unlimited lives and liberal use of checkpoints, you’d have to wonder how the public would have reacted to the game, which would have had more in common with masocore platformers than “artistic expression”.  It really does not matter how good you are at this genre.  You will die, you will die often, you will rarely learn anything from these deaths, and you will not have fun while doing it.

The best example comes roughly halfway through the Limbo Experience™, where the player must overcome a pair of pistons, designed to crush unwary adventurers.  Fair enough.  Under the first piston is an elevated piece of ground shaped like a button.  If you jump in the dirt surrounding this piston, a crushing death ensues.  Naturally, the lesson conveyed is to the player is that “dirt equals bad, ‘platform’ equals good”.  The second piston displays a similar layout, with a smaller ‘platform’ to jump on.  In platforming past, this means a reduction in the margin of error for safe platforming.  (And let’s not act like this is some obscure design tactic, having been used in just about every 2D Mario game ever made.)  So, that’s what a keen player expects.  Haha, just kidding.  The “safe platform” has become the “button”.  When you jump on it, after the game has conveyed the safety that comes with ‘platforms’, you will die.  And when you jump on it, you’ll feel so stupid for giving in to those silly preconceived notions that come with over thirty years of great platforming design!  And that’s merely an intentional example, one designed to aggravate players of all skill levels.  Every rule set forward by the game world contradicts every other rule.  The protagonist struggles to manipulate and push wooden crates, but he can dislocate and dismember the legs of the gigantic live spider by pulling them out of their socket and then rolling the dismembered body into a pit, where it can be used as a platform.  So, Limbo is either “LOL I TROL U: TEH GAEM”, or a failure of game design.  And as it stands right now, it’s striking me as a little bit of both.

But since Limbo relies on a film grain filter and black-and-white art design to recreate the feel and look of a silent film, that makes it “artistic”.  Whatever.  I suppose this design choice is wildly original if you ignore the one time that Atari chose black-and-white vector graphics over color raster output.  Actually, they did it a number of times, and Asteroids became one of the biggest commercial successes in the history of the medium.  (Of course, today’s average video game player hasn’t played a game made before 1999, so you wouldn’t expect them to know this.)  See, after vector graphics came and passed and full color became the norm for arcades and game consoles, developers looked at black-and-white graphics and used them to provide homage to prior art (Mickey Mania‘s homage to Steamboat Willie) or play the motif for laughs (Garfield: Caught in the Act, Plok).  When developers used black-and-white, they used it in games marketed towards children and used it in small doses, because as it applies to video games, they realized how inherently childish it would be to regress for the sake of regressing. (See: Mobile game developers who lack the skill to make decent pixel art and then claim they’re being “retro”.)  And if you are going to cross the line, you play that black-and-white motif for survival-horror, a motif partially demonstrated in 1991’s Blade Warrior and 1998’s Heart of Darkness, both of which make Limbo look like peppermints and sunshine.  And good luck putting the player on the edge of their seat, terrified for their life, when the Limbo approach to save states is like throwing feed at a pack of farm animals.

Beyond this, Limbo commits the ultimate sin of a platforming game, a genre which requires manipulation of inertia and velocity: The game forces the player to play at the game’s pace, best demonstrated in any segment involving moving water, which requires the player to wait for the floating platform to raise to an acceptable level before making the one jump that will either save or kill the protagonist.  There are numerous segments which fit this criteria.  Even if you play through a section quickly, you will likely have to wait for the game to catch up.  Limbo is like the anti-skill game.  And it’s all being under the guise that Limbo is treading original ground, as though “gravity effects” hadn’t already been done and done better in Megaman 5 and M.C. Kids over 20 years ago, as though the cliffhanger ending (and its pretentious nature) make the game some sort of art achievement.  So yes, Limbo may be perfectly competent as far as aesthetic presentation and technical merit are concerned. But at the end of the day, no matter how hard Limbo tries to convince me, it ain’t art, and more importantly, it ain’t much of a game.

(And one final note: I’ve seen a number of these glowing reviews of the game claim that it is difficult to describe what Limbo is truly about.  I just did it.  It wasn’t hard.  If you’re having a tough time deciphering this game, you probably shouldn’t be reviewing games for a living, let alone providing the glowing review scores that provide ammunition for Limbo‘s supporters.  Then again, Limbo isn’t the only game which got scores it didn’t deserve, so I’m wasting breath here.  End review.)