3 years Ago...
LIMBO? This game looks sweet! Everyone keeps talking about how spooky and thought-provoking the game’s art style and narrative is! What’s it coming out for? Xbox!? Damn! I’m too poor for an Xbox! I hope it comes out for other platforms…
12 months Later...
The Xbox exclusivity whats-its has dissolved and now LIMBO can be played on other platforms! And those platforms are… PS3 and Windows? Crap! I’m too poor for a PS3, and I don’t like PC gaming. So I have to wait again…
2 years Later...
Oh, how I love my Vita! Now it gives me LIMBO, a game I’ve been pining for! And it’s only… $15! The game’s only an hour long! I know because the game is three freaking years old and everybody’s talked about it! Just because it’s considered ground-breaking doesn’t mean you can price gouge me, Sony!
2 Months Later, Or Early Last Week...
$6 with PS Plus discount!? I’ve spent way more on worse for an hour of “entertainment.” I’m downloading that shit now! I can’t wait to experience the greatness everybody’s been pooping their pants about! Here we go…
2 Hours Later...
What the crap was that? THIS is what everyone was talking about all those years ago!? THIS is moving gaming narrative in the right direction!? THIS… This is garbage! WTF, internet!? WTF?
Console: XBLA, PSN, Windows, Mac, iOS, PS Vita
Developer: Playdead; Double Eleven (Vita)
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios (XBLA), Playdead (Everything Else)
Release Year: 2010
So LIMBO‘s a game. You’ve probably heard of it. A few years ago, It launched simultaneously with critics’ and gamers’ regurgitations about how beautiful its graphics were and how transcendent its “storytelling” was. Being that, at the time, it was an Xbox exclusive and I was a poor, poor, POOR college student without an Xbox, I never got to experience the game during its critically acclaimed and ultra-hyped period. Instead, I got to hear everyone and everything online spewing about how amazing LIMBO was and how its narrative was taking gaming one step closer to being seen as a serious art form. It hurt, hearing all this stuff about a game I couldn’t play…
A visual representation of my hurting.
Fast forward 3 years, and I get my chance! I finally sat down and played through LIMBO in its entirety and… I feel disappointed.
After beating LIMBO, I sat there and thought, “That wasn’t very fun.” I don’t think anticipating the game for 3 years gave me unrealistic expectations it couldn’t meet. I feel the game just wasn’t a very good game. The gameplay was all right, albeit lacking any kind of innovation or depth, and the puzzles were… not very puzzling. The game was just way too easy and way too short. So why was it heralded as the second coming of Miyamoto? Why does everybody laud this game as if it’s a piece from Picasso or Rembrandt? For the same reason people like Art in general: Because it’s purdy!
You sure do got purdy pictures…
And LIMBO sure is purdy! With its blacks and its whites, the game certainly has a unique style that works to create atmosphere and to enforce the game’s themes. However, video games are meant to be played, not to be solely looked at. Though graphics and art style go a long way for a video game, gameplay is always king, and LIMBO, in that respect, is unfortunately lacking. If that’s the case, then are people really that shallow? Can the game look so good that we disregard its mediocre gameplay? In some cases, I’d say yes, but I don’t think that’s the norm. No, in LIMBO’s case, there’s another hook: the “narrative.”
It’s difficult to describe LIMBO‘s narrative as it really doesn’t have one. At least, not in a traditional sense. The player just kind of runs to the right until it’s over. Any character motivation can only be found in the game’s description; everything else is discovered through player actions and from viewing the environment. Then there’s the ending…
I don’t really want to analyze LIMBO (being that it’s a meticulously ambiguous piece of pretentious art house crap), but I can at least assert that the game’s trying to be thought-provoking, eerie, scary, and not very nice in its depiction of child murder. I will say LIMBO‘s brand of storytelling is unique in that it could only be done in a video game. So that’s good. BUT, however you’d like to interpret the narrative, its gloomy and macabre overtones are completely undermined by a simple gameplay choice: the choice to exclude the consequences of death.
Even she gets the irony.
Here’s what LIMBO wants: An atmosphere of Eeriness and Brutality that leads to feelings of Isolation and Abandonment. Then, it wants to take all those icky feelings and wrap them up tightly into a nice Artsy package with a pretty pink bow holding it all together. The pretty pink bow… of Tension!
Dun-dun-DUH! *Lightning crashes*
As any English Major knows, tension drives everything: Drama, Comedy, Cars. You can’t really have a provocative narrative without some kind of tension. And this is where LIMBO hilariously fails. Because there are no consequences for dying, there’s no tension for the player, and this ultimately destroys the game’s atmosphere. So how do you fix that? Do you give the player a limited number of chances to beat the game before having to start over?
I know the concepts of having “Lives” and “Continues” are on the wayside and are viewed as “archaic,” but I can’t help but to see their benefits. Sure, the con is that these systems punish you when you’re trying to have fun, making players replay segments or entire games, but they also add a lot of tension. I’d always get anxious when I had to fight a boss with only one life left. Losing was devastating, but victory felt all the more rewarding. LIMBO ditches the Lives/Continue scheme and instead employs a Checkpoint system. Checkpoints take a lot of the challenge out of video games and thus remove a lot of the tension. This is bad for a game that’s trying to build a hostile atmosphere, especially if you’re a goofy-as-fuck player like me who’s always looking to exemplify that gaming narrative dichotomy, Ludonarrative Dissonance!
That one was for you, Overthinker!
So here I am, in this dark and spooky place full of hostility and scariness, and, instead of becoming immersed, I’m too busy searching for all the ways my character can die. With no consequences, who cares? I drown myself, I get myself crushed, I impale myself, a spider impales me, I jump into a buzzsaw and get ripped to shreds, and I laugh. I laugh when I intentionally kill myself, and I laugh when the game unfairly kills me.
That’s right; LIMBO gets some cheap kills by either messing with player expectations or by just straight up being a dick with surprise kills. Some frown upon this and view it as bad design; some call this “Trial and Error” gameplay; I call it pure, tension-breaking, comedic gold! Because what’s funnier than watching someone unexpectedly get hurt, especially when there’s no consequence to you? For example, take these crusher things found early in the game:
Go ahead. Push it. You know you want to…
There’s a salient piece of flooring below the center of the crusher. You’d think touching that piece would drop the crusher. A logical and natural assumption. Well, you soon learn that’s not the case. If you touch the surrounding floor and don’t jump on the jutting piece of floor as you pass, you get crushed. Then, two seconds later, there’s the same scenario with a similar protruding piece of flooring. However, jumping on the protruding floor here triggers the crusher, punishing the player for using previously learned knowledge.
Though pretty funny, unfair deaths are typically hallmarks of bad game design, but LIMBO is easily forgiven because of its checkpoint system and lack of substantial consequences for dying. And I cringe in thinking that someone would argue that these unfair deaths enforce the game’s theme. Whether they do or not, it’s still bad design. As a gamer, I like to test my skill, not my luck. Gameplay should never be compromised in order to enhance the narrative.
Anyway, getting back to the above example, player stress is further alleviated moments later when you’re found running from some hostile boys who, presumably, set the crusher traps. What do you do? Run back through the traps so your aggressors get flattened. It’s a freaking “Scooby Doo” gag! Remember how the gang would set a trap only to have Shaggy and Scooby trigger it themselves and fuck everything up? These dumb asses are Shaggy and Scooby, and it’s pretty damn hysterical.
And the slapstick doesn’t stop there, folks! The rest of the game feels like punchlines from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. You figure out how to open a path? Great, just watch out for the falling tree!
I bet that was an ACME boulder.
Or how about the time you jumped from precarious peak to precarious peak, only to have a boulder – without warning – swing out of nowhere to kill you?
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” -Mel Brooks
The game’s full of this goofy, atmosphere-ruining crap. I know the developers wanted to create a harsh and brutal world where your demise could come at any moment without warning, but without any substantial consequence for dying, all these moments are less brutal and more hilarious and a little inconvenient. I was cracking up the entire playthrough! I’m pretty sure creating a comedy wasn’t the developers’ intent, what with all the child hangings and dismemberment.
Though sometimes child hanging can be both hilarious and adorable.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that LIMBO was a good player experience, yet a terrible game with little to no replayability, which is a big deal for me. I can’t help but feel let down by its lack of tension. I’m not saying there should be a Life/Continue system, but something to make death a threat would have added to the overall experience.
I feel that LIMBO is also a game that tries to get by on its style rather than its substance. It’s all like, “Hey, look at how cool and haunting I look! What do you think all this stuff even means? Betcha can’t figure out the ending!” And, even if there is a deeper meaning worth finding, all its symbolism and allegory are transactional and meaningless conjecture. Without any concrete evidence from the game to support any theories, you really can’t find a definitive meaning. So, analyze away, Internet! With so much ambiguity, whether you think there’s profound meaning in the game or not, you’re right!
Thanks for Your Playing! If I upset anyone by tearing into this gem, I’d like to say how sorry I am that you don’t play better games. But I would like to hear what you all think! Do you think a game’s narrative can stand on its own, or do you agree with me and think gameplay can have a profound effect on the storytelling? Do you think a gameplay mechanic – LIMBO‘s decision to have very forgiving checkpoints – can undermine a game’s themes and tone, or do you think there’s player tension in the game despite the lack of consequences? Should there be a separation of gameplay and narrative when discussing games as works of art? Should I listen to my psychiatrist and stop laughing at child death? Let me know in the comments!