29 December 2010

Stuck in the middle with Limbo - by Jamie Mann

      Posted 08/12/10 03:49:00 pm  

The first major piece of information I remember hearing about Limbo was an article on Ars Technica from early July, praising the game to high heaven.  Together with various other articles and snippets, it was enough to persuade me to pick up the demo - and then, after some thought, to buy the full game and play it to completion (albeit with some glances at the FAQ to figure out the odd puzzle).  And now, here we are.

Unfortunately, I'm not one of those who have pushed the game up to a 90% rating on Metacritic.  Mind you, I'm also not quite as scathing as the review from The Boston Phoenix.  Instead, I'm somewhere in Limbo...

There's a lot of things I like about the game - not least the fact that it's so unremittingly dark and grim: there's some truly nasty imagery to be found within Limbo, from the acts that the boy has to carry out to the many ways in which he can be killed. Unfortunately, these are counterbalanced by the fact that it's not actually that good as a game - and to my mind, it's also not that good as a piece of art, either.

As a game, the biggest problem with Limbo is that the puzzles tend to feel contrived: there's only one solution, as dictated by the developer.  For instance, the boy can drag objects several dozen times his own weight (boats, trees, rocks), but is completely unable to swim - or paddle across with the wooden crate which happens to be floating in the water. Equally, the boy has several encounters with "gloworm" creatures: being caught by these the first time is understandable, but why don't I have the option of standing off and heave rocks at them from a distance on subsequent encounters?

Beyond this point, there's also the fact that it doesn't take too long for the puzzles to start following a fixed pattern: the majority consist of a set-piece where you move forward until blocked and then backtrack to find the objects you need to bypass the obstacle.  In addition, the solution needs to be found via trial and error - I very much doubt anyone will have spotted the beartraps on their first playthough, for example.

A second issue with the game is the way in which it's nigh-on impossible to empathise with the protagonist, thanks to his complete lack of personality.  Regardless of whether he's running from giant spiders, dragging bodies around or leading people to their death, there's not a flicker of emotion or humanity shown.  It can be argued that his lack of response reflects his obsession with getting back, but for me, it ended up trivialising his journey: if he's not bothered by his surroundings or deeds, why should I be?

A further obstacle to empathising with him is the fact (as per above), progress generally entails a series of trial-and-error deaths.  Not only are these meaningless - there's no real consequence other than a very minor step back to the nearest checkpoint - but they quickly stop being gruesome, pass briefly through being comedic and end up being trivialised.  The first time he stepped on a bear-trap, I winced.  The first time he encountered a buzz-saw, I laughed.  The fifth time he was electrocuted, I shrugged.  In the end, he becomes nothing more than a little rag-doll robot...

The final vertex of the triangle comes from the story underlying the game: aside from the single sentance introducing the game on the Xbox 360's Dashboard, there's absolutely nothing explicitly stated about the boy, his quest or why the people he encounter attempt to block his way.  The speculation on this is fast approaching the same level as for Braid, as people hunt down the last of the hidden objects, unlock more clues and scour the ending for possible hints.

In the end, speculating about what it all means is part of the game's appeal - and by the time Limbo's popularity has faded away, I'm sure there'll be several well-researched, coherent and plausible summaries.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can muster the enthusiasm to care!

gren ideer
12 Aug 2010 at 5:44 pm PST

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