Every time I hear the phrase “art game”, I throw up in my mouth a little bit. Don’t take that to mean that I believe games should avoid making a statement or attempting to make us feel and think – quite the contrary. It’s because whenever that phrase is invoked, all meaningful critique of the game in question stops and everyone gets wrapped up in some Roger Ebert meta-nonsense. Meanwhile, the game sits forlornly on the sidelines as the Internet discusses everything but the important and salient points.
Can’t a game be artistic without having to be an “art game”? Can’t we just enjoy stellar gameplay and appreciate a masterful presentation at the same time? The answers are yes and yes. Never have I been more convinced of this fact than after journeying through PLAYDEAD’s indie platforming opus, Limbo.
Read on for the official review; I’ll be here brushing my teeth.
Limbo is a downloadable 2D puzzle platformer for XBLA, and despite the huge numbers of games in this genre being produced by indie developers in recent years, this one provides an experience unlike any other in its class. The plot of the game is quite simple - you are a boy who is searching for his sister. However, the minimalistic plot belies the sophistication of the story in this game.
Where the boy is and where the sister is are questions that are never explicitly answered; the game has no spoken or written dialogue or exposition to speak of. This leaves a large degree of interpretation up to the player. Those who care to speculate about the nature of the environment and outcome of the game will have plenty of food for thought, while others are free to focus on the fantastic gameplay or the truly sublime art direction.
The game is presented entirely in greyscale, and while this isn’t the first time a game has been rendered in black and white, it is certainly the best use of the technique that I’ve ever seen. This is for several reasons.
On a purely visual level, the graphics create a beautiful, stark, and otherworldly feel. I almost had the sensation that I was somehow watching the game through a veil. While there are “chapters” in the game, it is not presented that way. There are no transitions between segments - the player experiences Limbo as a single continuous level. Eerily expansive vistas and foreboding natural environments slowly give way to claustrophobic industrial settings; the game begins with a sense of isolation and vague threat and subtly ratchets the sensation up as you progress.
One of the things that makes this so effective is that the protagonist is a child. Presented in jet-black silhouette with glowing white eyes, seeing the juvenile shape and animations makes you more determined than ever to see the game through to its conclusion. I was invested in helping the boy avoid death as much as possible; believe you me, there’s a lot of death in this game.
Environmental hazards and traps abound, and the use of shadow will often make them a challenge to spot. If you’re speeding through an area, it’s very easy to mistake a bit of scenery for a mechanism of death, and vice versa. After a few gruesome deaths caused by you foolishly rushing headlong, the game eventually succeeds in placing you in the emotional shoes of the child. By this I mean that not knowing where the background ends and danger begins at times forces you to slow down and move more warily so that you can spot hazards; essentially, you become afraid of the dark all over again.
Layered on top of this is the superb yet sparse sound design. Limbo has no music whatsoever, relying only on ambient environmental sounds like waves lapping a shore or wind blowing in the background. The overload of sound usually present in most other games is replaced here with a sparing approach that adds dramatically to the otherworldly feel and sense of isolation. This also adds to the emotional penalty when you die; when the sound of a trap or other death occurs, you hear the clang, the thud, or the disgusting squish in its full glory.
Now that we’ve covered why the game is so successful in making you feel and think, let’s talk about how the game plays. The controls and animations are smooth as butter. The main character is a boy, but you’ll quickly get a good feel for his speed and exactly how far a jump will take you. This is an important element, as some of the puzzles will require precise timing and spacing.
Speaking of puzzles, Limbo features some of the most engaging puzzle and level design I’ve ever experienced in the genre. Variety is the key to the game’s success here. You’ll be dealing with platforming challenges or restrictions on the boy’s movement, as well puzzles based on object manipulation or a subtle understanding of the game’s physics.
Despite the simple black/white presentation, there’s always something new being presented to the player. Much like the recent Super Mario Galaxy 2, the masterful attention to changing the level design keeps the game fresh and fun throughout the entire 4-5 hour run. The length and the pacing of the game also remind me very much of Portal, where none of the puzzle types or levels ever wear out their welcome, and the game ends exactly when it is supposed to. There’s no fluff or filler in this title – it’s all good.
Now, before my invoking of SMG2 misleads you, let me clarify; Limbo is a grown-ass adult’s game. Completing the game represents a significant challenge, and will please those gamers looking for a hardcore puzzling experience. Players who are overly impatient or unwilling to play around with the game’s mechanics and physics might be quick to accuse the game of relying on cheap deaths or luck based puzzles, but that’s simply not the case.
The challenge in Limbo is firm but fair. While there is a healthy dose of trial and error in the game, you’re not just throwing darts at a dartboard. With each death you legitimately learn something substantive about the game’s mechanics or physics that brings you a little bit closer to solving the puzzle at hand.
I was reminded of Demon’s Souls in several ways; when you die in Limbo it’s almost always your fault, and there’s a massive sense of satisfaction to be gained when you conquer some of the game’s tougher puzzles. However, unlike Demon’s Souls, death does not carry such a frustratingly steep penalty in terms of gameplay. Limbo features an extremely robust checkpoint system, so while deaths are emotionally impactful, you’re not erasing any of your progress when you stumble into a hazard you weren’t expecting.
Helping this out is a well-designed difficulty curve that ratchets up smoothly in conjunction with the art design; as the background becomes more oppressive and industrial, the challenge level of the game follows suit. Yes, some puzzles will force you to put down the controller and think things over for a bit, and this is as it should be – if you’re not stumped by a puzzle game periodically then there’s something seriously wrong with games. However, with each new puzzle defeated, your mastery of the game as a whole improves, making for a superlative overall experience.
I don’t care if Limbo is classified as an “art game” or not; I’ll leave that question for gamers and writers with much more pretension and free time on their hands than I have. I’ll simply summarize by saying that Limbo excelled at doing everything I want a game to do – it made me think, it made me feel, and it was incredibly fun to play.
It might not have the length or volume of content that other excellent titles like Mass Effect 2 or Red Dead Redemption have, but pound for pound, Limbo is the best game I have played all year.
From the masterful use of greyscale, to the meticulously crafted backgrounds, to the compelling character design, the visuals in this game ooze awesome and menace.
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Inventive challenges along with great variety in level design make the puzzle platforming deliciously hardcore and enjoyable.
Minimalistic sound design gives added gravity and clarity to the ambient sounds of the environment and objects. Deaths in particular sound perfectly nasty.
Clocking in at 4-5 hrs, you may find yourself tempted to revisit the game again to find all the secrets, enjoy the gorgeous visuals, or to take on the massive challenge of completing the game with 5 deaths or less.
I don’t care if Limbo is classified as an “art game” or not; I’ll leave that question for gamers and writers with much more pretension and free time on their hands than I do. I’ll simply summarize by saying that Limbo excelled at doing everything I want a game to do - it made me think, it made me feel, and it was incredibly fun to play.