08 August 2011

Review: Limbo (PC)

This is going to have spoilers. There’s not much to say without referencing the game’s events... If you want a more conventional review, the short of it is: It’s good. For $10, it’s worth the price, and at 2-3 hours, it’s worth your time. I mean, maybe you’re thinking, “Woah, just 2 hours? Hell no!” Well, think about like this- a movie is about that price, and lasts about that time. The comparison is usually invalid because a movie is a coherent, more-or-less “full” experience while games often have hours of filler. There’s very little filler in Limbo, unless you have trouble at some puzzle and spend hours beating it, but then it’ll take longer than 2 hours anyhow.

So I downloaded and ran the game, and it threw me straight into what I gathered was the main storyline. No menu, no options, no nothing- I didn’t even have any idea what the controls were! Arrow keys seemed to work fine. A bit uneasily, I proceeded. Slightly later I ended up finding the drag key through trial and error.

For the first fifteen minutes or so, up to your first encounter with the spider, I couldn’t help thinking of it as yet another pretentious, minimalist, artsy-fartsy indie platformer which includes a bare skeleton of a story and hides behind appeals to the player’s imagination. I mean, the grainy filter is nice, the animations are smooth, but then again a dark black and white aesthetic –which conveniently allows you to avoid having detailed sprites- isn’t exactly the most original idea.

But the first time the spider pierced me with its leg and chucked my lifeless body aside, my opinion began to shift. It wasn’t particularly creepy or well-animated (though it wasn’t bad). There’s just an impression of the game having a very cavalier attitude to the death of your character- the game doesn’t care. It’s not a big deal. There’s no dramatic music, no change in perspective, no large “Game over!” message, you just silently watch your own corpse for a while, and then get gently booted to the nearest checkpoint.

Note that the spider, although mildly startling in a “hey, this game isn’t entirely shallow” way, wasn’t really interesting by itself. It was more hinting at what comes next, and what’s hinted at does arrive soon enough. Thus the spider serves to give impact to what I’d regard as the actual game.

The first time I met the children, I was mostly annoyed. “Hey, what the hell are you doing that for, you jerks? Just wait till I get to you...” Although after a while I began to wonder if their problem was with the spider, and I was only collateral damage. Or maybe the spider was after me, and they didn’t want me to bring him to them. I mean, can’t really blame them that much, gotta be hard living in a crappy artsy game world with giant spiders and no language.

It’s interesting how the spider keeps coming back, and you keep “defeating” it by severing limbs. Eventually a point comes where you reach a spiked pit, and behind you, the spider drags its body by its only remaining leg. You soon discover the pit is too wide to jump.

Now here, for me, for a second there was a blank, confused pause. Then I decided that the game must want me to deal with the spider first, turned back, and unthinkingly began the same baiting maneuver that I had perfected during previous encounters. The spider, as before, poised its sharp leg, swung... But this time missed and simply left the leg lying stretched on the ground. It was rather pathetic, especially coming from such a dangerous foe. I felt that I just passed the point where a foe was a threat, and needed to die, but the situation required me to kill it anyway. It was a bit uncomfortable.

Then I realized that I didn’t have any means to kill it. No traps, no stones... Once again, without thinking, I tried to drag its leg and to my horror pulled it out, a few nerves, possibly, dangling from the joint. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Ugh, man.” I’m not sure why I cared; in most other games I would blissfully dismember a dozen incapacitated monsters. Maybe it was the slow, gentle tone Limbo set.

I had my second “Ugh” when I realized I have to roll the body of the spider, probably still living and covered with its own ichor, into the spikes and use it as a ledge.

Minutes later, I came across a pool of water with corpses floating in it, which I needed to use as stepping stones. An apparently zombified (he had a glowing maggot sitting in his brain) child came and drowned in the water, providing me with a missing step.

It was at this point I realized: You’re an ant! The mind control larva, the giant spider, using corpses to cross water, the giant fly, the poor communication, even the visuals make sense following from that. The other children must doubtless be a hostile swarm. The cold, uncaring brutality of the world is perfectly in line with how one might imagine the life of a worker ant.

Those were my thoughts for the first part of the game. Unfortunately, the second half is far less inventive, and pretty much entirely consists of dragging around boxes, flooding levels with water, riding gigantic cogwheels up and down, and trying to squeeze past slowly closing gates in time. I could feel circuits in my brain fire that were first formed playing Sonic as a youngster, and I couldn’t wait to finish those levels and get to the interesting part again.

There’s a mechanic that lets you change direction of gravity, which is again far from new, but at least is relatively rare in other games.

Another thing I disliked about the game is that it follows the Chekhov’s Puzzle Element-school of thought with puzzle design. If you see something you can interact with, you know it’s necessary for progress. No handles, boxes or switches are placed just for you to play with. It does make brute-forcing solutions viable, but I think picking the right elements for a solution is just as fun as combining them, and by adding several possible solutions you could keep more or less the same despite all the “red herrings”.

Lastly, the ending. As I said, I assume you’ve seen the ending already. First off, that part where you glide through the barrier and crash, spraying glittering pieces was wonderful. More so because I initially thought there was some kind of switch on the right, and made some 20 attempts to just run to the right, eventually getting within pixels of clearing the top saw, but never quite reaching far enough. When I finally did it the correct way, it was very rewarding.

Once you regain control, the part that I hated begins. You walk towards an NPC you’ve seen for a second throughout the entire game, who wasn’t moving then and isn’t moving now, holds absolutely no interest to the player, and fade to black. Uh, what, game? Talk about anticlimactic. I guess you could say the plot isn’t the point and the game is about platforming, but the beginning sets such a wonderful atmosphere and tone, that it’s a shame to see it wasted on such a clichéd, bland, cheesy ending. I think that I would be more satisfied if the game simply faded to black with you lying in the ground after flying through the barrier.

This also brings me to a more general pet peeve I have: Whenever there is that kind of story about a little boy overcoming hardship, often abstract or fantastical, the boy’s aim is always to be united with a girl. Usually the girl is a poorly developed character, whose main defining characteristic is that she’s a girl. Now, first off, prepubescent children simply do not form romantic attachments. Moreover, the girl in these kinds of stories tends to be utterly boring and passive, which conjures up the question of why the protagonist boy even cares about her. I did not care about the long-haired scenery piece in Limbo, and was not excited to see her again; I was positively annoyed to have my entire game become trivialized as a quest to reach her. The surrealism of it all is jarring. It’s like one took adult motivations, arising from adult emotions, and placed them in a child’s mind which lacks those driving emotions, and the whole thing simply doesn’t make sense. Not to mention, the kind of thinking that I imagine must have led to this juxtaposition just gives me the creeps, and I’m not an easily disturbed person.

Besides the jarring surrealism, there’s also the problem of wasted potential. Video games surpass every other medium by an enormous margin in that they are so often about characters completely bizarre and alien to us, whereas most books and films feature human beings, usually of an age similar to the audience, and even having a more-or-less normal, healthy, familiar psychology. There is a crazy amount of room in video games to explore an entirely alien mindset, a completely atypical take on things, but we end up with every character, no matter how unusual, reduced to an average adult western human (male human if we are unlucky) with a strange character model. Personally, I think normal people are boring to begin with by virtue of the fact that we already know them so well. Besides that, if one wants to deal with normal human beings, why not simply make the game about human beings? If you’re gonna have a character who is not human, you might as well wright him to have inhuman personality as well.

Anyhow, coming back to our original topic: Limbo’s first half was wonderful, while the second half was a decent rehash of platformers in general. The ending is irritatingly shallow and in my opinion cheapens the whole thing a little, and the initial set up is really wasted on the second part. That said, I definitely do not regret the experience of finishing the game, though I do regret that it could have been so much more.

Score: 4/5

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