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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Late to the Game: Limbo (or: What the Hell Did I Just Play?)


After I finished Bastion for the second time, I bought Limbo because it's one of those games everyone's still talking about and it's cheap. I really didn't know what it was about, except that it was Indie and a duely with  Braid. Plus it's three years old, and I've got to keep my fine tradition of never playing games anywhere close to when they're actually released.

Verdict? I paid $10 for it, and I feel like I paid a leetle too much for what I got. It feels like an experimental Flash game.

For one thing, the presentation is like a German art house film. There's no color anywhere. It all takes place in some shadow world (presumably called Limbo). And it's just you, your jump, and an all-purpose "action button".

Even the title screen looks like it belongs in Bioshock

You don't know how you got there or what you're supposed to do, except go right. The sole clue (one that doesn't appear anywhere within the game) says "Uncertain of his sister's fate, a boy enters Limbo." But I get the feeling this exists because Steam/PSN/investors told them they had to have a description regarding story.

Apparently, you're supposed to interpret the game your own way, by design. This is a game of questions, not answers. Where am I? How did I get here? What am I doing? Who are those guys? What's this hotel for?

Why is there a hotel here?  Who lived here?  Was this a city?  Next to the bear trap and blow gun factory?

I've seen different ways people have done this. Lots of people think the kid is dead. That it's a dream. That it's a portraiture of disillusionment and despair (with the light and dark). One person thought the kid was at camp and the things inside -- the spiders, the ropes, the woodcraft--are things you see there. Another thinks it's got correlations with Radiohead.

The title automatically provokes images of purgatory and death. Limbo is the "edge of Hell" -- the life-after-death where souls who only sin was Original sit and wait for... I'm not sure.  I got bored before I finished the Wikipedia article. It's an intermediate state, like purgatory.

And in purgatory, you must be made ready to enter heaven.  You must be purified and saved. One person applied this to the video game: thinking you must go through trial-by-fire, learning lessons in try-fail cycles, until you reach the proper way to exit.

This is where I have the problem. And it's where I get German art house film thing from: not just the art style but the assets therein.


I mean, yes, the basic pieces are there. You move from fields to a swampy area to a dilapidated industrial district to factories. You encounter traps, tribes, cages, machine guns. So certain conjectures can be made -- there is civilization here, there used to be order but now there isn't. Most of the obstacles have to do with common fears: spiders, bullies, dead bodies, buzz saws, electricity, heights, the dark. (No quicksand though. Must not be a problem in Denmark).


But I don't like having to invent my own fiction to enjoy the game. Movies don't make you do this. Memento and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sucker Punch may have a lot of fan theories, but they're pretty much mass-agreed on the fundamental characters and goals.

I'm saaaaaaaailing away, set a course for the open sea
And yes, video games are not movies. Video games give you the unique interactive experience that some might say is the dividing line. It's what lets you apply yourself into the game and make your own unique experience. I say, yes, games can do do this, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should.  Halo puts you in a role, a setting, and gives you motivations to fulfill and characters to love or hate.

Aah, spiderspidergetawaygetawaygetawaygetaway...

Maybe I'm just an old fuddy-duddy. Maybe interpretation is part of the game -- but it's part of the game I don't want to play. I don't want to spend my time making up what so and so means. For one, I do that enough with writing. For another, I play games to relax, to escape. Thinking up my own story is work. It means I'm still in my head. I don't want to visit my own world, I want to visit one that someone else made up. One like Arkham Asylum or Azeroth or City 17. I'm sure the people at Extra Credits, much as I love them, cream their pants over this kind of "game as art" crap, but too much art diminishes the fun factor for me.


As for the gameplay itself, it's not bad. The puzzles remind me of Portal.  Most revolve around environmental hazards, gravity, and timing. They're thinkers, but not stumpers. I only ran into one I needed to consult help for. They're not too hard or too easy, and the consequences for failing/losing are not dire.

The checkpoints are generous, and the environments are simple. The introductions of new game mechanics are spot on. They follow good principles of introduction-tutorial-execution.

So all in all, acceptable game. An acceptable experiment, but really, that's all it is. An indie art house film that can't extend to the price tag or further expansion.
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