Limbo

limbo

Introduction

IO Interactive, a game development company headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, made their impact on the medium in 2000 with their debut title, Hitman: Codename 47. In this game, players assumed the role of Agent 47, a highly skilled contract killer, and they were encouraged to go about their missions in a clandestine fashion. It was its own unique take on the then-budding stealth genre first popularized by Metal Gear Solid and Thief. Although some critics felt as though it didn’t live up to expectations, it was nonetheless a hit, inspiring sequels and even a few big-budget Hollywood films.

During this time, a concept artist from IO Interactive by the name of Arnt Jensen grew dissatisfied with the increasingly corporate nature of his company. In 2004, while coming up with new ideas, he sketched a “mood image” of a “secret place.” From these sketches, he was ultimately inspired to expand on them by making a game of his own. He initially tried to program his game in Visual Basic, but soon realized he would need help if he were to make his dream into a reality. Two years later, he created an art style trailer. Although he only intended for this trailer to attract the attention of a skilled programmer, to his surprise, it garnered substantial interest across the internet, leading him to meet Dino Patti, who found himself similarly disillusioned with his job. Through their collaborations, they founded the company Playdead, and development of Mr. Jensen’s personal project began in earnest.

Development of this game was funded personally by Mr. Jensen and grants from the Danish government, including from the Nordic Game Program. Throughout the process, they had to drown out advice from critics and investors who insisted on including features such as variable difficulty settings and multiplayer. They even went as far as not committing to any major publishers to retain total control of the project. Finally, in 2010, the project was completed, becoming available for the Xbox Live Arcade before making its way onto various other platforms. This game, named Limbo, proceeded to amass nearly universal critical acclaim, with many publications awarding it the distinction of “Game of the Year,” and was at least nominated for the title in several more. Many use this game as evidence of the medium’s artistic merits alongside Braid, which was released two years earlier. Considering that 2010 was a decidedly strong year for the AAA industry, Limbo managing to stand out was certainly no mean feat. The question is: how did it manage to make such an impression in the face of such tough competition?

Analyzing the Experience

WARNING: Limbo is best experienced completely blind, so if you are at all interested in playing it, feel free to skip this review.

The premise of Limbo is a simple one. The protagonist, a nameless boy, awakens in the middle of a dark, foreboding forest ostensibly on the edge of hell. He has but a single goal: to find his younger sister. Players are left to discover the rest on their own.

Limbo can best be described as a 2D platforming game. The boy has a rather limited repertoire when it comes to mobility or defending himself. He cannot jump high nor can he leap far, and his abilities don’t get any more advanced than moving objects or flipping the occasional switch. It’s not advisable to charge forward with reckless abandon, as one touch from anything dangerous – be it a hostile creature or an environmental hazard – is enough to fell him. Thankfully, the consequence for dying isn’t particularly harsh; you’re just sent back to the last checkpoint. Although Limbo has far more of an emphasis on puzzle solving than a typical example of the genre, the classic platforming solution of “go right” still applies.

It’s a game which relies on the environment to tell its story. The backgrounds are presented in grayscale. Combined with an ambient soundscape, it successfully creates a haunting environment where the player feels as though they should tread lightly – a fear which is well-founded considering the many traps masked by the dark visuals.

limbo-spider

What struck me as remarkable about the environment was how the oppression seemed to go both ways, giving the game a sink-or-swim feel. One particularly memorable moment involves getting past a giant spider. In order to accomplish this, you set up a situation which eventually culminates in ripping off every single one of its legs and rolling its body onto a bed of spikes so you can reach the other side. It’s nothing more than a mindless monster that could kill you in a moment’s notice, yet the circumstances surrounding its death carry a surprising amount of pathos.

Unfortunately, as unique as these ideas are, there’s no getting around that Limbo is a weak platforming game. As was the case with many mediocre works from the genre’s heyday, the controls in this game lack polish. They’re not the worst I’ve experienced by any stretch of the imagination, but there were several points when I repeatedly failed a jump I don’t think would have posed a challenge in the average Mario installment. This is partly because the black-and-white presentation made it somewhat difficult to gauge exactly where the edge of the platform resided. The more obvious flaw would be the strange physics engine this game runs on. I always dreaded having to swing on ropes and having to negotiate narrow platforms because there is almost no room for error. Death may be of little consequence, but in hindsight, this design decision felt like a hasty fix for a serious problem.

That isn’t to say Limbo is without its upsides. I will admit that the puzzles are pretty creative. The first half of the game is set in a dark forest while the latter portions take place in a desolate industrialized zone. The change of scenery is reflected in the puzzles themselves. The forested areas usually have organic obstacles such as giant spiders, trap holes, or people shooting poison darts at the protagonist. Meanwhile, the urban areas see him avoiding giant circular saws and machine gun turrets while interacting with devices capable of reversing gravity or drawing metallic objects in with a strong magnetic pull.

limbo-factory

However, the switch to the industrial motif is something of a double-edged sword, for what the puzzles have in variety, they lack in synergy. Good puzzle games build on themselves; everything you learn on level one will continue to have relevance for the duration of the experience. It’s surprisingly common for players to learn of an important game mechanic early on only to forget about it later, causing them to mentally chastise themselves when they remember and solve a problem they’ve been pondering for twenty minutes in a matter of seconds. Limbo doesn’t really build on itself; many elements get abandoned with the scenery change. While the forest has lively atmosphere which makes it feel as though someone or something dangerous is just around the corner, the city is practically dead. This might be what the developers were going for, but it has the unintended side effect of making the second half of Limbo come across as a series of poorly designed video game levels with the mechanical obstacles present.

limbo-crusher

Arguably the game’s most glaring weakness lies with its trail-and-error nature. In the above screenshot, the boy is facing a trap that will crush him to death should he fail to tread carefully. A reasonable assumption to make would be that the rectangular partition is the button which will activate the trap. This turns out to be false, as the platform is actually a safe spot while stepping in the divot on either side will cause the block to come crashing down. Just past this trap is an identical one with the sole difference being that the initial supposition turns out to be correct in this instance – the rectangle is a pressure plate. The problem with puzzles like this is that it boils the experience down to a guessing game with the penalty of sending the player back should they fail to read the creator’s mind. It’s like being on a new game show where the host refuses to explain the rules, yet nonetheless hands out severe penalties every time you break them.

It’s true that situations like these were abundant in classic adventure games from the eighties, but they were the result of developers simply not knowing any better. After all, pioneers, having not grown up with the medium, were less likely to realize that certain aspects such as unwinnable situations and obtuse puzzle solutions are indicative of a bad game, and while history has rightly proven this to be true beyond any reasonable doubt, it’s understandable why it wouldn’t be obvious from their perspective when one applies the appropriate context. Limbo doesn’t have an excuse for this, for it was released in 2010 – long after the golden age of adventure games had run its course, taking with it these discredited design choices.

What’s worse is that after getting past both traps, you encounter a group of hostile figures who will kill you unless you make a hasty retreat whereupon they’ll fall victim to the giant blocks in your stead. Although this may sound easy once you know what to do, the aforementioned controls coupled with the unclear edges of the traps’ activation zones make this task much more difficult than it should have been. I yield that the crusher trap was the most blatant example of this phenomenon, but there were shades of it throughout the rest of the game.

No review of this game is complete without discussing the merits of Limbo as a storytelling experience. Mr. Jensen appears to have taken cues from Team Ico, the creators of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, two highly celebrated works known for their minimalistic storytelling. Though Mr. Jensen goes a step further in that Limbo completely forgoes any and all notions of dialogue; the only semblance of storytelling to be found lies within the boy’s interaction with the environment.

Because of the ambiguity surrounding this game’s narrative, fans of this game have taken it upon themselves to come up with theories explaining what they just witnessed. Perhaps the boy and his sister were dead all along and the game repeating itself at the end means they’re in purgatory. Maybe it was all a dream. Nearly every work of fiction has fans who formulate theories about matters which the author decided to remain deliberately vague on. With its brand of storytelling, it would certainly appear that Limbo would prove a fertile breeding ground for these kinds of speculations. However, in this case, I don’t think it’s indicative of Limbo being particularly deep. It’s entirely possible to complete the game and still be unaware of its basic premise – only going right because that’s what is expected in a platforming game.

To put it another way, Limbo is a work where most discussions about its story depend heavily on fan theories because the game provides very little substance to go on. As a counterexample, the reason Shadow of the Colossus works is because there is a solid foundation on which these theories can be formed. You are told everything you need to know within the game itself. It’s from there that people begin speculating about the morality of the cast and who, if anyone, is in the right. This doesn’t work with Limbo; it’s as though the creators threw random elements together in the hope that meaning would somehow result from it or fans would make up their own story to compensate for the game’s weak structure.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Some creative puzzles
  • Good soundscape
Cons:

  • Trail-and-error gameplay
  • Extremely short
  • Main character is ridiculously fragile
  • Somewhat unpolished controls
  • Uninteresting art style

I remember watching gameplay footage of Limbo and openly wondering how a platformer that would have been considered behind the times had it seen its original release in the early nineties could amass the critical acclaim it did. After playing it for myself, I’m still not completely sure. I believe critics latched onto it because it was a rejection of the more tiring trends that were beginning to manifest within the AAA industry at the time. If this was the creators’ intent, then where Limbo fails is that they applied a binary solution to what was perceived to be a multifaceted problem. Specifically, rather than examining the AAA approach closely and weeding out the ideas holding it back, Playdead opted to reverse every single aspect of it, treating amusement as though it’s an anathema poised to ruin artistic credibility with its mere presence.

Consequently, I don’t think I could recommend playing Limbo when several games from 2010 alone outclass it by a wide margin. For example, if you’re looking for a beautiful platformer with minimalistic storytelling and engaging gameplay, one need not look further than Super Mario Galaxy 2. In some gaming circles, it’s wrongly dismissed as a transparent money grab on Nintendo’s part. Even if that assertion were true, by remembering to be fun, it manages to be a much more fulfilling experience than Limbo or any other game attempting in vain to pursue some nebulous high art standard. Even the indie scene eventually realized this, as the coming years provided us with many titles capable of making insightful statements without sacrificing their entertainment value. In other words, these creators realized something their peers forgot somewhere down the line – that video games have been art all along, and those who embrace the oddities of the medium have more long-term success than those determined to push them away.

Final Score: 3/10

Advertisements

22 thoughts on “Limbo

  1. I very much enjoyed Limbo for its story telling an striking visual style. I deeply dislike puzzle platformers, and avoided this one for a long time for that reason. I think it ended up being free on Games with Gold which is what got me playing it and I’m very much glad I did. Even more so considering if I hadn’t I probably wouldn’t have played Inside.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I fully admit that these artsy games probably don’t resonate with me. In the case of Limbo, I think it’s partly that and partly the fact that I couldn’t recommend it knowing the the existence of games – released before and after this one – which outclass it in what it tries to do (it falls in the same category as The Stanley Parable and The Last of Us that way). Indeed, I’ve found that games such as Undertale and Papers, Please manage to be more profound artistic statements because they’re fun, not despite the fact that they’re fun. By this point, I don’t think the indie scene had fully grasped that, and that’s why for the longest time, I was uninterested in checking them out. Now, that doesn’t mean I absolutely need the game to be fun for me to enjoy it; I wouldn’t consider Planescape: Torment or Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors fun, but their stories were intriguing and kept me engaged to the end. At the same time, they’re the exceptions which prove the rule; that is, if you’re going to rely completely on your storytelling prowess to carry your game to the end, you better make sure it’s on par with that of professional authors; settling for being slightly better than the average AAA effort isn’t good enough.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m in the middle of playing 999 right now. The story certainly carries it very well in spite of the puzzle mechanics being something of a pain. This was the problem I had with Braid, but to a much greater extent. I found the story interesting but the puzzle platform mechanics were such a pain in the neck for me that I just gave up on it and settled for reading up on the story. A good story in a game should have an enjoyable game to go with it (which is where “walking simulators” need to walk a fine line). However a good game doesn’t have to have a good story for it to be enjoyable.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It may be text-heavy, but it’s presented as an interactive experience for a reason, so simply reading about the plot would make many of the revelations lack impact. Personally, I enjoyed the puzzles – not to the same extent as the story, mind you, but I appreciated how they presented a legitimate, yet fair challenge. It throws a lot of scientific concepts and expects the player to keep up. That’s a sign of an author who has a lot of respect for his audience.

          Be that as it may, walking simulators tend to get lost on me because there’s only a vague semblance of a game, so unless the story is phenomenal, titles in the genre would be lucky to enjoy any kind of long-term success.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I’m enjoying it all the same, I’m finding that some of the puzzles are breaking up the pace a bit too much for me. Maybe they’re just a bit too much for me at times :-p. I’ve got Virtue’s Last Reward already lined up for finishing 999.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I had the feeling this was going to be a tough review to write because I was up against a critical darling, so I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I’m in the same boat as you, and I think the independent developers trying to live up to this vague high-art standard actually held the scene back from pursuing truly interesting modes of storytelling rather than doing anything to encourage it. It’s because when one game does this and gets critical acclaim, others are going to perceive it as a shortcut to success, and critics latching onto to them sends the message that one can receive accolades without being innovative (or worse, fun). It’s because of games like Limbo that I wasn’t interested in checking out indie games in earnest until 2014 or so. I haven’t tried Braid yet, but when I eventually get around to it, I’ll certainly review it as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I admit I only skimmed this since I’m still on the fence about whether I want to play Limbo or not, but it seems like this is a puzzle-platformer that is less about planning or improvising, and more about practicing (that is, you memorize the game through playing it time and again in order to advance at eventually beat it). I’ve always found these types of games to be frustrating, even if you feel better once you’ve memorized everything (the laser beams from the Quickman level in Mega Man 2 come to mind, but maybe that was just me haha). I think Dark Souls might be a more current and relevant example of this practice/memorization, so I wonder if it’s executed better there, considering the game’s reception. (Still haven’t played it, so I can’t say from experience). It seems like, in a way, Limbo and Dark Souls are equally punishing, asking players to anticipate the game/developer’s plan in order to progress…

    But I definitely agree: a game can be poignant and make a point while being engaging or fun to play at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s a large part of why I found the game frustrating, though I’d say the biggest difference between Limbo and, say, Dark Souls is that the former has you going through the motions until you find the correct solution while the latter has you going through the motions until you find a correct solution. For the most part, puzzles in Limbo have one solution, meaning that if you guess wrong, you get sent back. With Dark Souls, you could get through the levels the intended way or by thinking outside of the box – any tactic short of outright hacking the game that results in you progressing is a viable one. Dark Souls may not be a puzzle game, but it does force players to think strategically, and most of the time, it plays fair. As I said, the crusher trap was definitely the worst example of that “guessing game” design choice, but there were less blatant occurrences throughout the entire game.

      I feel the only time one should fish for the correct solution is when they’re completely stumped; it shouldn’t be their first course of action. There seems to be a lot of that in auto-scrolling shoot ’em ups, which I think is a major reason I never really got into the genre.

      It’s only a couple of hours long, so in the event that you do check out the game for yourself, you won’t have to invest too much time. Ironically, it took me longer to write this review than it did to complete the game.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! Nice job highlighting some of the flaws of Limbo, like its trial-and-error nature. The character is certainly fragile as well, which contributes to that nature. That said, I love Limbo and enjoyed the experience. I like puzzle platformers, and Limbo hit that sweet spot of being a tricky adventure while being cinematic. It’s not perfect, and there are frustrating parts, especially with that spider. But I never found it too difficult. There were usually checkpoints nearby while trying to solve the next puzzle. I found searching for the right solution enjoyable, much like how I enjoy the same trial-and-error found in point-and-click adventure games. I can definitely see why you wouldn’t like it for the same reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d say the puzzle-platformer is a tricky genre to pull off successfully because it’s a combination of two clashing design philosophies. Puzzle games (as well as adventure games) usually let the player ponder their situation for as long as they want while platforming is, for the most part, about having good reflexes and thinking on your feet. I’d say Limbo is an example of an unsuccessful attempt to blend the genres because the puzzles can be frustrating to solve even when you know the right answer because the physics engine can work against you. All in all, I realize many people like this game, but it did absolutely nothing for me.

      In any event, thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When I played Limbo, it was a really new experience for me. At that point in my gaming life, I hadn’t played all that much that had such a focus on atmosphere as Limbo did while still pulling the atmosphere off well. Sadly, Limbo just doesn’t follow through, and it didn’t really build anything meaningful for me. It has the atmosphere, I love the art style, but if just doesn’t feel like it takes it anywhere. It’s like an Onion article, where the headlines are great but it loses its luster once you actually read it. I feel like Limbo captured exactly what the designers are going for on paper, but just didn’t hold up in execution.

    Basically, I was really engaged at the beginning, that started fading as I went through, then hit its nadir once I left the forest. I ran into a puzzle I got stuck on in the city, and I just wasn’t interested in pursuing it further. I remember hating dying when I was just figuring out the puzzles; the Do It Again Stupid gameplay really got to me, given that there was no way of knowing what was going to kill me until I was already dead. But yeah, I think the biggest problem with Limbo is one you identified, it just doesn’t grow on itself. It feels like a string of random ideas put into sequence, rather than something that really builds and progresses, and is a lot less fulfilling because of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Limbo is one of those games I ended up disliking for a litany of reasons, but I’d definitely say that there was a distinct lack of follow through. I too think it has a brilliant soundscape which really sells the atmosphere, but the creators didn’t do much beyond that. If they had put more effort into ironing out the platforming and making the experience a cohesive whole, it probably would have been much better.

      The “You Screwed Up, Back to Start” design philosophy causes serious pacing issues in story-heavy titles, and it’s one of those things where it can even begin to ruin the suspension of disbelief when one considers the implication that dying was the most likely outcome for a character in that situation. Except that’s not what really happened; the protagonist can get through these death traps flawlessly and happens to know where all of the bad guys are hiding – as though they’re clairvoyant or a being from another universe capable of observing multiple timelines is guiding them subconsciously. I admire Dark Souls and Undertale for actually incorporating what would normally be dismissed as a necessary illogicality exclusive to this medium into the narrative. In those games, it makes sense why the protagonist would know of the dangers in advance. Their deaths canonically happened; they weren’t overwritten when you decided to try again. Funnily enough, there’s a joke in the second Leisure Suit Larry game that foreshadowed this particular development.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, in that respect, Limbo is like Undertale; if you’re interested in checking it out, it wouldn’t be a good idea to read a review about it first. I’d say you made the right call.

      Like

  5. I thought I was the only one who wasn’t wowed by Limbo. Maybe I would feel differently had I played it when it first came out. I agree the second half of the game wasn’t as enjoyable as the first and that the story is all style with no substance. Trial and error level design, were you die to learn how to proceed, isn’t my cup of tea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nope, you sure aren’t. Limbo is one of those games I didn’t enjoy because by the time I did, I experienced works that completely blow it out of the water. I find that the order in which you experience a work can make all the difference. In this case, it’s because I had played indie games that either were committed to providing good gameplay (Shovel Knight and La-Mulana) or were able to make a profound, artistic statement without sacrificing their entertainment value (Undertale and Papers, Please). After playing all those games, Limbo had nothing left to offer me – a situation I probably could have avoided had I played it back in 2010, but I can’t help but wonder if that means it won’t be able to stand the test of time.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s