Fifty Shades of Grey
Growing up as a console gamer, PC games – particularly indie ones – can be a bit of an unknown quantity for me. You have to appreciate that they mostly represent part-time developers trying to get their foot into the industry’s door, so you can’t hold them to the standards of the industrial heavyweights that you’re used to. They simply don’t have the budget to do what other games do much, much better. What you can appreciate about them, however, is that because they don’t have to worry about share values and profit margins they’re the perfect platform to go boldly where AAA titles fear to tread. They’re basically video games’ equivalent of postmodernism.
In accordance with these ‘adjusted’ expectations, PlayDead’s LIMBO represents one of the greatest indie triumphs to date. Released for Xbox Live in 2010 and a year later for PC and the PSN, the sleeper hit demonstrated that with a bit of artistic vision even fairly ordinary gameplay can become an enigmatic and enthralling experience. The physics based puzzle-platformer has you playing as an unnamed young male protagonist who (allegedly) enters the strange eponymous realm in search of his sister. I say ‘allegedly’ since the game itself is completely devoid of any characterisation, narrative or even dialogue – to the point where I’m quite sure PlayDead invented this storyline just so they had something to put in the product description. The controls offer little above the bare minimum, with just four keys controlling left and right movement, jumping, and object interaction (usually pushing or pulling). It’s LIMBO’s presentation, however, that really makes it stand out from the crowd.
Film noir is the term used for LIMBO’s monochromatic graphical style, which is a fancy way of saying that characters and objects are represented as their silhouettes. The colour palette is deliberately limited to black, white, and all shades of grey between, with light/dark contrast and distance being the primary ways of distinguishing between objects and their environments. Your player character is simply a black cartoony depiction of a young boy with no features aside from two white dots for eyes. Objects in the foreground are similarly shadowed against a grainy backdrop that frequently switches between the natural and the artificial. Before long you become immersed in the unique landscape according to a new set of fundamental assumptions. You learn that lighter-shaded objects are further away, transparency reflects water, and sharp angles usually point to mortal danger. This highly unusual stylisation might seem pretentious at first, but it becomes increasingly difficult to not be captivated by its beauty.
LIMBO’s eerie graphical style gives you simultaneous senses of isolation and impending danger
In fact, ‘Limbo’ is the perfect title for the game, because it’s never quite one thing or another. You get that surreal sense of suspended animation juxtaposed with mortal danger. Sometimes it’s peaceful, even transcendent; other times it’s dark, nerve-wracking or downright disturbing. As the lonely wanderer your journey will take you through an overgrown forest, a seemingly derelict hotel, and a particularly hazardous industrial district, each of which have their own tone and unique dangers. The bizarre blend of natural and artificial means that you’re never sure what to expect. A quiet stroll through the landscape is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a hostile creature, heralded by what sounds like a sonicboom against the contrast of the peaceful solitude. Literally anything could be waiting for you just beyond your screen’s border, and while you’re not exactly ready for anything, you’re eager to discover it all the same.
Supplementing the sublime visuals is the effective use of an eerie soundtrack which perfectly captures the essence of the haunting landscape. Sound effects accompany the protagonist’s footfalls, meaning that gameplay is never silent, but it’s easy not to notice the omnipresent synthesiser music playing softly in the background unless you’re paying specific attention. While typically quiet and beautiful, its masterful use is particularly noticeable at dramatic moments either due to increased volume, darker overtones, or sudden absence. It combines with exceptional details like the muffling of water in your ears when your head is submerged, and the sickening crunch of an unexpected death. It's awe-inspiring.
Of course, all this does is make LIMBO a brilliant artistic experience that isn’t necessarily suited to the video game medium. Those who find it a bit conceited are forced to salvage whatever enjoyment they can get from the gameplay, and while it’s solid, it’s far from impressive. It’s not so much that there’s a whole lot to complain about, because what’s done is done well, it’s just that there’s not a whole lot of it. There aren’t any interesting or innovative mechanisms or elements to add depth to the basic puzzle-platforming formula, except perhaps the style by which you’re encouraged to find solutions to the problems. The name of the game is ‘trial and death’. You usually won’t figure out what you’re supposed to do for a given puzzle except by trying a number of strategies, and for the most part the punishment for failure is – you guessed it – a gruesome death. Normally this approach would be flirting with danger but generally you’re not frustrated when you die because it’s usually pretty clear where you went wrong. Besides which, you spawn almost instantly at the nearest safe point which is only a few moments before the puzzle, and this time around you know what to do. Progress is pretty much constant as a result. While broken down into levels for the sake of not having to start from scratch every time you play, transitions are completely seamless and it feels as if it’s just one giant level.
Don’t let the cartoony characters fool you; you can and will die a horrible death
Individual puzzle difficulty is pretty well spot on too, providing a challenge while being lenient enough in terms of timing and margin for error that few gamers will struggle with any one thing for very long. The criticism you might level at it is that the stock-standard pushing and pulling doesn’t allow for much variation in the puzzles. The emphasis on realistic physics means that jumping is more about distance than height, and difficulty is derived from figuring out what to do rather than actually doing it. There’s nothing that hasn’t been done countless times before, and it certainly isn’t the best at doing so. Still, it’s the sort of safe gameplay that will hold most gamers’ attentions long enough to carry them through LIMBO’s unique and far more appealing elements. At worst, you’re unlikely to be disappointed even if you’re not particularly impressed.
My main gripes with the game are threefold. Firstly, the ending is far too self-indulgent even by the standards of the experimental genre. What could have been a breathtaking climax is completely ruined by dragging on way too long. Secondly, a relatively wide margin for error only partially accounts for how touchy jumping can be, which is frustrating even if it doesn’t always have major consequences. In the context of a playthrough a single death doesn’t mean a lot, but it’s annoying when you die and you know it isn’t altogether your fault. When you character leaps off a vine at a really dumb moment the game becomes a whole lot less immersive. Finally, my rule of thumb is that a dollar per gameplay hour is value for money, and your first playthrough will only last three or four hours tops, and when you know what you’re doing you can probably beat it in under an hour. $10 therefore strikes me as a pretty hefty asking price. Still, my standards are subjective and admittedly miserly – and even I’m willing to overlook it for the sheer enjoyment factor those few hours provide. You’ll still enjoy subsequent playthroughs even knowing how to solve all the puzzles. And besides, it goes on special on Steam more frequently than just about any other game. At $2.50, it’s been one of my better purchases.
Run, jump, climb, push, pull. Gameplay is solid, but pales in comparison with the presentation
Conclusion: The name says it all. LIMBO is neither here nor there, heaven nor hell, black nor white. Is it an adventure? Is it horror? Do we take it as we see it, or can we read some deeper meaning into it? Yes and no. It’s a bit of everything, and it demonstrated exactly how well video games can be used as an artistic medium while still providing enjoyable gameplay. The superb visual and audial experience would be impressive even for a short film, but its interactivity makes it all the more awe-inspiring.
Mind you, it’s easy to get carried away. It does what it does well, but when I give this game an 8/10 I don’t necessarily mean it’s as good as, say, L.A. Noire. They just both enjoy a similar amount of success in terms of what they set out to achieve. Fast-paced action it ain’t, and it might not be for you if you don’t enjoy experimental treatments of well-worn genres. But aside from that, it’s one of the best titles to date which the indie scene has to offer.
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