In an effort to at least make some progress through the deluge of games that one acquires in Steam summer sales and Humble Indie bundles I decided to try and cut my way through at least one before Shadowrun Returns comes out and this journal is filled with articles on cyberpunk.
So, I considered my options and decided to play a game that I found fascinating when I gave it a first spin called Limbo. I’d played it some time ago and decided to fire up my Steam copy to see if the arthouse, critically acclaimed, award winning game was as fun all the way through as it was at the start.
Now recently I’ve gone on several bits of a tirade about the fact that a game, regardless of its message should have good gameplay and fresh challenges for the player to at least make it worthwhile. That way, even if the player doesn’t like the story they at least attain a sense of accomplishment. Some games have story good enough to mitigate gameplay flaws.
Limbo does not have that.
Throughout the entirety of the game you are never given an explanation to whom you are nor why you move forward. You appear as a shadowed young boy with white eyes traveling through a black and white environment. You have no real ability to go backwards at certain points and the landscape changes from forest to human settlements to machinery and factory areas. At least I assume that’s the case.
The problem is that the game isn’t clear on your location or your motivation for going forward. Really the game relies on your habits as a player to keep going since the reward for going forwards is really nothing. No explanation, no improvements to your character and certainly no advancement of the story.
Any people you meet along the way either run from you or attempt to kill you. There is some significance to one girl you meet along the way but she only appears once before the end of the game. At least I think that’s the case. I hope I just missed something.
From what I’ve found online you play a boy who’s lost his sister and is attempting to find her in this place. The majority of the game’s meaning is open ended on purpose if my research is true which frustrates me to no end. I think if one spends the time being artistic he should at least have a meaning behind it. But hey, its video games so the journey, the gameplay can compensate for open ended and ultimately meaningless symbolism.
Weeeell… for what I’ve said of the game starting fun about part way I found the puzzles had a strong emphasis on timing as opposed to intellect. Considering that you are a frail little boy with little speed, virtually no jumping ability and the constitution of an egg at terminal velocity putting any focus on ensuring how fast a player moves is a bad idea.
In the end the final series of puzzles involves the player using various machines to switch gravity at the precise moment to escape danger. It basically ends in the player learning to time the sequence correctly which stops being a challenge of intellect and one of skill. I don’t think that works in a game like this. Your character is blatantly weak and the use of panning out at certain points allows the player to think before he acts.
Fans of the game know that this constitutes a failure at this point.
And the thing is that there’s no sense of cohesion to the puzzles past the halfway point. You go past motel signs that will electrocute you that lead to buzzing saw blades that will cut you and right past turrets that will shoot you.
The reason why I keep harping on the second half is because the first half of the game actually has a functional story progression told through puzzles.
I’ll explain. In the first half you wake up in a forest and slowly learn the mechanics of the game. This amounts to climbing, swinging and moving crates. You learn that any kind of trauma is a quick death and that you revive shortly before where you died.
Now, as you progress you find a large spider creature. When it appears there’s a massive base drop in the sound and it moves in a horrible and frightening way. Since it’ll kill you, you have to trick it into injuring itself in a large bear trap to proceed.
Despite this you continue to run into the spider, getting webbed up and narrowly escaping at one point. As you go on you find human settlements and people that flee you. You don’t know why so you continue to try and interact with them. At this point they set traps to kill you if you follow (which you must since you can’t go back). If you manage to evade these attempts the spider returns.
Shit tuckering fuck!
He’s clearly killed the settlers and now he’s come for you. You manage to evade him for a time but it’s obvious that he can navigate the terrain with ease, has no natural predators, and can kill you with one blow. And he wants to wear you like a mitten.
So you are forced to injure him until at the end the last of his limbs are ripped away. Then you are left with one alternative. The only way to go forward is to use his body as a bridge to cross some sharp spikes. So you roll that hideous torso over to that hole and listen to the sickening sound of spikes impaling a giant spider body.
This is the first and only time in the game you kill something. Unless you count brain slugs. It has a great build up and the result has loads of interpretations so why the heck wasn’t this the end of the game instead of random machinery puzzles? For god’s sake this feels like a final boss fight!
Even on a storytelling level there are a lot of interesting conclusions that can be drawn from this without definitively saying anything! As I said, the spider is clearly the most powerful creature here and anyone who lives in this area is easily its prey. You, a small weak child commit your first kill over the lord of the land and the game ends there as you find the young girl you’ve been looking for just after killing this thing. That puts a heavier emphasis on the journey you’ve gone through as the nature of the puzzles and challenges has escalated from random puzzles to a sequence. I mean, Mario had this nailed down in the original game. This isn’t a hard idea!
In the game’s proper ending the player manages to manipulate gravity to launch his body past a buzzing saw blade into a pane of glass. The game slows down at this point as you arc through the air to a landing that would normally kill you. There isn’t anything to make it distinct at this point either to build the moment that the game is at an end.
That’s the essence of the problem. That you have such great cohesion and it disappears after the spider is slain. I really think the two halves of the game should be flipped where the player goes from machinery and buildings and random puzzles to the wilderness with animals, people and then a final battle with the spider. That way you can have an open end worth wondering about. Does he tell the girl that he just killed a giant spider? Will she accept him? All questions that a player might have will have more emphasis after this extreme act.
But I guess there’s nothing more I can say on the point. The game is an award winning acclaimed work. Many are using it as an example of “games as art”. So, I suppose my words just don’t hold any meaning.
And I guess, so too does this work exist.