Thursday, 27 August 2015

Limbo - Retrospective Review

Platform: Various
Developer: Playdead
Publisher: Microsoft Studios/Playdead

Limbo received overwhelming critical praise upon its initial release back in 2010, being lauded for its minimalist approach to the platforming genre. Its high difficulty curve and physics-based puzzles garnered it plenty of awards as a quirky indie darling and marked a return to the style of older cinematic platforming games of the mid to late '90s, such as Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Heart of Darkness.

It’s a shame that the game is a complete disappointment, then.

Ok, so perhaps I should explain my position a little more. Limbo is a game built on smoke and mirrors; it sets up a unique, film noir atmosphere and a creeping unsettling sense of foreboding, and then ruins it all with clunky platforming and very little sense of direction.

The opening section of Limbo is actually fairly effective. Playing as some nameless boy, you wander through an ominous-looking forest, avoid a giant carnivorous spider and attempt not to get shot at by some other kids. The lack of information and context is initially interesting and exciting, the game playing out like a gloomy fairy tale.

There’s some stand out moments too. Evading the aforementioned spider makes for an exciting set piece, and traversing a lake by climbing on the corpses of drowned children is particularly grim, but fits with the twisted, morbid world that’s been created. 

Sadly…it goes nowhere. The mysterious setting is never fully explored, and Playdead, the game’s developers, give up having the world make sense. Before long, your character ends up thrust in a giant factory with anti-gravity switches and thousands of giant buzzing saws. There’s the impression that the developers had a few key ideas that they wanted to explore and then couldn’t think how to stitch them all together into a cohesive whole.

The way the game uses difficulty is worth discussing too, because it’s a flawed, silly approach to creating challenge. Apparently, Playdead called their gameplay “trial and death”, which is a not so clever way of disguising the fact that your game is built entirely on tedious trial and error. Criticise a game for clunky difficulty though and you’ll get called a “filthy casual” or shouted at to “get good” alongside various other disparaging remarks. There’s an unspoken assumption here; “hard game = good game”.

I find many players’ understanding of difficulty in games to be one of the most frustrating conversations to be had. No doubt you’ll always find that guy on a forum or YouTube video, lamenting the days when games used to be harder, tougher and faster. They made you work for your victories, which made them all that more satisfying. He’ll talk as if he’s in his forties and will throw out a few NES titles to show he knows his stuff. He may also mumble about Dark Souls since hardcore people play Dark Souls, and he’ll say various patronising remarks about “the youth of today”. In reality, this guy will probably be about twelve.

Let’s make one thing clear, being difficult does not necessarily make something good. There’s a puzzle in Limbo that involves pressure plates, stepping on the plate causes the machine to come smashing down and squash the player character. You understand this, the machine is in clear view: you put two and two together and make four. Simple right? Well, just after you come to another pad that’s identical, except, with this one you have to jump on the pad to avoid being squished, the area around it triggering the machine.

There’s no real way of working this out without having died at least once. To me, this is a tedious and clunky way of injecting your game with challenge and difficulty.

The counter argument to this, of course, is that Limbo wants to be unfair. It’s trying to craft this murky, frightening atmosphere, no wonder it’s going to play nasty.

So, let’s compare Limbo to Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee; both are in the same genre and both aim to create a cinematic experience through platforming and puzzle-solving gameplay. They both also try to create a very distinct, dark atmosphere when it comes to their world-building. If you’ve never played Abe’s Oddysee I recommend you go and play it now, it’s one of the best games ever made. Play the original too, not the HD remake.

It’s incredibly rare in Abe… to be killed unfairly. Each level is set up in a way that ensures you’re given an understanding of what will kill you and what you have to do. Abe’s Oddysee achieves all this whilst also being incredibly challenging and not holding your hand. One shot from a Slig, the game’s primary enemies, and you’re dead, one miss-timed jump and it's back to the loading screen.

Dark Souls and Shin Megami Tensei games work in a similar fashion. There’s a set of clearly established rules that the game lets you understand, and then it tests you. Slip up, and you die. Rarely however, do the games deliberately pull the rug out from under your feet.

In contrast, Limbo frequently catches you out with its level design, forcing you to die multiple times before having perfect information so that you can progress. Comparing how Limbo handles difficulty to Oddworld highlights just how differently they approach it. Both games set out to create a world where you’re under threat from everything and anything, and one achieves that, the other just results in crushing tedium.

Worst of all, Limbo doesn’t end up doing anything with its world. The final cut scene is the laziest cop-out. There’s something hilarious about a game being aloof and pretentious during its final scene when literally seconds before you were flinging your character through a nonsensical anti-gravity contraption, in order to dodge giant saws that seem to be serving no practical purpose whatsoever.

There’s plenty of ways to do surreal storytelling in video games but Limbo sure as hell ain’t it.

I can understand why people like Limbo and, like I’ve tried to stress, the game isn’t devoid of merit, it’s just incredibly flawed. People mistake minimalism for interesting art design, harsh difficulty for good gameplay and vague, nonsensical imagery for surreal storytelling.

In fact I’d argue you can learn a lot about game design playing Limbo, just not necessarily the good kind.


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