Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Game Review: Limbo

Format Played: X-Box Live Arcade
There was a bit of a fuss amongst sweaty online forum-goers recently concerning renowned film critic Roger Ebert and a certain statement of his vis-à-vis games and art. Namely, that the former couldn't be the latter. This put me into a bit of a muddle, since I respect Mr Ebert a fair whack as both a seemingly intelligent and sound fellow as well as an excellent critic within his chosen field. But as an avid gamer I couldn't disagree more.
Let's see what, that bastion of the Queen's English, has to say on the subject of 'art'.
"the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance."
By this definition, art is something rather subjective, not to mention easy to achieve. In fact, if we take this at face value then a case could probably made for '50 Cent: Blood On The Sand' being art. Or anything with some nice textures, really.
This is evidently not the case, but luckily for my argument Limbo is a lot more qualified as an artistic endeavour than the aforementioned gangsta-em-up. Not so much a game as a puzzle-solving experience, the first thing that hits you upon picking up the controller (perhaps aside from the finest gaming cold opening since 'Bioshock') is how striking the design is. The titular world your nameless protagonist makes his way through is painted across the screen in soft-focus monochrome that carries with it a remarkable amount of detail and character. Environments are represented with remarkable clarity despite the potential limitations of the artistic style, with a dark and forbidding forest slowly giving way to an almost Noir skyline and a grinding industrial factory seemingly constructed entirely from gears, buzzsaws and pits.
An aside: factories and warehouses in games rarely have so much as a simple, hazard-free walkway. EU-OSHA would have a fucking field day.
A gentle grain clings over the screen and the whole construct is surreal in a definitive sense - you feel you're not so much playing it as dreaming it. While the variation in environment (if not mood) makes for an interesting transition, there's no doubt that the earlier areas are far more atmospheric and unique - by the final quarter or so, the spell has dissolved to some degree as the traps and puzzles become far more 'gamey'.
The puzzles themselves are often simplistic but elegantly constructed, with a learning curve that is very well balanced through the course of the 3 or so hours it will take to play Limbo through beginning to end. There are small difficulty spikes to leave the likes of me stranded for a few minutes, and quite often near the end I found myself battering at my forehead while screaming that something couldn't be done by a sane human being, only for an alternate method or piece of control/environment trickery to slowly crystallise in the front of my cortex over the next 20 seconds. Your level of enjoyment, particularly once past the halfway mark, may rest entirely on how much you enjoy putting your faceless protagonist through the meat grinder in various ways to find a solution.
Controls are limited to jump and push/pull, which together with the relatively floaty feel of the former makes the whole thing feel a little bit like an alternate, more basic cut of LittleBigPlanet constructed by an emotionally tormented nihilist. Ambient drones and stings litter the soundtrack, which fades in and out along with the actions of your determined little boy onscreen. It all comes together to push you into a sense of disquiet that never quite fades, even past the fatalistic/hopeful one-two punch of the game's ending. At times this disquiet gives way to raw terror – one particular section where you are pursued by a twitching, shadowy spider got my adrenaline pumping like no other game since the opening corridor/rooftop chase of Half-Life 2.
You may have noticed that I have made no real mention of concept or storyline here, and that's because Limbo largely leaves it up to you to determine what the hell is happening (and perhaps more importantly, what it all means). You are a boy. You are looking for a girl. The world is terrifying and profoundly unfriendly. Other than this being an apt allegory for my life, I am really not much closer to being able to tell you what Limbo is about. And the crucial point is this – you better believe I am going to play it again, as much as it takes until I reach a conclusion. This is a game built on subtext and personal interpretation, and while fans of puzzle platformers may find a lot to engage purely on gaming merits the real appeal is the hallucinatory joy Limbo leaves behind.
When a game is as beautiful, appealing and extraordinary as this – well, it might just be art.

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