19 January, 2012 § 1 Comment
So, most of what I want to talk about in this space is politics, sex, and gender issues.
Thus I’m going to make the inaugural post a video game critique. Because that totally makes sense.
This is a critique, not a review. Know the difference.
I recently got Limbo as a Christmas present from a friend of mine. I was pretty excited to get the game, because it’s part of a lineage of new 2d platformers which, by and large, I think are really good. Others in this lineage include VVVVVV, Super Meat Boy, Redder and The Mighty Jill Off. I’ve really enjoyed most of these games; I had every reason to believe that I was really going to enjoy Limbo.
Unfortunately Limbo fails pretty much every level: aesthetic, thematic, game structural, and so on. These failures are all inter-related, but I’m going to talk about them separately for a while and then tie it together at the end.
Limbo’s first levels — about the first half of the game in terms of content, and probably more like the first third in terms of playtime — are gorgeous. The world is rendered entirely in black, white, and gray. There is a real sense of the protagonist’s loneliness and isolation, the images are beautiful, and the game’s first antagonist, a giant spider, is both naturalistic and terrifying. The structures and environments give a wonderful sense of place and being to the game’s world.
There are certainly mis-steps in this sequence: the spider’s eventual demise is weirdly comic and tone-breaking, the cocoon sequence is incredibly boring even if it is pretty, and the lush geography often has the effect of confusing actual interface elements with background. Ultimately, I was willing to attribute most of these to a designer’s desire to put beauty before gameplay, which is not necessarily the right decision for a video game, but at least it is a decision.
However, the second, much longer part of the game is completely bereft of aesthetic value or a sense of place. Midway through the game, the protagonist collapses into a factory, where he will spend the rest of the game in a boring video-game rehash of gears, switches, and sliding blocks. One could make an argument that this is a aesthetic decision: that the game brings the protagonist from a primeval forest into a technological hellscape. But this is not actually the case: the second half of the game is simply an aesthetic mess. Infrequently throughout this place, one might encounter a naturalistic element such as a tree, hill, or clump of grass as if the designers were thinking “oh, right, this game was supposed to have some pretty stuff in it.” These have no structure or reason to them, though, at least not one that was understandable by me.
To establish a theme that we will revisit throughout this essay: the aesthetic design of Limbo strikes me very much as a group of creators who had a lot of interesting ideas, and then no idea what to do with them. Confused, the ended up substituting video game clichés as if that would resolve or dismiss their difficulties in carrying out basic aesthetic decisions. This is a shame, because the initial aesthetics for the game are, in fact, breathtaking.
Limbo’s game structural failures are somewhat more complex. The game is simply not well designed: the protagonist moves in a stilted, loping manner that adds frustration and difficulty without adding challenge or interest. It may be that I’m spoiled by the enormous precision allowed to me by Super Meat Boy, but I’m not averse to games that use control imprecision to add difficulty: VVVVVV is a favorite. It’s just that, in Limbo, the difficulty is primarily in spacing the protagonist to make a jump without having him accidentally fall of a cliff: it’s not that interesting, just arbitrarily punitive.
Likewise, in the early game, game elements are often obscured by the game’s visuals. This is less of a problem later in the game, after the game eschews any visual complexity but, ironically, the visuals in the later sections are much clearer and less easily confused with landscape anyway.
Perhaps one of the most characteristic moments of the game is the first “boss fight” with a spider. Before you encounter the spider, you see a beartrap (something you’ve run into before) up in a tree. There is no way to access this. Moving on, you encounter a large spider, which attacks you by trying to spear you with its legs. I immediately thought: “oh, I should go get that bear trap and catch the spider in it.” But, no, the bear trap is still in the tree, no way to get it out.
The game’s solution for this is that, once you’ve dodged the spider an arbitrary number of times, the trap falls out of the tree. But this is not apparent: you must backtrack to find it. So, essentially, the player is punished for solving the puzzle too quickly, and is also punished in such a way that they’re likely to regard the correct solution (use the trap) as clearly incorrect, since there’s no obvious way to do it.
This is a failure of design on par with the “click the right pixel” puzzles in early adventure games. It’s simply asking the player to read the designer’s mind: no more, no less. It’s not only frustrating, but also completely disengaging from the game.
This is not limited to this encounter: examples of this come throughout the game. A particular one that I can think of is a passage where, in the first instance, stepping on the button causes a smashing block to kill you and, in the second, not stepping on the button causes a smashing block to kill you. There’s nothing interesting or exciting here: Limbo lies to you, then calls you a sucker for believing in it. The hope, presumably, is that you will go “oh Limbo, you’re so cool, you’re just smarter than me” but it comes off more as a playground bully than anything worth your time.
Which leads into another point: despite being a platformer game, which theoretically are quite simple, Limbo never really develops a functional vocabulary for its puzzles. We eventually get a sense that “box” is probably a good noun, but the verbs remain completely mysterious: What does this switch do? Oh, it causes boxes to fall up for a few seconds? Ok. Oh, this switch makes the lights go on. This one makes water flow. Each puzzle basically requires developing your vocabulary completely anew. In principle, this is not necessarily a bad plan, but Limbo doesn’t pull it off successfully: the game is not good at teaching you how things work, so you stumble through each puzzle not really quite sure of how you solved it, and then next one you then are working from the ground up. Contrast with, say, VVVVVV which gives you two verbs (move and switch gravity) and then uses them consistently and well throughout the entire game.
Limbo’s thematic failures are somewhat more difficult to address, simply because video games don’t yet have a strong language for theme. Limbo introduces a lot of things that could be themes: primeval forest vs technology, the dream of rescuing your sister vs the reality, you with the glowing eyes versus the dead eyed people who are opposing you. Each of these themes is introduced and then fails to develop into anything interesting. Your dead eyed antagonists leave the narrative aprubtly halfway through, never to return. You once hallucinate seeing your sister, but then that’s that. The game doesn’t play strong on the nature or not theme. Just as the game contains many interesting puzzle ideas, but fails to develop a vocabulary of puzzle design, the game contains many interesting thematic ideas, but fails to develop a thematic vocabulary. Even at the end of the game, the designers (when they bother to address aesthetics or theme at all) are throwing out new thematic ideas (you’re … getting smaller, apparently?) rather than developing or addressing any of their previous ones. Ultimately, this makes the game feel incoherent and rushed, when it should feel compelling and mysterious.
“Rushed” is actually a good adjective to describe Limbo. It reminds me of nothing more than a student project, full of good ideas, but very weak and development and with the second half filled in with clichés and mush as the deadline approached. The game was made possible in part by a cultural grant, and perhaps it was actually rushed out the door. This is a shame, because the first half of Limbo (for all its game design failures) is profoundly interesting, and could probably have been a good game given the effort, time, and interest on behalf of the designers.
This brings me to a final point. Video games are right now in the state that movies were in the 40s or so: desperately seeking artistic legitimacy. While we do this, we must be careful not to be suckered in by pretty faces like Limbo. Simply because a game has artistic ambitions does not make it valuable, interesting, or worthwhile. To be functional and effective art, it must both have artistic ambitions and actually fulfill them. Limbo succeeds in the first, easier part, but fails in the harder second part, and thus cannot be seen as anything but a failure.
For a game which is, in many ways, similar to Limbo but succeeds in terms of establishing both ludic and thematic vocabularies, I recommend you check out the short but excellent Loved.