A Gaming Education: Limbo

Limbo is out now on PC. An opportune time, then, to buy it for my PlayStation 3.

It’s the controls, see. Apparently they’re rubbish with a keyboard, and I don’t have a joypad to plug in, so I had no choice but to brave the lawless wastes of the PlayStation Store (you basically just shout your credit card details at Sony now, and hope no thieves are listening) to get my hands on this lugubrious, elegiac puzzle-platformer from developers Playdead.

It was more bloody expensive than on Steam as well! Granted, not as much as the PC version and a PC joypad would have been, but still a full third as much again for the base game. Or … it was £9.99 rather than £6.99. Is that a third as much again? Seven into ten … carry the four … multiply out the brackets …

Maths is not my strong suit. But my point is you’ve gotta pay extra to play on console, and I have a sneaking suspicion this is because Sony demand tithes in return for access to their exclusive bummers’ club. Tithes and HUMAN SACRIFICE. Or just tithes.

Well, how interesting. I just Googled “tithes”, and the word literally means “tenths”, referring to the ten-percent contribution from earnings voluntarily paid to an organisation. So what would a tenth of … £9.99 divided by £6.99 be then? Or is it £6.99 times by a factor of one-tenth, plus the difference of £9.99 minus remainder two?

According to my calculations, Playdead have had to pay Sony … sixty billion to the power of n dollars to host their game on the PlayStation Network. Those poor souls.

BUT WHAT OF THE GAME ITSELF? I hear you cry. Yes we’re getting there. Enjoy the perambulation whydontcha? Rushing yourself to the grave, you are.

Welllllllllllllll. Although Limbo looks genetically formulated to tickle my fancy, I’m sad to report that my fancy remained decidedly untickled. No, incorrect. Limbo did tickle my fancy. It’s just every stimulation was accompanied by a forceful elbow to the balls.

This is a conflicted game. On the one hand, it wants to create an oppressive, lonely mood with its monochrome visuals and delicate ambient sounds, contrasting the vulnerability of the young boy you control against a bleak landscape, evoking an ethereal sense of an overwhelming, uncaring universe.

On the other hand, it enjoys dropping a banana peel beneath your feet and laughing as you break your back.

The challenges in Limbo are designed with a philosophy for completion you might term trial-and-error. I would term it the-developers-are-dicks.

Example: one room you have to traverse, filled with pressure pads. Some of the pads kill you if you stand on them, others kill you if you don’t stand on them. There’s no way to know which are which beforehand. You just have to barrel through, dying again and again, until you memorise the pattern.

This is essentially how you advance through most of the game. You watch your character being eviscerated, beheaded, crushed and impaled, by traps impossible to anticipate, and you restart and you restart, and gradually you make progress.

I can see why Playdead thought it would work. The idea of this mounting pile of deaths towering over you, draining any goodwill from the world, sounds like a clever way of ensuring the tone is engendered as much by the player’s actions as by the melancholic visuals and affecting ambient score.

That’s not how it plays though. For a start, the mocking nature of the traps feels distinctly personal, distinctly human, the cruel hands of the designers evident moving behind the scenes, destroying the illusion of a detached yet hostile land.

And for the deaths to mean anything they would have to hold consequence. In reality all that happens is you respawn at the start of the same screen and try again. While the reload time is annoyingly slow, and many puzzles require some labourious set-up before the actual obstacle is faced — pulling a crate up a slope and rushing up ladders as it slides back, say — the result is irritation, more than anything else. As a punishment from a brooding world perhaps set on the edge of Hell, irritation is hardly the most shocking of outcomes.

All of which is a shame, because under that irritation is a haunting, majestic game. The section known to veterans as That Fucking Spider Bit is one of the most terrifying, revolting, inspired moments in gaming. The vignette where you negotiate a deep pool by climbing across the corpses of dead children is shocking and powerful. The ambiguous minimalism of the story allows you to read just as much into it as you wish.

So it’s a pity to see the mournful tone bulldozed by a loud yet prosaic sense of frustration, a wave of anger that threatens to engulf all the subtleties the game works so hard to inspire.

By the hundredth time you see your boy torn apart on the blades of a buzzsaw positioned in exactly the wrong place, you start to wonder what you can have done to the designers in a past life to deserve this abuse.

Less Limbo, then, and more Purgatory. I hope I’ve worked off my sins come Playdead’s next release.

[To see the conflict at the heart of Limbo given voice by two of games journalism’s brightest rising stars, I recommend this post on the quaint Rock, Paper, Shotgun. That “Kieron” fellow sure swears a lot. Can’t see him making much headway as a videogame critic.]



Filed under Game Ponderings

6 responses to “A Gaming Education: Limbo

  1. I admire your personability and warmth in your writing as ever. This time I would’ve liked to have known just a tad more about what Limbo is and does. Just a tad. I couldn’t quite picture the game in my head while I was reading. Brilliant stuff though. Keep up the good work my friend!

  2. Seems you had a similar response to it to Keiron, also seems like the kind of game I would hate, a perfect review.

    • Rob

      Before playing I was so certain I’d agree with John. I just couldn’t. The game did so many small, subtle things right, but when it came to it my only overriding emotion during the experience was irritation.

      Though I did think Kieron’s dismissal of the aesthetic as “goth” was reductive. There was certainly a gothic element to it, but among so many other things, and the result for me was beautiful. The sense of this frail boy caught in the middle of an enormous, hostile world was, I thought, the game’s strongest aspect. And that spider.

  3. Raiyan 1.0

    A game for masochists?
    Not a game for me.

    /terrible failed RPS meme

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