I'd like to talk about Limbo, the platformer released this week from Danish developer Playdead. I just finished the game last night as it's relatively brief, and felt compelled to write something about it.
Gotta Get Something Off My Chest
First things first. If anyone asks me whether I like platformers or not, historically I exclaim without hesitation, "Nope!". Jumpy jumps, death falls, push / pulling, weak character-to-character interactions, bleh. I want combat. I want visceral action. I want monsters, robots and ninjas. I want to feel something when I play a game. I want--wait...what's this?? Limb...o? Hold on one second...
Okay okay okay okay okay. Okay! I really really really really loved Limbo. And I think I like me a good platformer, but have always resisted admitting it. So, I'm out of the closet on this one. Just don't expect me to admit I like Kart Racing. Please.
Games These Days....
Limbo may not be your cup of tea. In theme and aesthetic, this is the video game equivalent to art house film. You've probably read this elsewhere before, but this game is minimalist. It flies in the face of modern video game aesthetic and trends while taking lessons learned over the past few years and applying them to the experience. It's only loud where it needs to be, but is otherwise subtle yet extremely powerful. It isn't afraid to kill the avatar violently and suddenly, but will gently respawn him at the last checkpoint upon doing so (of which there are many). It's a 2D side-scrolling platformer, which in the indie space is not unique, but in the grander scheme these days, is. This choice, along with the decision to use gray scale with void blacks and beaming bloomy whites allows Limbo to express what it needs to without the over complication of color and a 3D camera and world. But, these choices may turn some people off. What attracted me to the game initially was it's rejection of visual convention; it's nod to old black-and-white film. It has the charm of a Roald Dahl book, and it's macabre tone brings to mind Tim Burton's The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy. Simple and striking, this game stands apart, but may make someone else turn away. The visuals are the first indication that Limbo is unapologetically unique.
Why I Loved It (and why I hope you do as well)
What kept me in Limbo (ha!) was the combination of all of its parts. Audio, camera, lighting, level design, animation, controls and theme all come together to create an experience that stays true to its intent. To write Limbo off as simple would be only partly true. Sure, you're given two buttons (one for jump and another for "action"). Yes, you move left to right, or vice-versa, and up and down. No, you cannot swim, but you can drown. There is no exposition. There are only a handful of times control is taken away from the player, but the little boy you explore the world with is always on screen, reacting to events as you do, charming the player throughout. There isn't a single spoken word in the game, nor is there text to read. And for that matter, no hand-hold-y tutorials. So, in that sense it is simple and easy to get into.
But the complexity inherent in this title is deceiving. So much thought went into every puzzle, every moment, that I can start to understand why it took 6 years to make this little gem. The player learns through his actions (not through offensive tutorials) and picking up on the cues the game gives him with it's deliberate pacing, elegant vocabulary and brilliant audio design.
Music is used sparingly and effectively, supporting the mood and feeling of a moment as opposed to trying to manufacture a mood or feeling that isn't already there. This lets the audio design shine through, allowing its cues to reach the player (I need a new word to express how I feel when experiencing this game, as "player" seems to not encompass what its audience experiences). All too often music is added to film or games where execution, writing or design drop the ball. Here, the audio within the world plays a lead role. Cast as both supporting actor and antagonist, the audio design signals when the avatar has waded too deep into water by muffling the environment audio just before a final step leads to death, scares the hell out of the player every time a bear trap SNAPS! around the boy, killing him grotesquely, and builds tension and frustration while at the same time helping the player time his platforming decisions with the clockwork thumping and pounding of machinery toward the final climax of the game. I wish audio was handled with this much reverence in other games, as it, in my opinion is the single most defining element of Limbo.
Your view into this diorama world further enhances the game makers' expression. The camera is used to mirror what both the boy and the player controlling him are feeling. Vignetting is used effectively to obscure objects and characters on the edges of the screen as well as close down or open up the aperture to heighten tension. The camera will zoom in to enhance the sense of claustrophobia or solitude, and pull out to give the player a sense of his surroundings as well of scale; you play a lone boy in an inhospitable world. Depth of field is used to communicate which items the player can interact with (these are crisp, in focus, and pitch black), while anything in the foreground and background is fuzzy and gray. Midway through the game, when the boy's mind is being controlled by a creature in the world, the camera pulls in and out repeatedly and plays with field of view to enhance the loss of control the player (and boy) experiences, again mirroring feeling between the player and the avatar.
Early on, gameplay biases toward letting the player feel clever, while at the same time giving him puzzles with interesting solutions. Initially, the pacing had a cadence that allowed me to feel both smart and skillful quite often. Puzzles would introduce a mechanic, them ramp to a logical timed twist on that mechanic, then ramp to a dangerous twist on the same mechanic that pushed more on the "skill" and "timing" button than the "smart" button. The game marched along like this until the final third or so, where pacing was deliberately cranked up, and every puzzle felt like a new lesson or dangerous twist on the last lesson.
Just before completing the game I remember feeling frustrated, harrowed and tense. I wondered why the game didn't go where I thought it was heading, initially tempting me with it's "Lord of the Flies" moments of intrigue. What were these irritating techno machines? Where did the other people go? What happened to the quiet forest with its alluring grasses and puddles? And these new puzzles?!? I wondered why they would not build better on new lessons they were teaching me, and why I constantly felt like I was being asked to keep up. The game wasn't the enjoyable experience it started out to be, but rather hectic and confusing.
Then I reached the end, and again, it all clicked.
This was how they wanted me to feel.
This was not the product of focus tests and marketing data. This was the vision they had for the game all along. The final product tosses you around, frustrates you but gently lets you continue on so that the final moment can be taken in and savored. Limbo is something to be experienced, as it will stick with you well after you finish (or if you choose to replay it, putting yourself back in Limbo. Ha!).
Ultimately, so many things come together so well that recommending Limbo is easy. The risk of praising a game so highly is that those who read this may play with their guard up, not wanting to be so easily won over. Yes, it's short, but it's meant to be experienced, and at the end of the game you'll feel like you've been through hell. It stirs quite a few emotions in its brief play time, culminating with an ending that is extremely personal. Playdead understands its craft, and inspires me to want to start over. I spend all day trying to do my part in making bloated over-produced games that never achieve the simple elegance I found in Limbo. It makes me want to scrap everything and focus my work, and helps me remember how much polish can go into something so small and beautiful. Put on some headphones, turn off the lights, and check out Limbo. Let me know what you think.