Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with video games
Part One: A Little Boy Lost in the Woods
Most people who frequent indie platformers have heard of Limbo by way of its spider if by nothing else. The game is a morose puzzle-platformer where the consequence for failure is brutal death by drowning, decapitation, impalement, dismemberment, electrocution, and a few other fun means of kicking it. Yahtzee of The Escapist describes the game as of the “big-headed children lost in the woods” genre, and that description’s apt enough that I don’t think I could improve upon it much. Limbo has no narration, dialogue, or writing of any sort (save the word “hotel” at one point). There is no explanation of the mechanics or controls, so much of the game relies on the player trying something out, often dying, and trying it again. The story is completely visual, and given the silhouette aesthetic and minimalist controls, you can expect the story to be deep and heady and probably not as philosophical as the game designers thought it would be.
But none of that makes Limbo a bad game; on the contrary, it’s readily deserving of its reputation as a beautifully, eerie, and unforgiving platformer. The aesthetic seems simple at first, and even irritating as traps can easily blend into the silhouetted environment, but the game has a soft blur to background and smooth animations for small environmental features like blades of grass, sparking machinery, and ambient particles that show the artists involved put considerable effort in making the world of Limbo feel dynamic even though the gameplay is sort.
The whole first half of the game takes place in a forest full of dangerous traps, monsters, and psychotic kids that can kill you in a single hit. The game involves no direct combat as a puzzle-platformer in every sense of the phrase. However, the puzzles aren’t exceptionally difficult most of the time, and a lot of them use sufficiently different mechanics that the first half of the game adopts the flow that makes platformers so appealing. You will die, but each time you die, you learn something new about the dangers, where they’re coming from, how they work, and how to get past them.
One sequence that exemplifies the better puzzle-platform components of the game comes near the end of the forest sequence, where machinery is starting to become a part of the environment. There are two pits, each with a raised portion in the center large enough to stand on and a piston above that will crush you if you step on a button. It’s impossible to tell before testing it out whether you should stand on the raised platform beneath the piston or avoid it, so there’s a good chance you’ll die at least once trying to figure out where you can and cannot stand. If that were the end of the sequence, it would be needlessly cruel, but after the pistons is a spike pit, and when you jump across it, you see three kids chasing a fourth. Other characters are rare in this game, and tend to try to kill you, die, or both. The three kids fire darts at the one, who falls to the ground. That’s a good signal for you to head back the other way, and as long as you can get through the traps without dying, the aggressors will fall into them and be brutally killed as you were when you first tested the traps. It’s not a particularly difficult puzzle, but each portion works in tandem and implements the themes and story of the game, insofar as they exist. The game is all about death, deception, and cruelty, all occurring within the psychological environment the player traverses.
Part One: Or, a Factory All of the Sudden…?
Much as I enjoy the gameplay and visuals, both diminish in the latter half of the game, which takes place in a more industrial environment with varied mechanics, like electricity, magnets, and gravity switches, but far fewer people or creatures. The other organisms in the game appear infrequently in the first half, but most of the story is told through them, and they make each action the character takes feel consequential. At one point you have to hitch a ride on an insect, and after it takes you to a higher platform, its leg falls off and it flies away. There are little brain parasite worms that control your movements as part of one of the game’s creepiest mechanics, and creatures that hang down from the ceiling will lower themselves to rid you of your parasite. The creatures you can interact with or that pose a threat contribute to the world’s character. Each puzzle connects to a larger environment and theme.
In the second half of the game, the puzzles feel like busywork. There’s little margin for error, so even when you figure out how to solve a puzzle, you may end up repeating it several dozen times just so that you can execute all the required steps perfectly. Limbo offers few shortcuts and fewer alternative solutions to its puzzles because of its minimal player controls. This gives the developers a large amount of influence over the way players experience the game, which is important in narrative and other linear experiences. But as stated, the second half of the game has far less narrative, so its linearity becomes monotonous if not outright frustrating. I get the sense that the developers ran out of time in creating the second half of the game and weren’t able to test it as thoroughly. Many of the pathways seem unintuitive compared to the earlier forest puzzles, and a player can continue to fail trying to solve the puzzle one way without realizing the real solution is something else entirely. The game hasn’t trained its audience to accept multiple solutions to its puzzles, and by this point has in fact instilled the idea that there is only one workable solution, and that solution is obvious once you think about if for a while. Encountering a potential alternative, therefore, won’t allow the audience to solve the puzzle in an interesting way, but will lead them down a dead end they can’t even see.
Despite the number of games featuring children and forests, often in an atmospheric horror style, the first half of Limbo adopts a unique aesthetic that ensures anyone familiar with the game will recognize it from a short clip of gameplay, even if they haven’t played the game themself. The second half of the game might as well be part of fifty other short side-scrolling platformers that take place in factories or abandoned warehouses.
I’ve not yet played the developers’ second game and spiritual successor to Limbo, Inside, but from what I’ve seen through playthroughs and video clips, Inside borrows a lot of Limbo’s atmosphere and some of its mechanics. However, because Inside is a more narrative-driven game with a dystopian meat-slave society and themes of uniformitarianism and oppression, the warehouse and mind-control components of Inside seem cohesive with the rest of the game. In Limbo, I struggle to find a reason for why any of the game has to take place outside of a forest or mixed forest and industrial environment. The best conclusion I can reach is that the creators wanted to play around with new mechanics that wouldn’t fit aesthetically in a naturalistic environment, but unfortunately that means the latter half of the game dips in visual quality as well as mechanical quality.
Part Three: Something Something Death Something Something Life, FIN!
Short games often tend to have a simple but elegant narrative focus, if they have a narrative at all. Limbo isn’t a narrative-driven game, even though one exists within its design. The gameplay and the challenge of overcoming puzzles are rewarding in their own regard, and the game rarely offers any narrative to drive players to continue forward. Nevertheless, when the narrative does appear, it is dark, haunting, and full of mystery.
The story is largely up to the audience’s interpretation, but its gist can be summed up as “morbid Hide-and-Seek;” a little boy is lost is some surreal world, possibly an afterlife of a sort, and is looking for a girl (identified in the game description as his sister). Finding her concludes the game and changes the main menu screen slightly to imply the passage of time, and that the boy and his sister may very well be dead. Many other interpretations of the environment and beings in it offer additional material from which the audience might extrapolate more story. Perhaps the boy had a fear of spiders or insects, hence the massive arachnid boss and other use of bugs throughout the game. Or maybe he had a fear of water and that’s why he has a John Marston level of inability to survive getting his hair wet. Perhaps his sister died as a child, falling from their treehouse, or contracting some sort of insect-carried plague, explaining the decadent state of the man-made objects in many parts of the game or the corpses and flies that appear periodically. Maybe the other violent children who appear throughout the game had a role to play in his or his sister’s deaths. Maybe the boy grew up, moved to the city, and died in an industrial accident, like his afterlife facsimile does repeatedly in the latter half of the game, or perhaps the breaking glass that appears at the very end is him re-enacting his death by falling (or jumping) out of a window.
The game offers no answers, but I kind of like that it leaves these questions for the audience to ponder. The story can be as simple or complex as the player wants it to be. While the game developers clearly had something in mind when they made it, if you dislike the pretentious panache used to present the story, you can ignore it in favor of the gameplay. Limbo is the sort of game I tend to enjoy; a short, tightly-made experience with narrative and thematic elements that give you something to chew on after it’s finished. It’s as close as games become to being cinematic without betraying their identity as interactive media. That isn’t to say that Limbo is devoid of problems – it has plenty – but I encounter games like this so seldom that I’m willing to overlook its faults so that I can just sit down and appreciate what it does well.