How low can you go?

In the brilliant XBLA game Limbo, you play as a little boy going through just about the worst day ever.

The new game Limbo has been getting a lot of buzz for what seems like a year now. It’s the first release in Xbox’s Summer of Arcade campaign, and it’s been getting a ton of great reviews, many of which use descriptions like “close to perfect.” For the most part, the hype is completely justified: Limbo is an outstanding game I’d recommend to anybody with patience and without a fear of spiders. And playing it should be mandatory for anyone making games.

But the problem with Limbo is that it sets such an extraordinarily high standard for itself at the beginning, and the rest of the game doesn’t live up to that. I’m not sure that it’d even be possible to live up to it. You’re dropped into the game controlling the silhouette of a small boy in the middle of the dark woods. The premise is that the boy is in Limbo, looking for his sister, but the only way you’d know that is from the description text when you buy the game; there’s no story setup, no voice and almost no text in the minimalist presentation. So you begin by walking to the right, and you soon encounter the first of the thousands of things in Limbo that will kill the boy, instantly and brutally.

You’ll die a lot while playing the game. It’s not an issue, since you’ll simply restart at the most recent checkpoint, and the checkpoints are, without exception, placed perfectly and predictably. But the die-and-try-again cycle is pretty indicative of the entire game. At the beginning, it works brilliantly: the deaths are sudden, gory, vicious, and even callous. It creates a sense of dread and apprehension more effectively than any game I’ve played since Silent Hill 2: this is a genuine horror game, one that makes the increasingly photo-realistic attempts at horror games seem clumsy and amateurish. I was taken in completely, startled every time a trap snapped shut, wary of walking any further. And even though I’m not particularly put off by spiders normally, I was genuinely repulsed by the ones in this game.

But as you go further in the game, that shock and feeling of apprehension wear off. Seeing the boy get killed just becomes a minor impediment, and you impatiently tap the A button to give the puzzle another try. And that’s the other thing: they become puzzles. Early on in Limbo, everything feels natural and perfectly integrated into the experience — as with any other puzzle game, you’re presented with an obstacle and all the pieces you need to get past it, but everything feels as if it’s supposed to be there. The further you progress, however, the more the puzzles seem contrived and puzzle-like.

And it’s a shame that that’s a complaint, because Limbo is an excellent puzzle game. There are only one or two puzzles that I’d call unfair, and the rest range from very good to genius. And “genius” isn’t an exaggeration — many of the puzzles and obstacles later in the game are the best I’ve ever seen in a videogame. What’s more, almost all of them are presented perfectly: it’s clear within seconds what the obstacle is, you’re given ample room to experiment instead of passively waiting for the a-ha! moment, and you’re given adequate feedback all without words or voice. There are perfectly subtle clues and hints throughout; one example is the minimalist soundtrack, which kicks in during the later puzzles to give you the rhythm you need to get past an obstacle.

I was extremely impressed with the game design, especially as I’ve gotten more and more frustrated with the wordiness (see: pot, kettle) and lack of challenge in videogames. Limbo is difficult, but with just a couple of exceptions, it’s never unfair. The challenge is in being forced to think; with most of the obstacles, after I’d figured out what to do, actually executing the solution was straightforward. And the solutions were frequently clever and satisfying, and for the first time in years, I actually felt smart while playing a game.

But it was still a game, where before there’d been this completely engrossing and captivating experience. I stopped empathizing with the little boy and started getting frustrated at the mushy jumping physics, or the extra jumps he’d unpredictably take at just the wrong moment, or the fact that he’d never learned to swim, or how long it took him to respawn after he was crushed by a giant weight or impaled on a spike. I encountered too many puzzles where you have to die at least once to even see what the obstacle is, so I stopped dreading the deaths and started seeing them as inevitable trial-and-error. I stopped thinking about secret caverns and spooky woods and scary spiders, and started thinking about platforms, switches, boxes, and physics puzzles.

If Limbo had been released with just the last 70% or so of the game content, then it would’ve been an ingenious puzzle game, a little on the difficult side, with amazing art and beautiful presentation. And it’s still one of the most impressive games ever released on XBLA. But after being so completely taken in at the beginning, I have to wonder what a game would be like if it could take that sense of dread and exploration and complete immersion in a nightmare, and carry it through the entire game.

(And for an example of what I mean by perfect presentation of a puzzle, I’ll describe my favorite puzzle set-up after the break. It’s spoiler territory, so best not to read it until after you’ve “finished” the game).

The whole business with the mind-controlling worms was brilliantly presented, and those sequences alone make it a mandatory play-through for anyone making games. Because it hits the trifecta of Videogame Storytelling Mastery: it conveys everything you need to know subtly, non-verbally, and interactively.

When it’s first introduced, it’s shocking on a couple of levels. You see one of the other little boys coming towards you, but he’s not attacking. He flings himself into a pool of water, and you’re left to think: zombies? In a game like this one?

Then later, you’re actually hit by one. It’s not done as a cheap surprise or for shock value: you can see the thing hanging from the ceiling, you’re reasonably certain it’s bad news, but there’s just no way to get around it, you have to walk forward. As soon as it hits, the view subtly changes to confirm that you are being mind controlled. Is this another death, or a puzzle mechanic?

The first thing that happens is that you’re walked away from the direction you want to be headed, to confirm that it has taken control. And you walk directly into your first clue: the shaft of light that burns the worm and makes you change direction. At this point, the game’s told you everything you need to know about the worms, all in a few seconds, without saying a word. (And it’s thrown in a red herring of sorts. I spent a good bit of time trying to get the boy trapped in the sunlight, thinking that prolonged exposure to light would help).

After that, the game follows the Law of Super Mario and presents the same thing two more times, but with an escalation each time that’s so clever and subtle, you don’t realize you’re being Videogamed. It’s gone from being a puzzle on its own, to being a complication that’s overlaid on top of another puzzle. And the last time is particularly well-done, giving you a hint of your end goal before snatching it away.

It’s more than a little unfair to criticize Limbo when it does so much so well, but in a sense the game is its own worst enemy. After seeing it so confidently master some of the hardest things to get right in videogame communication, it’s frustrating to be sent back to pushing crates around and avoiding laser-sighted gun turrets.

One thought on “How low can you go?”

  1. This post sums up exactly how I feel about Limbo, the unbearable horror game that transforms into the brilliant puzzle game. Unlike you, however, I absolutely can’t handle spiders. They bother me in real life and freak me out in video games.

    Limbo understands horror better than most horror games — in order to defeat the spider, you have to willingly get closer to it. HNNNGGHH! And the scene where you become entangled in its web and start mashing the button and screaming because oh god here it comes? Maaaaaan.

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