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Casual Smack: Limbo

Easing my way back into gaming, I decided to play a title I should have played months ago: Limbo by the developer PlayDead. It was an indie nominee for Game of the Year at GDC, so I feel like this is a must play. It took me about four hours altogether to complete. So what did I think? A very interesting game with great graphics and sound. It has a very nice tone and they are very clever with some of the puzzles and physics. Overall, it’s a very well crafted product. But game of the year — not so much. It’s a bit too frustrating and opaque for that. Spoilers within.

It doesn’t really make sense for me to do a moment to moment description of my play here. It would just be me describing every puzzle in the game in sequence. Instead, I’m going to casual smack this and summarize. The basic narrative idea is that you’re a young shadow boy with white eyes running around an extremely dangerous black-and-white world. I should start by saying that this is probably the best use of black-and-white I have ever seen in a game. The backgrounds are very evocative, whether it’s a forest, a village, or a giant set of steampunk-ish gears. Your avatar has a quite limited set of animations, but they do a lot to communicate the character. And the audio design is sparse but very good. Saws sound sinister, electricity crackles, and the ambient forest sounds give a sense of hidden life. In terms of polish, the game is sharp.

But please don’t think this is a kids’ game. It has a quite sinister edge. It reminds me a lot of stories such as Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. There’s a childish style, but the world is dangerous and not afraid of gore. Fall from a great height and your body collapses in a sick rag doll. Get impaled on a spike and you hang from it. There are also a lot of other little boys in the background locked in cages, dead from darts, or in one memorable moment, slumped on a bridge only to end up hanging by a rope around the neck when your steps on the bridge cause it to collapse. And the darkness of the world isn’t just in the representations. Literally everything in the game can kill you. There are the explicit enemies and threats such as saws and guns and random bigger people who set traps for you or shoot darts, but even the nearly ubiquitous crates can take you out if you position them wrong. The game does a terrific job showing you that you are threatened and maintains that tone consistently throughout .

Beyond that, there’s not much narrative other than a pretty cheesy ending where you see a little girl and CS approach her in the final seconds before the credits, so honestly the story isn’t so hot as a plot. And that leaves us with gameplay. It’s all physics-based platforming with a series of puzzles where you have to time and stack actions properly to avoid death and continue on. PlayDead handles the level structure in an interesting way in that one puzzle simply deposits you at the next one. Even though the puzzles are isolated, they aren’t in rooms. Instead, you just feel like you’re traveling across a world that just has lots of deathtraps in it. This works nicely to give the game a sense of flow and constant anxiety.

The puzzles themselves are generally good, but not always intuitive and more than occasionally a bit frustrating. They typically involve having to find out how to reach a certain platform, avoid an enemy, or get past a barricade. The solution generally involves moving a crate to the right space, timing a run/jump accurately, and using a host of simple physics modifiers (gravity reversal, magnets, conveyor belts) to augment the basic timing play. I have to say I’m ambivalent about it. On the one hand, the puzzles are very focused. The solution is always contained to the small area the puzzle occupies, and there are very few extraneous elements to confuse you. I didn’t generally struggle on any puzzle for very long. The game is definitely cleverly designed.

On the other hand, it’s a physics-based puzzle platformer, and so it has the overly precise nonsense that those games always do, although Limbo has less annoyance that the average of the genre. Still, you’ll die trying to make a jump repeatedly, and I think you have to be a certain type of masochist player to put up with it.  Also, the game does nothing to explain what anything is, so you have to experiment to learn anything. There’s one particular nasty part where something that looks like a direction sign was actually a gravity changer, and I had to look up a FAQ (which I normally NEVER do) to realize that it wasn’t an information source but was intended an interactable object. That’s not good. Oh and there are these horribly annoying white worms that can take over your character and force him to walk in one direction until he hits a light source or another special creature eats the worm. I know that this is done to make some interesting puzzles where you have to avoid walking into stuff that could kill you, but the that doesn’t necessarily work as a playstyle of a game when you can’t choose to walk your character  in the direction you want.  Very annoying.

Still the puzzles remain small and self-contained for the most part, with a few glaring almost quit-worthy exceptions, and the look and feel is great. All that together means that the game is good, but not for everyone. If you can stand slightly hard physics puzzles, then Limbo is definitely worth a look for its original style and clever level design. If timing platform jumping makes you want to kill quickly and often, then stay away — the aesthetic will not numb the pain. Game of the Year I simply do not see, but if you want a solid short and challenging game, it’s a solid title deserving of down-to-earth praise.

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