Dark, atmospheric, arty, 2D indie puzzle platformer. These are words that tickle some of the most sensitive and excitable games-enjoying parts of my brain, so LIMBO, with its distinctive stylings and rave reviews, was an experience I had been eagerly looking forward to. Unfortunately, dull, irritating and over-hyped are not, and those are the adjectives that come unpleasantly to mind after ploughing doggedly through LIMBO's short, disappointing adventure.
Let me make it immediately clear that I'm all for games that dispense with hand-holding and don't patronise the player or over explain their mechanics. The sad fact is that for me, LIMBO's only message or meaning was to remind me why so many games do spend more time than they ideally would making sure the player as prepared, informed and guided as possible: because the opposite extreme is even more shit.
I'm also all for challenge and difficulty, but there's a world of difference between hard but well designed puzzles, and those that force slow backtracking or repetition after failure, give little indication or feedback on whether you're approaching the right solution and have poorly signposted or difficult to decipher rules and mechanics.
Most importantly, I'm all for game experiences that aren't lowest common denominator, crowd pleasing genre pieces. I'm all for the inclusion of sadness, fear, confusion, ambiguity, even some boredom or frustration or basically anything experimental, new or different that strays away from simple "fun", but any of these have to have a pay off - some kind of reason, purpose, meaning, justification, message or resonance - to make the whole experience something worthwhile and worth recommending. Some pretty screenshots and an ending that was, y'know, alright aside, I find it hard to see what LIMBO actually has that makes it worth the drudgery.
Of course, that's exactly the point with games that aren't crowd pleasing genre pieces. This crowd we speak of contains people, and those people aren't going to be pleased. Perhaps this time I'm just, er, a person from said crowd, hence my displeasure? Given the positive reviews, I'm of course ready to accept that there's something in there that tickles other people's happy brain parts (that is how brains work right?) but that just doesn't resonate with me. On the other hand I feel like someone that should like LIMBO, the sort of person that says things like "I'm all for game experiences that aren't lowest common denominator, crow pleasing genre pieces," so I'm a little bemused by the disparity between my own feelings and those of others who might also say such things.
The main positive, to my mind, is that the aesthetic of the game felt reasonably successful. We're spoiled these days both by pixel prancing, sumptuously shaded wonders of AAA studios and the amazing art direction and old school ingenuity of a great many indie devs. In this context, LIMBO is definitely a decent effort, although not quite a stand out affair. It's certainly sinister and striking, but it's also monotonous and without too much in the way of awe or wonder. If you allow that this is, presumably, exactly what the devs were aiming for, then it remains to ask yourself if that's what you want to look at for 3 - 4 hours. My answer would be "why yes good sir, if it's done well," and it is, so there. This pictures on my screen didn't blow me away as did, say, World of Goo's look, but the art looked pleasing and built atmosphere as much as could be expected of it.
What didn't build atmosphere, for me, was the sound, which is even more minimalist than the look. It improved later on, with some more effective ambient noise at times, but especially in the early stages it was noticeably too spartan to the point that the setting and interaction could feel flat and static, where effective sound would have instead brought it grim, sinister life.
More broadly, despite liking the look in isolation, I really felt there wasn't a strong or cohesive feel to the environment in which the game takes place or to the experience as a whole. There are woods, with some decayed wooden structures, and there's the spider, and some dudes trying to kill you, oh and then industrial stuff with levers and machinery, and you're doing physics puzzles and altering gravity and getting electrocuted and, well, that's just a list of kinda arbitrary stuff, which is how the game felt to play. In the absence of any text, voice, plot, explicit objectives or characters, the rest of the game is going to have to do a hell of a lot to keep the player interested and involved. For me, it did very little.
I had no motivation to explore this little place: the next area would just be another set of pretty black and grey pixels built to facilitate a puzzle, with no great development or meaning discernible - none of the rich theme and progression of Braid or the playful diversity and wonder of World of Goo.
And I had no reason to care about my little avatar: there was a characterless silhouette about whom I knew nothing and who the level designer saw fit to kill repeatedly and unavoidably because I didn't already know the game. If a game makes me care about my character, I'll have some investment in their path through the game world. If a game is largely "fair" and deaths are my fault and realistically avoidable if I play better or smarter, then I'll feel bad when I kill my avatar. In LIMBO, I found myself presented with no real reason - "aww, he looks like a little boy!!" was not good enough - to give a crap, and was unfairly killed often, especially in the early stages, the result of which was that I felt apathetic, disconnected and faintly sneered at.
With so little to the game (not necessarily a criticism on its own) and the feel and atmosphere falling so flat, it was left to the puzzles to make this an engaging and worthwhile experience and by and large I feel they're a failure. Throughout the game, but more so in the earlier chapters, each puzzle goes a little something like this: you arrive at the area and try a straightforward approach, this fails either by in death or a dead end, then, if it's not already obvious what to do, you have to figure out the lateral approach that leads to progress. I honestly don't know if this is claimed as any sort of experimentation, revelation or statement - hopefully not - but let's be very clear that it's not any of those things.
Now, many a good game in this vein will introduce several consistent, well explained or preferably well demonstrated (i.e. shown as opposed to told about) mechanics or rules over its course. There are then a number of puzzles expanding upon and playing around with the consequences of each of these, combining them with other ideas and putting them into situations that require new approaches and lateral thinking. Once the later, harder puzzles arrive, the player will be in a situation where the straightforward approach, if this even exists, wont be the right one and may lead to death or a seeming dead end, but they will have tools - consistent, understood, fun tools - with which to experiment and find a path to the puzzle solution that, while it may be entirely foreseen and guided by the level designer, nevertheless appears to be a product of creative and lateral thinking on the part of the player.
We are spoiled for examples for examples of this structure: The Portal games, number 2 especially, and the aforementioned Braid and World of Goo are amongst the classics and follow this exact route. If you want merely good games that use it, then how about Toki Tori and The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom? This structure is around not because it's some trope that conservative designers are unable to escape from, it's around because it bloody works, and leaves the creative mind(s) behind the game more room to express themselves with plot, settings, art and interesting mechanics.
Let's note that hard puzzles where player expectations are toyed with or confounded are a part of the best examples of this form, so as I already said, nothing LIMBO does in this sense is new or exciting. It just does a similar thing sooner and in a less friendly way. More than that, what it does do is throw a bunch of pretty much unconnected, semi-explored and poorly explained puzzle mechanics at the player, sometimes lasting a single puzzle each and sometimes carried through a little longer.
There is definitely room in the world for a carefully, thoughtfully designed adventure puzzle game where each problem has its own intuitive rules. A game with no 'big idea' - no portals, goos or time bending - but just a series of environment that work on their own creative but easily grasped logic to provide satisfying and interesting problems and solutions. But this is a difficult game to make and LIMBO is not it. Few and far between were the puzzles whose solution elicited an "aaaah" or "aha" of satisfied revelation; more common was the groan of "that was what I was supposed to do for the last ten minutes" or worse, "that little bit of scenery is interactive."
Yes, there are some better puzzles later on, but they felt to me like the realisation that the earlier approach wasn't enough (it isn't), the compensation being the inclusion of arbitrary mechanics such as gravity switching and the machine guns that activate when you step in their laser beam. Some of these later challenges are fine, decent, ok, alright, but they aren't a part of any theme or progression, they're just there.
Critical criticism is easy (while I'm at it: the controls sometimes aren't responsive enough and the platforming not quite tight enough, and having jump set to the up key and non-reassignable on PC is inexcusable). It's relatively simple to pick out the flaws in something and being flawed certainly doesn't mean something isn't brilliant. So we come back to - *scrolls upwards and checks* - my fourth paragraph: I just don't understand what there is in LIMBO that causes all the fuss.
Some deep message or meaning about life, afterlife, religion or human existence? I'm sorry but I really don't buy it: look at something abstract enough with the intent to find meaning and you'll find meaning. See the Bible code. These things are of course on a spectrum rather than black and white, but I don't think there's enough there to infer actual meaning in LIMBO, as opposed to ideas projected onto the game by those who - subconsciously or consciously - wanted to do so.
Great puzzles? Nope. Atmosphere and great visual art? Well, a bit, I guess.
I'm glad games like this exist and am glad they do can do well, but in this particular instance, I don't understand why either of those things have happened.