There is nothing interesting to be said about praising Limbo given that it’s a game that routinely costs less than a packet of gum and has blinged out awards from every indie source that draws breath. It’s a cheap indie game available on Steam and the XBLA, and every single alpha reviewer has already acclaimed it quite critically and the few who have bothered to pan it have generally done so with conciliatory phrases like ‘not quite perfect.’ That’s understandable as Limbo clearly defines what it’s trying to do, then does it very, very hard, and does it well, with such polish that one could put a headscarf on it and use it to smuggle weapons out of Germany.
Praise it I will, and praise it I wish to, but these reviews are not written entirely for your benefit, oh reader. Indeed, given that as far as I know, the only human beings who know this blog even exists are my personal friends, and they’re not exactly the Daily Planet distribution network, chances are this isn’t being read at all. No, the purpose of this exercise is to examine the videogames for what matters to me. It’s not like these reviews can even try to be timely, given that I’m reviewing them in some cases years after their initial reviews came out. Reviews are one thing, but what I’d like to indulge is instead critique. I’d like to talk about ways in which these games make mistakes, or things worth duplicating. Therefore, I feel it behooves me to take Limbo out of its place in the trophy case and give it the same degree of kicking that I’d give any triple-A title that tried to pull the same nonsense.
Given the way I rake Assassin’s Creed over the coals for its storytelling and the way I foamed at the mouth over Lone survivor I somehow feel it’s an inevitability that somewhere along the line I’ll write praise for Limbo‘s story, yet if I do it will only be as a slip of the tongue, an error. Limbo is possessed of an amazing sense of style, a wonderful gift for tone and some fantastic storytelling technique, but as for its actual story it’s probably no better than Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which I pretty much beat with sticks.
Limbo’s story can’t be the recipient of this kind of public flogging, though, for the same reason you can’t shoot Casper the friendly ghost in the head – it’s totally insubstantial. There is no story to drag out and thump into, but there is a fantastic illusion of story. I’ve heard some people offer interpretations, with one being that it’s about a little boy who died, along with his sister, near a treehouse, and since have been making their way through the titular Limbo. This seems to have some substance to it because there are puzzles that involve a dead body and a treehouse, but there are just as many puzzles that involve bear traps, and far more that involve a gigantic spider. Arguing about what is and isn’t more important, though, and why, is missing the point: What story we are given is so ambiguous as to be meaningless.
While there are recurrent motifs throughout the story, none of them come together into a cohesive whole. None of them create an idea in the view of the Insects are a common motif throughout the story, as is, strangely, cruelty to them. Flies are used to show the dead, fireflies are used to distract and highlight, you ride a mosquito at one point and your major nemesis for the first part of the game is a rather fantastically creepy and terrifying spider. That could indicate that our protaganist is a little boy, still pulling the limbs off bugs, while himself being a pathetic insect of no meaning in the greater scope of the world. A fine story to tell, because lords knows when I play videogames, there aren’t enough that remind me of how meaningless all of existence is.
As in Lone Survivor, Limbo’s protaganist is useless, but unlike LS, he’s useless in a way that distances him somewhat from the player. While he does come across as an eight-year-old-boy, that doesn’t hit me as close to the knuckle just because I was, at one point, an eight-year-old boy. It just makes you come across as vulnerable, but then, so to does the fact the game will put bear traps and landmines in your path that are indistinguishable from the landscape the first few times you see them. The game does a lot to kill you, in a variety of ways, and it reloads and refreshes relatively quickly so that you don’t feel too badly hindered by the deaths, making the motivation to solve the puzzles and soak in the atmosphere, something that I can’t imagine is too rough because I finished the whole game in one sitting of about four hours without any help barring being told that there were in fact two buttons for interacting with the environment. What this creates is, rather than a feeling of unfairness, a feeling of rote memorisation – most deaths are appended with an attitude of ‘Well, that didn’t work, why not this?’ and as the game wears on this sort of thing happens less. The upshot is that the game isn’t particularly deep, with puzzles that are really just fiddly positional bullshit and picky timing, with its only real purpose to cart you from location to location while you experience stuff that’s meant to make you feel oppressed, alone, creeped out and occasionally, horrified. The puzzles are as good a reason to keep slowing you down, obstructing your process, but none of it felt like it was building to anything. For a game that builds itself around mood and the expression of mood so much, it seems strange that its second half – everything after the ‘boss’ of the first half dies – just seems to waddle around brainlessly playing with setpieces to create mood, without any kind of message or story underneath it.
Limbo is a game that everyone should go out of their way to play, but not in the same way I recommend Psychonauts or Bastion. It’s a good game at exploring some ideas and creating a mood, and that’s something that I think more games should try to do. Yet at the same time, I think games should try avoiding Limbo’s ambiguous-to-the-point-of-meaningless style of narrative. In the immediate case, the singular work that is Limbo, though? The impression of a story, though, is fine.
In the same way I don’t play Audiosurf for a narrative I wouldn’t play Limbo for a story. To do that comparison even better, Penny Arcade at one point described the Professor Layton games as Puzzle opera, where characters are preparing to burst into puzzles at the slightest provocation. In that same vein, Limbo is Mood theatre, more about giving you a feeling than telling you a story. Now, stories are great because they let us experience feelings and examine ourselves and even are, shock horror fun, but Limbo is trying to strike closer to the bone. Limbo wants to make you feel its mood with as little context as possible. This is part of what make its mendacious environment easy to engage – asking why of anything is pointless, even the greater question of why am I here? All the game can tell you is: You’re in Limbo.