Games You May Have Missed: Limbo
With very few exceptions, the big-name games tend to be pretty much the same run/jump/shoot affairs. Sure, a few developers might be doing interesting things with story, or art, or atmosphere. But you really need to look at small, independent developers and publishing houses to find truly risk-taking, genre-bending games.
Danish developer Playdead’s Limbo is such a risk-taker and genre-bender. Released in 2010 as an Xbox Live Arcade title only, it ultimately saw its way to Steam and the Playstation Network. Despite outside insistence that they fundamentally change Limbo to add a multiplayer component or other popular genre content, Playdead reportedly stuck to its guns during development. They preferred to remain true to the game’s core aesthetic and game mechanic. I’m truly glad they did, as I cannot imagine this game with all the trappings of mainstream gaming. Like an indie film, Limbo‘s quirks and sinister sensibility make it all the more memorable. Its deceptively simple gameplay and super macabre, enigmatic story, such as it is, may not lend itself to repeat plays, but it’s definitely a game that sticks with you.
And it’s creepy as hell.
When I first launched Limbo on my PC, I immediately went for the Options screen to see what the control scheme was like. I was amused to find that it is literally just up, down, left, right, and an “action” button. That’s it. (And, really, what more do you need? The original NES managed nearly a decade of gaming, hundreds of titles, without much more. Less, as is often said, is more.) I was further amused when I started the game; it opens on a simple black and white forest scene with appropriate atmospheric sound effects. And then it sits there and waits. So you wait. And it waits. Finally, puzzled, I pressed a button and slowly a pair of white eyes appeared in the darkness. This is your character. You are an unidentified boy, apparently trapped, with no explanation, in some kind of nether world. The entire screen is rendered in shadow and eerie shades of grey. Parallax scrolling provides depth as you move through this world, running, jumping over things, falling in holes. Lighting is sparse. Music is almost non-existent.
The whole thing is just… creepy as hell.
A good game is one that establishes its own play mechanics early on, so the player has an understanding of their abilities and what the rules of this world are. Us old-timers are all too familiar with games that fail in this regard, sometimes spectacularly so, to the point that a game is almost unplayable and certainly unenjoyable. Limbo does an excellent job from the get go. The early tasks are set up so that you learn very quickly how high/far your little guy can jump, how fast he can run, and what he can and cannot interact with. And, infuriatingly, that he can’t swim. Simple controls do not necessarily mean the game is easy. As you make your way through this world, you are faced with various obstacles; puzzles, really, though not in the “make this shape fit this hole” sense. You have to figure out how to accomplish series of small tasks, often in a certain order, to be able to proceed beyond a given area.
And some of the things you have to do are just… creepy as hell.
You have to jump on floating corpses to get across a pond. You have to use a bear-trap to snap a few legs off a giant spider. You have to then pull the last remaining leg off said giant spider and roll its body over a hole. You have to remove a hanging corpse so you can use the rope to climb to a higher level. You have to avoid pitfalls, mind-controlling brain worms, giant sawmills, bodies of water, and shorting electrical wires. All of this toward a goal that is utterly opaque. (And although I have not yet finished the game, I’ve read that its ending is similarly ambiguous. And abrupt.) At times Limbo seems deliberately set up for you to fail some tasks at least once so that you understand what you’re trying to avoid. And when you fail, it is often in the most gruesome way possible. Your guy is impaled, electrocuted, squashed, drowned, ground to pieces, and chopped up. Over and over again.
It’s all… creepy as hell.
Occasionally this “rigged for initial failure” thing gets tiresome. For example, at one point you figure out that if you avoid a certain spot on the floor, a giant steam press won’t kill you. Then a little further down, that same spot on the floor in fact triggers a press! But this is a mere pecadillo for a game that overall is compelling and thoroughly engaging. In the end thegamingmonitor in your home, should be graced with Limbo, a wonderful twist in the monotony.
And creepy as hell.