The Steam Autumn Sale is upon us, the Steam Autumn Sale is upon us! As PC gamers across the world squee with delight and stock their coffers with cheap games they missed, I’m catching up as well. I just plowed through LIMBO two years too late and here is what I think of it.
LIMBO (yes, all caps) is a misguided game that almost entirely misses its own point. I’m not saying this to be edgy or cool or whatever, I mean it. On a deep, fundamental level it is a broken, poorly-designed game and that, whether the intent of the developers or not, is what it is. It was only a matter of time before this game was made, the very antithesis of decades of honed design. And even though I very much detest the notion of a nitpicky, list-like article, it fits the bill here.
Firstly, it is a post-modern game but not in a reflective way. Rather, it turns the notion of burgeoning, cumulative gameplay on its head, forcing you into familiar set-ups only to turn it around on you. On paper this seems intelligent enough, but there comes a point where a game goes from creative to disappointing to frustrating. It is in so many respects a teenage game; a “Catcher in the Rye” or “Fight Club” if you will, with all the brashness and subtlety you’d expect. What LIMBO does is try to goad you into thinking the solution is a traditional one; you know, The Solution you’ve played before. And thennn is flips it on you and Child Snuffs you under the guise that it all symbolizes something. Lovely.
But that great, symbolized idea is executed poorly. The idea — repeated, gory deaths represent purgatory and, at the same time, a commentary on the cliches of game structure — fall very flat. Mentioning “repeated deaths”, you might think that LIMBO is a hard game, but it isn’t. You will die a lot, but only at very scripted and very funneled instances where the game says so. It reaches a point where you begin a puzzle segment and you see The Solution. Not the real one, mind you, the old-fart expected one. In your head you’re actively thinking I know The Solution won’t be right and I know the game will kill me. Let’s just get this over with. But in comes LIMBO and tells you to eat your irony, shut up and die. I got the impression the developers spent more time planning mischievous ways to trick players rather than making a good game.
In fact, in the attempt to dismantle the established methods of gaming, it becomes a much weaker game. Ideas are introduced and thrown away every few minutes. Instead of mixed and varied gameplay, it’s just shallow one-offs. The kernels of great ideas are there, but they are never popped. Instead of a rich, built-on series of puzzles, it’s more like only playing the first level of each new Mario world. Imagine opening a bag of Pop Secret from the microwave and only getting kernels!
Sadly, the biggest snag is that, in the end, the gameplay is sooo dreadfully tired. There is no difficulty to speak of and the puzzles (save a few) are rote. The learning curve is not a curve, but an on-off switch; binary. Make this jump. Push that box. Pull that level. It’s been done better by dozens of games that didn’t smack their greasy bellies in satisfaction when you die in their completely unavoidable segments either. I lost count at how many times, when you literally could not control your character, you had to have a very specific thing done beforehand off in a different part of the level. In other words, there was no way to properly succeed the first time. Hoisted by the flimsy argument that it all ties in with the theme doesn’t work either. It’s juvenile game design and developer chest-puffing.
What it all comes down to is that the lofty ideas driving LIMBO could not match the implementation. In a medium of interaction, repeated deaths shouldn’t be so forced. The deaths are hollow and the game is no harder if each one is ham-fistedly forced on you. If you’re going to pontificate on the age-old ways of design, don’t serve me endless push-box puzzles and lever-flippers either. Oh, and gamers typically don’t like when they can’t control their character. It’s really just that simple.
Lastly, LIMBO is not a game without merit. I really respect the mentality behind it and certainly the presentation. There are even times when it shines; as your little boy makes an arms-out leap of faith to a dangling chain, it is simply enthralling (in the factory that only makes boxes and sparks, by the way). You will actively fear for him and want to figure it all out. But you won’t because you can’t solve the hollow game’s motives. In the end, I kinda felt like the LIMBO boy.