Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: Limbo (Mac)

The most common understanding of afterlife pit-stop, Limbo, is one that blends in with Purgatory, both associated with wavering, in-between states.  In 2007 the Catholic Church released a document stating their thoughts on the eternal fates of infants who die without being baptized, concurrently addressing the validity of Limbo.  Even though their proclamation did not directly disqualify the existence of Limbo, they didn't take credit for the idea either.  Officially speaking, Limbo is only perpetuated by individuals, not the church, and was (and still is) more recognizable through the lens of pop culture than religious mandate.  While the 2007 document put the malleability of church doctrine into sharp relief, Danish video game developer, Playdead, was already hard at work on their debut title, Limbo: a game centered around the titular mystical locale.

Much the same way that the Catholic Church has decided to allow its members to believe in Limbo if they so choose, Playdead's Limbo (released in 2010) doesn't tell you what to believe about its world.  The developer has left scant details as to what is really happening in the game aside from the premise that a boy (the playable character) is looking for his sister.  The setting begins in a woodland area, transitions into an urbanized setting, and ends in a cavernous factory where gravity itself is in flux.  Does the boy find his sister in the end?  Maybe??  Even that is debatable.  Some narratives encourage participants to fill in the gaps with their mind.  Limbo is more like a figurative painting: you know what you're looking at, but it's up to you to decipher meaning enough to make the piece matter.

Limbo is a side-scrolling puzzle/platformer that has earned its cred by doing a lot with very little.  Visually the world is shown in black and white with characters as silhouettes.  The tone of the game is grim and spooky, furthered by the notion that most everything is hiding in the shadows.  Controls allow you to move left and right, jump, and grab things like ropes and push/pull boxes among other items.  There are enemies, but no weapons, making Limbo more akin to traditional survival horror than even the Resident Evil series has become.  The length of a full Limbo playthrough is also slim, ringing in at about a handful of hours.  The short runtime and abrupt ending come off as anti-climactic, but also as if Playdead is pushing you to open-interpretation rather than slow the show down so they can tie everything in a neat little bow for you.

More interesting than the inessential "story" is the way Limbo creates a mood of tension and dread.  The game begins with your character awaking in the forest, with no direction offered.  Right away there's no impression given that the game is holding your hand; you're on your own, all alone.  Props to the sound designers of Limbo for bringing the stark, colorless world to life with crisp sound effects as you dash through grassy patches, skid down dirt hills, and engage in any number of subtle activities that have been lusciously enriched by their audibility (headphones recommended).  The fact that these noises are often the sorts of things that are drowned out by the rest of life, but can be heard so crisply, makes you feel even more alone than visuals by themselves would be capable of.  So, the mood is set, but the tension springs from the fact that you'll be killed in Limbo early and often.

Death is always right around the bend, and the kills themselves are quite grisly.  The boy can be drowned, beheaded, impaled, or blown to bits, and blood, in silhouette of course, spurts out like the scene from Kill Bill where Uma Thurman fights the Crazy 88s.  Checkpoints in Limbo are generous, so after a death you're placed right before the scene where you bit the dust and can take proper precautions so as not to die by the same hand twice.  As an unexpected result, the death mechanic feels like an especially gory take on Looney Tunes.  The animations are so over the top that you can't help but laugh at them after the initial cringe.  Plus, unless you're going for a "perfect run," death is of little consequence, the way Wile E. Coyote is right back to normal after a quick fade out/fade in.

The cartoonish violence serves to make the character seem more boyish in a world of boyish imagination.  Limbo is filled with giant spiders, mind-controlling worms, and other marauding lads right out of Lord of the Flies.  Filmmaker Wes Anderson uses violence in a similar fashion in his movie, to achieve similar weight.  One thing Anderson does to keep his characters grounded in a realm of real-world consequences is for someone to get physically hurt and bleed.  When we see the young scout troop in Moonrise Kingdom fight amongst themselves with arrows and knives, it's silly, but the conflict ends with visible injuries including a dead dog; everyone leaves the battleground bloodied.  Like Limbo, Anderson's worlds play by their own fantastical rules, but are kept relatable with their human suffering and perseverance.  Limbo uses violence to strike a similar balance, but comes from the other end, starting self-serious, but ultimately finding a suitable middleground.

It's unfortunate that so much of Limbo's great mood and tension fades away as you venture further in.  The opening trek through the dim forest is Limbo at its best: ominous with a real sense of danger.  As you progress further into the city, the giant bugs and lost boys appear less frequently until the back half of the game where they don't appear at all.  At this point the game becomes less about survival and more about solving puzzle boxes with increasingly complex physics.  Removed of tension, Limbo also looses its distinct appeal, so much so that when the finale kicks in, it ends the game at a low point.  The final third of the game incorporates switches that can reverse gravity, literalizing the notion of "limbo" as objects in range of the beam suspend between floor and ceiling with careful triggering.  Symbolically, this is an inventive culmination to reach, but the game doesn't bring enough of the full-fledged panache from its opening to make it feel like more than a contemplative, symbolic move.

There was nothing else quite like it upon release, and Limbo's impact on the game industry can be seen in a great number of titles that have co-opted its visual style.  Limbo has become one of the titles that popularly define what an indie game looks and feels like.  Hopefully it's reassuring for Playdead that even though Limbo only takes a brief evening to complete, it's a game that has a positive legacy within the indie games space that will help it stick in players' minds for years to come.

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