(Spoiler-tastic) Limbo: Not Out of the Woods Yet

Finishing Limbo feels like crawling out of an abusive relationship. Not the hamster wheel grinds of Warcraft, or the rohypnol time-loss of Civilization. This was a new brand of pain.

Oh, right. Spoiler alert.

Limbo's detached aesthetic works, I think, because most people would rather not see kids decapitated by bear traps, or impaled through the neck. We don't like hearing bones crack – over and over again – as the bleak shadow of that child crumples after a fall. But that's Limbo's ordinance. If we were used to the cold, almost clinical treatment of kid killing, this would just be another puzzle game.

Compare it to NightSky (2011), which feels aesthetically too similar (same brand of ambient music, same style of puzzles) but has a glass fishing float for its main character. If that float falls off the map, who gives a damn? When Limbo's kid is cut in half by automated machineguns, is electrocuted, dismembered by a spider, drowns unceremoniously, or falls into a buzzsaw, well, it adds that certain extra something.

In Christian Nutt's interview with Director Arnt Jensen and Exec Producer Dino Patti, they remark on this mix of macabre and atmosphere in a great back-and-forth:

DP: I think it's definitely Arnt's black humor.

AJ: Yeah, but it's fun.

DP: It's definitely something about you, I think.

AJ: It gives a good tension to the player, because you know you can die in an instant. [Snaps fingers.]

DP: There's a thing about combining calmness with brutality.

Like most repetitive emotional injuries, there are reasons to come back to Limbo. There's a tangible pleasure – instantaneous, direct pleasure – to being in the world. A melancholy calm that heaps on the dissonance, with such cool and efficient death. It's not surprising to hear that planning for the game started in 2004 (not getting released till 2010). That it began as, and remained, a desire to create a holistic experience.

I think that's one of our forces.” Said Dino, “Like we had everything integrated, the sound, the graphics, and the gameplay...having them fit together in a single piece. I think that's where we can do something bigger companies can't do, because they really have to modularize everything to have people work on it.”

Integration is impressive. I'm always especially jealous of musicians, even some painters and writers. They know enough about their medium that their art becomes a matter of getting at a guitar, a brush, or a keyboard. They just jam. That's harder to do with games. A lot of the pleasure is found during playtesting. The flamenco guitarist doesn't need to make sure a listener can use their ears, nor do painters typically test their patron's eyes. You can slip up with writing, with overly technical info, or maybe by presenting a Czech audience with Japanese kanji. In games, a lot of that language just doesn't exist yet. It's rare to find a game with the balls to just do away with the tutorial, as happens in Limbo.

Without those pieces, a player's conversation with designers can easily degenerate into caveman grunts and brandished clubs. Presuming that designer knew enough C++, C#, Unity, 3DSMax, AfterEffects, or whatever, to even make those conversations available. Limbo flew red flags on both counts.

I'd merrily sung the praises of Humble Indie Bundles for the last year, to every friend who'd listen. My musician buddy John finally gave in last month, having wanted to try Limbo for awhile. He ponied up a good bit better than the average – and clicked to start the game. Which didn't load. His Mac seemed to be too old, by an ambiguous but small margin. I offered to give him his money back, but I knew it had permanently fucked his opinion of indie games. It was also confusing, to me, given the Humble Bundle's reputation for DRM free, cross-platform goodness.

When Limbo does load, the controls don't always work as expected. Which is a real drag, with about 5 minutes invested into an intricate puzzle. What should be a simple jump, while climbing, or a simple matter of scooting to the edge of a perilous cliff, is the same unsatisfying death. For twenty minutes. At times, the controls start to feel as sadistic and unforgiving as the rest.

Even when the game works, and the controls function intuitively, weird design sometimes grinds the thing to a full stop. Twice during Limbo, puzzles had me feeling like a six-year-old separated from his mom at the grocery store. Is this just a cruel joke, Limbo? Like the old classic, “Wanna know how to keep an idiot in suspense?” Maybe there is no ending. Maybe it's a Molyneuxian social experiment, testing to see how long I kill this kid before giving up. Truly, this be Limbo.

In the screenshots pictured below, the hanging ropes are the only game object the player's interacted with, to this point. At first, none of the visible ropes work. Jumping from this roof long enough, I spied another rope. Underneath a comically oversized circular saw blade. The cheese in a masochist's rat trap. By the time I finally figured out what the devs were telling me (how to solve this) there wasn't any sense of accomplishment. I felt like the boy.

Yeah, try doing that for twenty minutes.

In other places, the conversation became utter delight. Where the system wasn't just clear, but where we could also catch fleeting glimpses of its underlying meaning. A statement that would only ever work as a game. My moment came on first seeing the sign for “HOTEL” – the ambient music bubbling up to match a deeper chill. It wasn't just monster spiders and bands of blowgun-wielding cannibals with a preference for dead kids. An entire society seemed to have lost its humanity. Here the experience appeared to say something personal and profound, but it was doing it with ambiguity.

That intellectual engagement added enormous depth.

A lot of folks got down on Limbo for being a short game. It is short. My first play-through was three, maybe four hours. Lo, having burned a straight four years on Warcraft, and sleepless 40-hour stretches on marathon games of Civilization, I'll admit to not minding a short game. Especially not compared to the recent 60-dollar EA title, Mass Effect 3. I know some folks explored it a bit more lovingly, but even with side quests, artifact finding, and dicking around on the Citadel, my play through was barely 20 hours.

Surprising noone, I agree with Jon Blow. A few months after Limbo released, he wrote, “A movie can give you a satisfying experience in 2 hours. A painting or a sculpture can give you a satisfying experience in 10 minutes. A song can give you a satisfying experience in 3 minutes...Gamers seem to praise games for being addicting, but doesn’t that feel a bit like Stockholm syndrome? If you spend 20 hours playing a game, but the good parts could have been condensed into 3, then didn’t you just waste 17 hours?”

Waste might not be the right word. Part of what's neat about a game like Civilization or Mass Effect is that transport of the senses. I'd set it apart from Warcraft's anesthetizing grinds. Designers can and do use both to create a sort of stylistic prozac, the pleasant magic we accept and expect. Limbo does the improbable by using it's handcrafted, novel, and unified aesthetic to make something we'll reject.

Watching the kid die is repellent. Which, oddly enough, makes Limbo a breath of fresh air. Bastion, released with Limbo in this last Humble Bundle, also features “a kid.” This kid also dies now and again, falling to his death, getting bludgeoned by pick-axes, incinerated by defensive turrets. I like Bastion, in more than a few ways I prefer it to Limbo, but take them together and it's a reminder death is repulsive. Should be repulsive. Especially when its kids. 
Sometimes, Civ's genocides are merely sound strategy, and Warcraft's war crimes are part of an essential quest chain. Limbo asks you to watch the child die. 

Emotional salience, pleasure, interpretation of a creator's ambiguity - aesthetics scholars have called these (among others) objective, cross-cultural criteria for Art. Limbo itself speaks holistically, and persuasively. Just taking screenshots to write this, I grimaced at every grisly rock-and-hard-place demise. As the creators intended.

Art or not, it should be enough to say that Limbo made games a richer place. I'm glad it was concepted, tested, and released. Also, I'm glad to be done with the fucking thing. I never, ever want to play Limbo again.