DoFuss 2010 – The ‘Limbo’ Problem

After a pretty rough 2010 I have finally got around to reflecting on some game from the year and their impact on me. These come in no particular order and are not the games I feel were the best. Instead they are titles that came at important moments in my life, or resonated with me emotionally.

It wasn’t long after the separation from my fiancé that Limbo was released. Being a fan of pretentious artsy games I was excited to see just what this new, much touted, XBLA title would hold.

Before I got my hands on Limbo I was subject to a variety of information about it thanks to the podcasts I made a habit of listening to as I rode around Osaka. Presenters would talk at length about stylised art and inventive puzzles, but what caught me about all the discussions was the talk of a sense of solitude and fear that it elicited in many. As part of my writing as the Scared Gamer I was fascinated by this. The idea that a 2D platform game could inspire a sense of horror beyond that of a rising level panic from speed challenges was something I was keen to experience, while at the same time being sceptical that it was possible.

The beautiful visuals were, in no small part, helped by their simplicity.

Problems in eliciting these emotions of trepidation in a 2D puzzle platformer were two fold. Firstly the puzzles themselves if too complex could easily distract the player’s focus breaking any established tension, and second (and more importantly to my sensibilities) the removed 2D aspect of the action would it hard to become engaged with the character and world.

Limbo managed to surprise me in much of what it did. It’s silhouetted aesthetic allowed the developers, Playdead, to conceal elements of the world that shocked and scared, allowing even clear danger to be shrouded in mystery. It was a technique that impressed early on with one of the highlights of the whole experience, the reveal of the first areas chief antagonist. I won’t talk more about it here (in case you haven’t played Limbo) suffice to say it surprised and delighted me in its execution, alone justifying the price.

It’s early successes aside Limbo was in for a hard sell with me. Firstly I had heard so much about it that my expectations where set unreasonable high. This was a problem compounded by the fact my high hopes borne out through the first hour of the three hours I was with it. But my mood was dower. Breakup still fresh in my mind and most of my time spent out drinking, being tied to my 360 (on an SD screen no less) made every moment that did not wow me seem like a missed opportunity.

There is a narrative, expressed through the environments, but its too vague to engage.

If I was simply playing for fun I would have walked away, not because it wasn’t good but so I could come back at a time that would allow me to enjoy it to the fullest. However playing the game for review I was afforded no such luxury. After the first hour I began to feel edgy, a need to escape my room gripped me and no amount of red wine would sate the desire.

Soon after this change in mood the game shifted in style, from a natural wooded environment to a more industrial cityscape. This drabber setting took my mood still lower. New puzzle were introduced, which while no more challenging felt sloppy in construction. I tried to comb out opinion, coloured by my disposition, from the actuality of the game. For the most part I could appreciate what Limbo was trying to do, but I wasn’t feeling it.

It was then I hit the final straw in the games nosedive in my estimations. A single puzzle that rather than require a definitive solution as all previous challenges had done required timing/luck/finesse that I struggled with. Even now, viewed through a more objective lens I can say this was the lowest point for Limbo. It wasn’t flawed per say but this was a game of hard rules. Like any puzzle finding a solution in Limbo was met with success and if skill was the commodity in demand it was clearly marked. The problem in question for this damnable task left me unsure I had found the right answer because it broke the established rules of reinforcement.

It was the more industrial and urban areas that marked the games decent for me.

Commitments meant that I had to review Limbo for two sites. Objectively I sang its praises, while inside I festered at my own disingenuousness. I wanted to walk away from the reviews and forget the game, feeling further cheated that it was taking more of my life from me. Honing in on the first area I constructed my opinion, contenting myself with comments about its change in style ‘not being to my taste’ and ‘out of place puzzles in the later sections’.

A test as a reviewer maybe, and one I am not sure I passed.

But why have I submitted this diatribe for you here, well as a lesson for all. Limbo came for me at a bad time and, having replayed it recently, I can honestly say my opinion is coloured forever. It is now a time capsule of my feelings when I played it, no matter what appreciation I can intellectually derive for it I will never be able to enjoy it. Maybe this is a pitfall everyone who reviews games faces but with this I learnt to appreciate the games I play for fun when I have the option of walking away if I am not in the mood.

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