Wednesday, August 04, 2010


Above: I'd even go so far as to say this game looks better in stills.

My review of Limbo is up now at I promise you that it is not intended as kneejerk contrarianism. The tone of this review is partly a reaction to the praise, yes, but I'll defend the substance of the criticisms any time. I'm not discounting the validity of the profound experiences so many other people are claiming to have had with this game, but, wow, I didn't see it at all.

All I saw here was smoke and mirrors. Some clever ideas thrown onscreen with no regard for how they fit together, and no semblance of anything I recognize as good game design. Games are about rules, with the occasional exception that throws you for a loop. Limbo is all exceptions and no rules. If there had been an open microphone in the room while I was playing this game, I imagine it would have picked up nothing but a steady stream of "What?" "Huh?" "Wait... what?" (Plus the f-word a lot of times.)

Not that Limbo is difficult, per se. The puzzles aren't brain-busters, and even though you die a lot, it always puts you right back where you started. It's just so capricious. It never bothers to set limits or rules for the world you're in. Its sole concern seems to be killing you for no apparent reason. Instead of asking you to apply what you learned from your previous deaths, the game keeps changing the rules so it can kill you again. It's as though it's making things up as it goes, like a rambling first draft that could use a good revision.*

As for whether Limbo is the long-awaited proof that games are art, well. We can agree that it sure looks neat. And we can probably agree that the big spider is pretty scary. Beyond that? I'm not buying it. The closest this game gets to something resembling truth and not artifice is the occasional appearance of larger boys who ambush your character and then scurry away. This is interesting, and feels unforced, especially compared to the rest of the game. As with everything else, Limbo passes over this tantalizing opportunity. The boys come and go, and nothing much happens.

Meanwhile, the game moves onto much less evocative threats, like buzzsaws and electrified rails. (Yes, those certainly speak to the essence of your childhood fears.) Doesn't that all seem backward? The big spider comes first. Then the creepy bullies. Then a bunch of clanking machinery with no character at all. Talk about diminishing returns. If there had been another level, our hero would be trying to avoid eating his beets.

Limbo just seemed so desperate to convince me of its profundity. I wanted to put my arm around its shoulder and say: You've got a lot of growing up to do, kid.

*See also: this post.


Apolo Imagod said...

After reading your post, I feel like you and I played a completely different game, yet similar in a very remote way... However, it has become clear to me that this is a very polarizing game (you're not alone - there are many people out there that felt just as you describe).

To me (and you've probably heard this a lot) the profundity of this game resides in that which is not apparent. This is one of those games that (at least in my case) leaves you thinking hard after you're done, trying to discern the meaning of the experience you just had...

Another thing I really like about this game is its length. Yeah, I know, it is really short, and many people have complained about this. But like I said before, this is a game that leaves with a sense that there's something to be figured out... being short means that it's easy to play again, and again. Like a good movie that keep watching over and over, trying to uncover little details after every view...

I respect a lot your opinion and review, but in this case I must disagree...

Kirk Hamilton said...

Hmm, yeah, disconcurment over here. I actually enjoyed the very thing you didn't like - that the mechanics and rules never stayed put and could only be learned through trial and error. It kept me moving forward without ever feeling in control, and it instilled a feeling of dread that I really came to relish. No sooner had I conquered a puzzle than I thought "Okay, what fresh death awaits me NOW?"

It does raise the question of what a game is supposed to be... after all, I kind of felt that Limbo was just Limbo - it was, give or take a couple of bits, the exact experience that its designers set out to create. I certainly wouldn't call it rambling or in need of a revision... more like a collection of ideas that were only connected tangentially but were articulated with remarkably conciseness.

It also felt fairly cruel to me, which I liked. Or maybe that it was cruel without feeling needlessly punitive. I made a note just after hitting that pressure-plate switcheroo you mentioned that said "Heh, PlayDead are some cruel fucks." It felt like a sick little joke, their way of reminding me who was in charge.

More broadly, I felt like the constant cycle of failure and death was an interesting feedback loop, and different enough from most games that it made the experience more remarkable.

Not that it's an either/or scenario or that any game must be one thing or another, but when I was playing it, I found myself preferring the deadly variety to a single clear and ever-more complex mechanic. Partly because many games like that tend to get so complex that by their end I either feel like I'm no longer up to the task or I just lose interest.

I dunno. For me, the experience was more than the sum of its parts, which makes it that much more difficult to parse critically.

Maybe I'll just write you a poem about why you're wrong. :P

Mitch Krpata said...

Kirk, I would love to read that poem!

I'm curious if either of you guys played P.B. Winterbottom. That game was concertedly not profound -- it was, instead, about a guy whose hunger for pies led him to do some crazy things. Like Limbo, it had a striking and ominous aesthetic (it looked like a German Expressionist film), and was a 2D, puzzle-based platformer. Unlike Limbo, its puzzles iterated on the same basic principles, marching with implacable logic toward ever more complex solutions. It was because of the gameplay that it struck me as, actually, a more meaningful experience than Limbo. I could feel the connections being built between different parts of my brain as I played. There was no similar sense of discovery or revelation in Limbo.

It could be said that Limbo goes for the heart and not the head. That'd be a fair point.

Mark said...

Even though I enjoyed the game, I completely get what you're saying. I found the game rather frustrating because of exactly what you're talking about - the rules kept changing. The game gives you no guidance whatsoever, many of the puzzles simply seemed outright impossible because you weren't aware of a certain game mechanic that you were never introduced to.

I was stuck at a particular puzzle towards the beginning that required backtracking...backtracking even from where you respawned, even though the game was left to right from the start with no indication you could or should go back. That's not clever, that's poor design. Or that you could pull things, or hit switches in midair, etc.

Too much of the challenge was in figuring out new rules to the game rather than applying what's been taught. It was like trying to learn calculus without a math teacher, but just an electric shock every time you got the wrong answer.

Still though, for those parts that weren't frustrating because of that, it was a great game that did require clever solutions to most of the puzzles. It was brilliant when the puzzles seemed impossible but just required thinking outside of the box.

J.P. Grant said...


So what you're saying is, Limbo is the kind of game that changes who you are. Got it.

Gabe said...

I can understand your points, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated by the game's difficulty at times, but overall that didn't matter to me much because the experience was so strong. Even having the rules change constantly worked to its advantage because the world of Limbo kept introducing new things to go along with them. For me, one of the whole points was that you were somewhere were nothing could be trusted, not even your surroundings, so in a sense having a set of constant rules and unchanging mechanics may have gone against that.
Of course, for that to work, you have to buy into the world they're selling you. Obviously the aesthetic and the world didn't impress you, but they enthralled me, and I was more than happy to keep playing just to experience more of it.

Saying Limbo goes for the heart and not the head seems to sum it up well. If it gets you in the heart, as it did me, and you take it on its own (admittedly unforgiving) terms, I think you will have the experience the developers wanted you to. But if it doesn't get you, and all that held much interest for you was the gameplay, then I would agree with your take. Hell, in pretty much any other game, I wouldn't stand for that kind of rules-changing, pure trial-and-error style of level designer sadism either. But the honest truth is that, in Limbo's case, it simply didn't bother me.

Thinking about it now, it's interesting how Limbo seems to have polarized people so much, even more than most love-it-or-hate-it games. Perhaps it's another sign of games branching out to people with different tastes, instead of trying to be another sure-fire market-pleaser type of game that's accorded triple AAA status, a 95 average on Metacritic, and GOTY awards from multiple publications?

Apolo Imagod said...

@Mitch Krpata,

As it turns out, I am currently playing P.B. Winterbottom, and yeah, you're right, these are two completely different games. But not necessarily in a bad way for either of them. Winterbottom is all about the gameplay, the puzzles, there's really no message or story, aside from the irrational gluttony of the "dastardly" protagonist. In my opinion, both games excel at what they are trying to achieve.

Limbo is full of implicit meaning everywhere, it's about conveying a message, a story... Winterbottom is just out to entertain you. This is where the length of both games plays a role. If Limbo was 6 or 10 hours game, its meaning would be completely diluted, and not many people would stand to suffer the whole experience.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Okay, I'll opt for a haiku

little life snuffed out
play dead, cruel feedback loop
not for everyone

I did play Winterbottom (and enjoyed your review in the new Paste, bam). Actually, for me, the aesthetic was the thing that turned me off of that game.

Which was a drag, since the puzzles were pretty sweet, though my god, they did get hard. Actually, kind of another case of a game getting so complex that I lost interest.

But the whole "evil piano bassline of slappy swing evilness" thing wore on me as the game progressed, and I kinda thought the zaniness felt forced and overly precious. Even though the puzzle-design was groovy and I'll absolutely take it over another space marine shootout.

The games actually kind of stand at opposite ends for me - Limbo is much more about a vibe and this singular experience it imparts, where Winterbottom stands strongest on its brilliant puzzle mechanic while its vibe felt like a miss. Kind of makes sense that their puzzle structure is so diametrically opposed, too.

(funny story: I was at this preview session for Mafia II at 2K Marin and while I was singing Limbo's praises I slipped up and told my handlers that I didn't like Winterbottom. I completely forgot that they had made it. Whoops! Nothing to do but articulate my issues... which they of course handled gracefully. Here's to accidental tactless integrity! ;-)

The_Hanged_Man said...

I'm with Mitch. My disconnection from the game came when the brutality of trial and error gameplay made me give up my suspension of disbelief.

I finished the game, and I liked the puzzles, but by the end, my thought processes went to:

"Oh, look, a new counterintuitive trap. Aren't we clever? Look, the game is better than me at reading its mind, and it's punishing me for it."

I felt like brutal death/instant respawn combo didn't feel right from a character/world/story perspective in this game, and this comes from a guy who liked Prinny, n+, and the like. Either place the respawns further apart and give a Sisyphus effect, or remove the extra gory deaths as they lose their punch when they happen so often.

Additionally, atmospherically, the first half of the game was much, much more powerful emotionally, and frankly, all the brutality you ever needed to see was shown off by the npcs and animals in that area.

Apolo Imagod said...

Like I said before, this is a polarizing game... some will absolutely love it... some will absolutely hate it... nothing in the middle :-)

Jebus said...

Actually, I'm kind of in the middle. I agree that the beginning was way more powerful than the end and that the art style and sound design (or lack thereof) added more than the game mechanics did. I was definitely starting to think the game was getting stale about an hour before it ended, but I was still intrigued by the game and thought it was well done overall. It wasn't the greatest thing ever, but it was a good little experience. Kinda wish it was only 800 Funny Moneys though, if we want to bring a value argument into it. :)

ph1l1p said...

just dropping by...

John Scott Tynes said...

"Games are about rules, with the occasional exception that throws you for a loop."

Um, no.

In game design there is a term for what you say shouldn't exist: exceptions-based games. These are games with a very simple ruleset and a massive number of exceptions.

The original exceptions-based game is usually said to be Cosmic Encounter, a tabletop strategy game from the late 1960s or so. But the best-known examples today are collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, etc. In those games the core rules are really simple but every unit (card) has its own custom rules.

I wouldn't exactly call Limbo an exceptions-based game, but they most definitely do exist and an entire generation of kids has grown up with them thanks to Pokemon.

__+_ said...

I felt the understated narrative of Limbo was its stronger point, as I felt that the game's rules were consistent throughout.

You mention that "nothing happens" with the bigger boys - they get killed by the spider (as a conclusion to the section that opens with another boy pulling a lever that makes a fake spider leg come down). The boys even get an epilogue (as you see corpses of boys with slugs in their heads prior to the "city" section of the game). I won't both asking "doesn't it make you wonder why blah blah" because I strongly feel that since the game has failed to make you care (and/or notice) the first time around, it's a failure on its part - yet I happen to disagree.

The mechanics comment, however, is very confusing - you have a constant set of abilities (move, jump, interact) and these abilities are then "tested." I never felt the game has cheated with its design: the brainslugs remove your ability to control your character's motion (but give you better control of his walking speed). I did not feel that there were hardly any mechanics introduced - but there was development to the ones that you had.

With your logic, new levels in old Mario games (e.g. swimming ones) require you to learn how to swim and make the previously practiced gameplay mechanics useless in the way you experience the game - and almost every world is a set of exceptions. That applies to virtually every game ever. Limbo (and yes, I'm quite partial to the title) seems to develop its challenges without utilizing new mechanics. Out of this World did the same thing - despite having an "exception or two" (although Limbo does have one exception - being wrapped in spiderweb) as did Bad Mojo and Heart of Darkness.

If you would care to explain why you see the design as inconsistent with examples from the game, perhaps I have simply misunderstood you.

Anonymous said...

"Limbo is full of implicit meaning everywhere, it's about conveying a message, a story..."

i'd be interested in hearing thoughts on what the "message" and "meaning" of the game is.

Anonymous said...

@John Scott Tynes

typically, exception-based games are mulitplayer, as your list of games suggests! that's because when two people get to play with one anothers expectations, interesting play arises. not so much with a single player game...

its also worth mention that while exceptions are, of course, exceptions TO rules, they are also rules themselves.

so, the comment you quoted - "Games are about rules, with the occasional exception that throws you for a loop." - is still basically true.

Pam said...

I have nothing but praise for Limbo. I'm not quite sure what you're referring to when you say the rules kept changing. I didn't see this problem at all. New mechanics were introduced frequently, but that's what kept the gameplay fresh and kept me on my toes.

As far as the story goes, I didn't read too much into it. I suppose you could search for hidden meanings (looks like many people are), but I chose to take the game at face value. Was the game art? I really don't care. I thought it combined great atmosphere with solid gameplay and I enjoyed playing it.