03: Limbo

I’m having difficulty rating this one, as it simultaneously pushed love and hate buttons with gay abandon all the way through. Limbo is obviously a game that has been constructed around striking design decisions. The most obvious is that the whole thing is in black and white. Light sources flicker and dim, film grain streaks across the screen. There are no words spoken, no plot to read, your character makes no noises or grunts. The only noises you do hear are an ominous bass scratching at moments of worry, and the hiss, fizzle, buzz and pop of things that are overtly trying to kill you. There’s a concious effort to utterly depersonalise the game and that feeds into the other main “striking design decision”, which is that the developer hates you a whole bunch.

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Now this appeals to me, I’m a gaming masochist in many ways. I will tolerate almost constant failure if you have a slight chance of success, as long as failure doesn’t take too long and success makes you whoop. If you die in Limbo, you just respawn at the last checkpoint and there are an awful lot of checkpoints. For the first third of the game I was loving the game of cat and mouse that you played with the designer. You’d spot an obvious trap he’d left, jump over it, and straight into a pile of spikes that he’d known you’d be clever for. Every time I completed a section first time, I cheered and chalked up a point for me. Every time I got taken out yet again by the bucket poised atop the ajar door, I’d smile ruefully and chalk one up for the developer. This, plus the depersonalisation, plus the terrible visibility, makes this a gameworld you want to beat. It makes it a gameworld you hate. The game isn’t incredibly difficult, though it does have areas that require good timing to do.

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It’s tempting to compare it to Braid, but the difference is that Braid kept jacking up the thought required, whereas Limbo just keeps trying to kill you. And then, for some reason, it stops. The middle third of Limbo has some pretty stale platforming fare, moving boxes and making jumps. A couple of nice setpieces are in this bit but the spark was waning, I was getting bored instead of frustrated with the game. Fortunately, it came storming back in the last third, the world spinning around, complicated antigravity jumps, fiendish blade-dodging once more. I’m sure there is something meaningful and deep going on in the background but I don’t have the time or inclination to find that out, all I know is it was fun. Super Meat Boy style. You die, you die lots, but it’s worth it to mouth “FUCK YOUUUU” at the game and thrust your victory dance when you get through an impossible series of jumps. The shame is that even at the short length it has, there still felt like there was filler. Still, not nearly as horrible as I was expecting. And the ending is shit but I expected that.

3 stars, 3 hours spent

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