Though I am an avid supporter of the idea of video games as an art form, I have two major criticisms with many other stances that support the claim. The first is that many seem to believe that the concept of video games being an artistic expression is a newer idea, when in reality it’s easy to see that there’s always been an artistry to the medium. My other complaint is that the games that tend to be labelled as art are merely ones that declare themselves as such. The games that so desperately want to be viewed as something more than “just” a game, and continuously force themselves on the player as a means to prove their point, which only ends up making them feel more self-aggrandizing than artistic.
Video games that have truly artistic designs and narratives often go unappreciated for their artistic achievements, while lesser games can simply declare themselves as art and critics and audiences will follow suit. Though mainstream games have seen their share of such games, during the mid-to-late 2000s indy titles seemed especially susceptible to this epidemic.
Limbo can be seen as one of the posterchildren of this forced “art house” movement in indy gaming. Though it reaped critical acclaim and a devoted following due to its aesthetics, playing Limbo just a few short years later reveals how shallow of a game it really is.
In Limbo, players take control of an unnamed boy, who is searching for his missing sister. His actions include jumping and pushing and pulling objects, which he’ll need to do to solve puzzles and avoid countless one-hit kill traps.
The boy’s actions are just incredibly limited. Perhaps it was inspired by Ico and its minimalism, but at least Ico could ward off monsters with a stick and had a second character to look after, which added some depth. In Limbo, the controls really do amount to little more than push this, pull that, and maybe jump a few times in between. Worse still is that the boy’s controls feel eerily similar to LittleBigPlanet’s Sackboy. His jumps feel weighted down, making the platforming segments feel clunky and stiff. At least Sackboy had charm and player editing to fall back on.
The majority of puzzles also feel incredibly bland. You might push a box onto a button, which subsequently activates a trap, but also provides your only means of avoiding said trap. Or you move a bear trap into the path of a giant, menacing spider, thus sending it running out of your path. There are a few inspired puzzles later in the game, but they are in the minority, with most of the better ones just feeling like cheap knockoffs of ideas from more genuinely creative games like Portal and Super Mario Galaxy.
The big draw of the game are the aesthetics, which admittedly do create a nice sense of atmosphere. The game is entirely monochromatic, with all the characters and objects appearing as silhouettes. Limbo also features film grain and lighting techniques, in addition to minimal ambient sounds in place of music, to give it both a retro and gloomy atmosphere.
Aesthetically, the game is unique and pleasing, but when the game itself feels so hollow, it all only goes so far. On top of the less-than desirable controls and mostly bland puzzles, Limbo also has a cheap sense of difficulty. It implements a trial and error approach not out of ingenuity, but as a means to add difficulty in its absence. You’ll often run into an unseen trap and meet a gruesome end in order to know to avoid it next time. If there were more to the gameplay the trial and error approach may not be so bad. But without gameplay depth, it just feels like a lazy means to add difficulty to an empty game. At the very least, the automatic checkpoints are frequent, which means you quickly get the chance to correct your mistakes.
Even if you’re viewing Limbo from a narrative standpoint, there’s not much to it. This is another game that utilizes minimalism in its story, but it uses it more insistently than wisely. It wants to be an interpretive narrative, but if it leaves room for interpretation it’s only because there’s nothing there, not because it features a rich narrative or deep thematics.
Limbo is also an incredibly short game, with the whole adventure taking a little over an hour to complete. Frankly, there’s not much incentive for return visits unless you’re hunting for achievements or trophies.
To put it simply, Limbo just isn’t a fun game. I know indy gaming hipsters might counter that statement by arguing that video games, being an art form, don’t need to be fun. But while video games may be an art form, they are still games. They’re interactive, and by definition they should be engaging to play, otherwise it makes it hard to care about their other merits. Video games can indeed be more than “just” entertaining, but they should still be entertaining as well. It’s hard to invest your time in a game if playing it feels like a chore.
No matter how much a game might demand for itself to be labelled a work of art, if it’s not a good game it all becomes self-defeating. And Limbo simply isn’t a very good game. But, y’know, it’s indy and atmospheric, so I guess it’s art.