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 indie titles seemed especially susceptible to this epidemic.
Limbo can be seen as one of the poster children of this forced “art house” movement in indie 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 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.
To put it simply, Limbo just isn’t a fun game. I know indie 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 indie and atmospheric, so I guess it’s art.
9 thoughts on “Limbo Review”
I think that’s why I haven’t gotten into the indie scene until recently; there’s this air of pretentiousness to it that slowly seems to be going away the more these developers place a greater emphasis on making games that are fun to play in addition to telling an interesting story. It’s intriguing because, when you think about it, it’s exact opposite way the mainstream gaming scene developed.
As for Limbo, it’s one of those games that presents itself in a way that makes me not want to try it for myself (never include one-hit-kill enemies unless you can make dealing with them tolerable like in Resident Evil 4). It doesn’t help that it’s only a few hours long. Contrast this to Papers, Please where when I saw a fan of the game play it, I downloaded it a few days later. I think the key difference is that one succeeds at being a unique gameplay experience while the other one does not. There’s a difference between minimalism and shallowness.
By the way, have you played Ori and the Blind Forest? I heard it’s another case where critics jumped the gun.
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I have not played Ori and the Blind Forest, so I can’t give an opinion on it.
I’ve heard nothing but good things about Papers, Please from my friends, and I plan to get around to it sometime. It sounds interesting.
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Definitely check out Papers, Please. It’s a lot more fun than you think it would be given the premise. I was very impressed by it.
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I agree with you to some extent; indie games are rather hit or miss for me to be perfectly honest. I didn’t enjoy Limbo nearly as much as most critics did, but I will say that Ori and the Blind Forest is phenomenal and is easily my favourite game of the year. Its innovative save/checkpoint system is extremely resourceful and can be downright punishing if not utilized properly. It’s uniquely challenging, yet never overbearingly difficult. Its art direction and sound design are immaculate, its vibrant colour palette arguably puts Ubisoft’s UbiArt Framework to shame and the soundtrack is sublime. And the story is unbelievably touching and mirrors the mature, poignant nature of certain Pixar works. I’m curious as to where you heard about critics jumping the gun on Ori. Granted there will always be a myriad of different opinions are different subjects. Have you played the game? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
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I haven’t played Ori and the Blind Forest myself, but it looks charming.
It is very much possible for indy games to evoke a sense of artistry and also be fun. I just feel that a good number of the ones that have reaped a lot of praise over the past several years fail to do so.
I haven’t played Ori and the Blind Forest either, so I can’t comment on it. Maybe I’ll give it a shot somewhere down the line (although to be honest, I’m a little more interested in checking out Undertale).
It was really more of my own conclusion based on various independent reviews of the game. My perception of a lot of indie games is that developers of said titles go into their projects with one major goal in mind: to get as much critical acclaim as possible. They don’t have resources to promote their games to the same extent as the AAA industry, so appealing to critics is often the only way they can make themselves known. Unfortunately, that frequently translates to using tropes critics enjoy in lieu of doing anything original or avant-garde.
A lot of indie games seem to rely heavily on subjective traits such as pathos, story, and characters. In such cases, you’ll end up seeing people who insist that the game is a classic and others who believe it to be a complete mess making equally strong cases. Contrast this with gameplay-heavy experiences such as Super Mario World where even the most determined detractor would have a difficult time making a legitimate case that it’s bad. It’s because such games rely almost entirely on objective traits such as control and level design.
Admittedly, I haven’t played that many indie games, so my perception could be inaccurate, but I invariably find myself gravitating towards the gameplay-heavy experiences over story-heavy ones (mostly because I find a lot of tropes that critics love to be insufferable). In fact, I think the only ones I’ve finished so far are Cave Story, La-Mulana, The Stanley Parable, Shovel Knight, and Papers, Please. Among those five, La-Mulana, Shovel Knight, and Papers, Please stick out as some of my all-time favorites because they had solid, polished gameplay (although La-Mulana is a nightmare if you don’t have a guide).
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I definitely do agree with you. I personally adore story focused games, if done right, but I also immensly enjoy gameplay-centric titles. I certainly believe that the two can coexist naturally, and it’s really a matter of preference. Granted I will agree that critics constantly praise games with heavily focused stories, but have a trite sense of gameplay; a few that come to mind are Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home, Journey, Limbo, Dear Esther, and SOMA to name a short few. Regardless of one’s opinion, there’s no denying the fact that these games have shallow representations of gameplay. I think it’s really about finding a balance between the two and with Ori, it does so beautifully, granted I’d honestly say that it strays to the more gameplay-centric spectrum of things, but it’s extremely well balanced, where all factors, gameplay and narrative alike, are brilliantly designed.
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Update: I ended up trying this game anyway. It’s pretty dull, and is definitely a major reason why I didn’t get into the indie scene until very recently. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with pursuing a high art standard, but if that’s all you’re doing, such was the case with Limbo, you’re just going to create a work without much substance.
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