You just died…Again. : Reflection on the Game Limbo by Phylicia Cash

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March 26, 2012 by Phe.

Before walking into lab on the first of March, I had a very stylized idea of what puzzle games were. My ideas reached only into the “push a button, find the pattern” type of puzzle game. I never thought beyond the obvious of the game, the solve-the-puzzle part. Limbo, however, is not that type of game. While it is true that Limbo is full of puzzles, the rest of the game is definitely a stand alone part.

Released in July 2010, Limbo is a puzzle game that was originally exclusive to X-box 360, which is the platform that I played it on. The game seems to center around a young boy running through a very bleak landscape. There is some mention of him rescuing his sister on many sites that describe the game, but I never saw one.  Other narratives have him running through hell, although this is not the impression that I gained from my game time.

Limbo’s atmosphere was the first thing that seemed interesting to me; this was probably because that Limbo is an anomaly to me, with its black and white, grainy texture. The lack of bright colors actually had an effect on how I played the game. Because I actually couldn’t see what was in front of me, I was more cautious than what I would normally be. This actually came to be an advantage.  As I died in the first five seconds, it quickly became common knowledge that Limbo was a “Try and die” type of game, with no instructions at all.

This lack of true narrative and lack of instructions are two things that impacted quite heavily on the ludology of the game for me. I was basically running through a “forest” with a heavy horror movie feel, attempting to not die from steel bear traps and giant spiders. While it is true that Limbo is primarily a puzzle game, I feel that there actually may be some redeeming qualities of it that could possibly launch it into the combat category; namely, the battle between the nameless boy character and the environment around him.

One other thing that struck me as particularly strange is the namelessness and lack of background of the ‘protagonist’ as I label him here loosely. The lack of said things seems to create a disconnect between the player and the character. Unlike with other games where you have a vested interest in the character that you are playing with, in Limbo you really don’t care what happens to the boy. Even when the depicted death became more and more gory— which was surprisingly enhanced by, rather than detracted by the monochromatic world—I found myself more frustrated that I had messed up the puzzle again, rather than the death of my character.

This disconnect is only exacerbated by the fact that there is no limit to the amount of lives that you can use. In comparison, Pac-man, a game that also has very little narrative, no obvious player-character connection and basically no real object other than to stay alive and eat as many pellets as you can, only has a finite supply of ‘lives’, thus making them more precious to you. This in turn leads to you think wiser about the situations that you put your Pac-man in. if the monsters are not in their ‘ghost form’ you try to avoid them at all costs. With Limbo, the sentiment is definitely not the same. You honestly, don’t feel any remorse from not keep your character alive. The little boy is merely a means to an end, if he drowns because he couldn’t swim, it amounts to little more to the player than having to start over at the last checkpoint, or the beginning of the current puzzle you were working on.

Out of all the elements of the game that I found intriguing, the thing that struck me the most is the one thing that also disturbed me the most. This was the obvious fact that you can not win LIMBO. The truth is that Limbo is not a game that is set up in a traditional way in which you can win. The game very blatantly calls for repeated death and it is rumored that if you make it to the end of the game, you will still be too late to save your sister. The fact that you really can never win is only multiplied by the dreary settings and the multiple deaths that you will experience.

Even with such grey, non-sunshine, depressive atmosphere, I would recommend this game to anyone that loves challenging puzzles and doesn’t mind repeated death scenes. As for me, I shall stick with my normal puzzle games (i.e., Chuzzle).

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