Limbo as an Art Game


April 17, 2013 by andrewdwtinsley


“the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art” – Roger Ebert

Many critics such as Ebert have dispelled any notion of video games as art and the debate on video games as art is ongoing. The boundaries of art have always been debated and contrarian critics are just alarmed by another form pushing the boundary as film once did. The debate is dependent on ones definitions of both video games and art as to whether video games can be or are art. One cannot say for sure though that either no or all games are art. I agree with Ian Bogosts ideas; not all games are art but some are art and “art games” can be defined by five qualities. The five qualities are procedural rhetoric, introspection, abstraction, subjective representation and strong authorship. Out of the games we have played in class the “Indie Games” and in particular Limbo exemplified these qualities the most. Elements of Limbo are contrary to many of the ideas that games cannot be considered art. Unlike some games where art is in the game but its not apart of the gameplay, Limbo’s unconventional gameplay links with the visuals, plot and atmosphere of the game to induce procedural rhetoric, introspection, abstraction, subjective representation. Limbo’s gameplay and art are intrinsically linked to form one overall piece of art and thus as an “Art Game” and an “Indie Game” Limbo can be considered art to the fullest extent.

The prevalent argument against video games as art is that the whole experience of a game cannot be considered art in its own right. Games are interactive and just incorporate art into the structure of points, rules, objectives and outcomes. The art in Limbo however is an essential element to the gameplay. The game is in black and white with the player character and actionable space appearing as silhouettes in front of grainy back lighting. The dark display integrates into the gameplay by concealing hazardous elements and traps in the game for example bear traps and monsters such as giant spiders. When first played you unwittingly run into these traps and suffer a violent death. At times there is no way to tell where they are there and so death is unavoidable. So trial and error through dying and respawning is a natural part of the gameplay. The player learns quickly what not to do when trying to solve the puzzles because the deaths are so violent and squeamish. The dark atmosphere and inability to see exactly what is going on creates mystery and emphasizes the meaning of the gameplay because conclusions about the plot have to be drawn from what is happening rather then details that you can see in the game.

Limbo exemplifies procedural rhetoric, introspection and subjective representation because all the normal indicators of plot are dulled down. The game starts with the child just out of his coffin with no hints as to what is going on. There is no precursor information, cut-scenes or in-game texts just the name “Limbo” which suggests the child is stuck in purgatory. A heavy emphasis is thus put on subjective representation as the interpretation of plot and meaning behind the game is left to the player. The ending of the game is very open-ended with no clear conclusion, which is common in art film. The player has to read into the meaning, which is different for each individual. The player is pointed towards introspective subject of death and life after death, which everyone individually has to face for him or herself. The art creates a feeling of loneliness as the small boy faces a scary abstract world. The controls are not explained at the beginning of the game though and the player has to discover them for themselves, which further creates an atmosphere of loneliness and heading into the unknown as the usual help given to you at the beginning of games is not provided. Loneliness and the feeling that you are on your own also promote introspection.

The soundtrack is very minimalist with emphasis on the sound effects in the game. The soundtrack could not be listened to out of context as an art itself because it is intrinsically linked to the atmosphere of the game and gameplay.

Ebert cites games not having an “authorial voice” as to why they cannot be considered art.  This may be true with some AAA games because of the sheer size of the development teams they have and the lack of a single director to control everything like they can on a movie set. With indie such as Limbo however the authorial voice does come through because there was a development team and it was a simple game to develop, which allows one persons idea to come through as they do in the indie game Fez which was mad by just one person. With simple platform games like Limbo, Fez and Braid the craftsmanship is impressive but not nearly as complicated and impressive as that which goes into the AAA games which have hundreds of people working on them thus it is easier for them to move beyond just pure craftsmanship to the “stature of art”.

Almost all video games contain art within them. Not all games can be considered art however because elements are simply just present within the game without the game itself being art. Limbo can be considered art because it not only contains all the qualities of an “art game” but all of these qualities in the game are linked to the gameplay. All the separate forms of art within the game are all intrinsically linked to form one piece of art.


One thought on “Limbo as an Art Game

  1. aliymahmed says:

    I also wrote about Limbo, and I must say that I really enjoyed seeing your ideas and the freshness of them. I most especially liked how you analyzed darkness as more than just a color but a way of concealment. Not sure if you played the game all the way through since you made a comment about it, but what are your thoughts on it if you have any? Would you relate it to art in any way?

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