The warmer months, traditionally a light period for higher profile games, have in recent years become prime time for smaller studios to roll out their wares. I'm going to be spending several posts in the coming weeks looking at this year's crop of downloadable summer games, starting today with Limbo, which hails from independent Danish studio Playdead.
The first release in this year's Summer of Arcade series on Xbox Live Arcade, Limbo is a haunting experience. It's the story of a boy who wakes up alone and in a strange place. The title suggests the setting is some sort of purgatory, though it is at times terrifying enough to be confused with Hell.
The game world is composed of one giant side-scrolling level that begins in a dark forest before gradually moving through decrepit underground infrastructure and into a city. Environments are purely grayscale and feature a graininess that recalls century-old films. Shadowy, out-of-focus objects sometimes pass between the camera and our protagonist, cleverly creating the impression that we are surreptitiously viewing the action rather than controlling it.
The only sounds heard throughout most of the game are the boy's footsteps, quiet ambient noises, and the occasional startlingly loud drone. Though alone for most of his journey, the boy sees the shadows of dead children hanging from trees and in cages, which serves to enhance the world's lonely, deserted atmosphere.
It's an intensely scary, oddly beautiful, and immediately arresting aesthetic.
Along the way our protagonist encounters many menacing obstacles, most notably giant, hairy spiders with spiky legs. Other hazards include pools of water, objects charged with electricity, spiked traps, and glowing, burrowing brain slugs that cause the boy to stumble in one direction uncontrollably.
When the boy dies-and he will, often-it is sometimes with a surprising level of silhouetted gore (expect decapitations and impalements). This gave rise to an authentic emotional response deep within me. After all, our protagonist is merely an unarmed boy stumbling through a nightmare world. To see such a figure meet ghastly demises…well, suffice to say I quickly became invested in ensuring his safety.
But you'll spend more time stewing over puzzles than picking up the pieces of your small hero. Players frequently need to use objects governed by realistic physics to create avenues of progress. You'll push logs, cause platforms to swing by running from one end to another, and even run atop a giant spinning letter "O" in a roof sign. Many of the puzzles are hard-I ended up resorting to YouTube walkthroughs more than once-but they always make sense.
There are some frustratingly cheap trial-and-error moments-as in one scene with two giant compacting blocks, one of which is triggered by stepping on a pressure plate, the other by avoiding one (with no clear clues indicating there should be a difference between the two)-but the quality and genius of most challenges is such that these issues can be overlooked in favour of the grander experience.
And the most important part of that experience is, arguably, the game's wordless narrative. Setting, journey, objectives; everything about Limbo is open to speculation and interpretation. I have some ideas as to what much of the game means, but to discuss it here would ruin the sense of discovery and taint the impressions of those who have yet to play. Still, here are some key concepts worth considering while playing: Where is the boy? How did he get there? What is his purpose? Who are the shadowy figures he encounters? Why do they mean him harm? What do the spiders represent?
Clearly, Limbo is a game all its own. However, it fits nicely within a relatively new category I think of simply as "art games." Other games of this ilk include Braid, Flower, Passage, and even World of Goo. The developers of these titles seem to spend as much time contemplating the meaning of their games as they do programming them. They start with a message and build a game around it. They're trying to make us think think about not just the game we're playing, but the world in which we live.
Not every game need aspire to such lofty interactive philosophy, but those that do leave a mark not soon forgotten. I'll enjoy most of the shooters I play this year, but as time passes the majority will eventually meld together so as to become indistinguishable in my memory. Limbo's originality, on the other hand, has staked a claim to a special little spot in my brain unlikely to be intruded upon by anything else. It is though-provoking, timeless, and evidence that interactive entertainment can be used as a means of smart artistic expression.
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade
Developer: Playdead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
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