Deathspank’d into LIMBO

I can’t say I’ve been overwhelmed by my recent gaming purchases on the whole, not this year really. I could list many titles which have been dubbed “game of 2010”, but no matter how prematurely these claims seem I haven’t felt as many of this year’s titles have really measured up. Is gaming getting worse? No, absolutely not, even though the recession killed off many new “mainstream” IP’s, the technology is still being pushed forward (even if some titles are stagnating slightly) and the indie sphere is becoming even more enduring with it’s growing exposure and accessibility. The fact that I’ve felt a little let down by this years titles most probably signifies an issue with myself rather than the industry. I’ve always had a different way of looking at things, I don’t see walking simply as putting one foot in front of another, rather it’s more a case your perpetual falling forwards being displaced slightly by each foot step. As you can see, nothing to worry about there then. Considering my disappointment with this years most lauded titles the recent spate of downloadable content has reminded me why I still play games and has ultimately justified my use of xbox live for another year.

Let me begin with Deathspank, a title which until very recently I knew very little about. The title, unsurprisingly conjured images of the game which it is safe to say were very wrong. But after hearing it was a title which mixed elements of Diablo 2 and the humour of Monkey Island I was sold, and the rest they say is history. I’m not going to wax lyrical about how amazing the game is, I do find the humour enjoyable, but it’s a little forced at times, and whilst the combat system is solid, it also feels a little uninspired. But Deathspank is a title which I had no expectations of and it is a charming title which will find it’s place within almost anyone’s game library. This is all I am going to say about the game though, Mr Brainy Gamer has diligently been writing a piece on Deathspank which is due on GameSetWatch some time soon, go read that, it’ll be better than I can do. If you don’t fancy a sojourn to GSW I’ll leave you with this; download the demo, if you don’t at least smirk at the humour and feel the need to play on you haven’t lost anything. If you don’t give it a try you are certainly missing out.

The main reason I’m writing though, is a dark little title, something which has been simmering away for the last few months in development, and that, is LIMBO. Since Braid everyone has been watching XBLA and PSN for the next big “art” title and I believe we have it here. It may be short, it may cost 1200ms points but if I hear anyone saying that that means it isn’t “value for money” I think my head might burst or something. LIMBO is perhaps one of the most affecting games I have played in a long time which is due to many reasons, but mainly on it’s elegance, simplicity and charm. When you consider the game’s monochromatic colour scheme lack of a soundtrack beyond ambient sounds and the odd punctuating rumble or swell of swings, you might think the game could be described as minimal, thereby leading you to think it was missing something, but the old adage “less is more” could never been seen as more true here. The game’s unconventional denial of colour and music could be seen as a pretentious step into “art” gaming by some, and that whilst being a half-truth is selling this fantastic little title very short. It’s true though, this game is art and I am not going to write why, I am not going to use this piece as a rebuttal to an ignorant film critic or any some such (since when did film critics have the right to get so elitist anyway?), no I shall just focus on what the game does, how it is able to create a near constant feeling of fear, satisfaction and sadness. So as not to spoil the game’s magic I shall only describe events which you can see in the trail version of the game, so from here you can consider “spoilers” for that.

Under it’s aesthetic the game is quite simply a 2d puzzle game, but when compared to Braid’s masterful and sometimes maddening time control mechanic, Playdead have towed a different line and keep the game’s mechanics very low key, quite simply there is a jump button and an “action button”, that’s it. The game doesn’t tell you this though, not unless you ask it to. Instead it favours to establish the game’s atmosphere quite simply without any grand back story, cut scenes or even titles beyond the game’s name and a warning that it contains potentially offensive content. Once you start LIMBO opens in a mysterious word, small shafts of light piercing the harsh shadows which plunge the foreground into complete darkness. Initially it took me a short which to realise that I wasn’t watching a cut scene, the game had started I had to initiate proceedings; with a tentative push of the A button I see two bright white eyes appear in the foreground and what appears to be a small boy slowly pulls himself to his feet. A short run through the forest, the no-thrills entrance, the eerie but stunning surroundings had already made me feel edgy, within the first few moments LIMBO is already the antithesis of the usual action driven “mainstream” titles, and I love it.

It wasn’t long until I found what LIMBO was really about though, a short way from the starting point I misjudge a rather easy leap over a pit and to my absolute horror I see the little boy get impaled on one of the spikes which line the pit, and his bright eyes which I had just seen awaken go black and his body falls limp. This was the first (and certainly not the last) such incident in the game something which you never truly get used to seeing. The small boy, the understated protagonist had no bombastic opening speech, no grizzled voice over, nothing. You have no idea who he is, or why he’s there, the only thing you do know is that you must survive. Survival is obviously paramount for progression through the game, but it’s also significantly linked to my want for the boy to survive rather than any success for completion. For me, the most significant element in LIMBO is one which you may have noticed as reoccurring theme here on Chronoludic, and that is in death. The death of the boy will happen numerous times, but there is no ceremony about it, no laments, no “SNAAAAAAAKEE!”. The boy is not a muscle bound hard-ass who’s sporting a personal vendetta, he can’t take bullets to the chest and wait for the wounds to heal, a great deal in LIMBO can kill the boy because his fragility, whilst it may be frustrating to some, is very close to consider what I’d call “real”.

The first true “nemesis” you encounter in LIMBO has to be very high up, if not at the top of my “most feared boss” list and that is the Needle Spider. I doubt that is actually what Playdead named this horrible beastie, but if you’ve seen how it “defeats” you in the game you’ll know why I’ve named it that. The first real puzzle in which you have to pass the Needle Spider is a terrifying one in many respects, firstly the way it impales you with one of it’s legs if you stand near it for too long, also the way it knocks you back if you try to run past it, and then to impale you for good measure. The second horror sets in when you release that it is the Needle Spider’s love affair with turning you into a shish kebab is how you are eventually able to pass it. Even after I’d seen the boy get killed 5 or 6 times by the spider in a “trial and error” process of puzzle solving, I hadn’t become desensitised to it, the unceremonious nature by which is occurs is still as vivid and shocking as it ever was, meaning I was less willing to perform any action will put you in greater danger. This becomes even more of a quandary in the latter stages in the game where death becomes more frequent and often more violent (although the Needle Spider is still perhaps the most shocking). In LIMBO you you are forced to weigh up the trauma from getting the boy killed in failed leap or lapse in judgement to the need to reach the end, to hopefully succeed and end the nightmare.

For a game which covers such provocative material such as the death of a small defenceless boy, LIMBO is a game which has it’s own strange beauty around it. The aesthetic qualities which I’ve already mentioned make each scene, no matter how empty, to be a potent and dramatic mix of heavy shadows, piercing light, hazy fog coupled with it’s prominent ambient sound produce an experience which at times makes you forget you’re playing a game. By which I don’t mean it is some how better than a game, but a title which constantly reminds you that you’re player sitting on the other side of the screen to the action is one which will suffer from multiple breaks with it’s immersion. The only breaks in LIMBO’s immersion in this instance are when you are forced to start again, but because of the game’s presentation and the often lengthy sections between the deadly puzzles, you’re drawn right back into the game time after time. It is this which continues to keep the events with the game so shocking, you’re drawn back in so quickly you forget the boy isn’t real, and that there is no real consequence for anything. Yet you’re compelled, tricked even, into thinking that this isn’t the case, and for me it produces one of the most provocative and immersive titles I have played this year, or possibly for longer than that.

That poor boy…

Chr15 6r33n (Follow me on Twitter at chrisgreen87 and for Chronoludic updates click here)

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 27, 2010 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    Hey Chris

    You know there have been many games that have come out in the wake of Braid that could have got likened to it as easily. “And Yet it Moves” for instance. Gish and Super Meat Boy are made by the original artist of Braid, Edmund Mcmillen. Some games which you know I value higher than Braid have avoided the comparison simply because they aren’t 2D platformers. No, there’s a few things that LIMBO has done that have warranted the comnparison.

    Firstly it’s priced at 1200 points (I can’t stand the point system, by the way, it’s a psychological tool to deflect people away from the amount of money they are spending). Braid was also priced unusually high for what people expected from a 2D puzzle platformer. There is no doubt in my mind that the XBLA chaps saw the footprints left by Braid and took it into consideration when pricing the game.

    Secondly the art style. It’s as distinctive as Braid’s is. What people weren’t expecting was that it would be so much better. I’m a fan of David Hellman’s work in comics and paintings, but when you compare the organic, haunting, and atmospheric feel of LIMBO’s art (and its relationship to its sparse score and sound design), I can’t help but think Braid looks really clunky. I didn’t think I’d say that, but I have fresh eyes.

    This reminds me of a pompous thing Blow said about the music for Braid. He said he didn’t want to use a composer to score the game because he felt that someone composing music for a game wouldn’t be able to put as much passion into their music as someone doing it for its own sake. Sounds good, but unfortunately pasting someone else’s expression onto your own work makes it muddy. There is one track on the Braid soundtrack that actually resonates with me (“Downstream” by Shira Kammen). LIMBO, on the other hand has a sparse score, but there is no doubting that when you hear it it’s expressing something, and teasing an emotional reaction from you – in fact its sparseness does that.

    I think that while opinion is varied (I gather) mainly due to people judging the game against some value-for money criteria (I’d consider, if you were one of those people, re-evaluating what you play games for), for me the shock from LIMBO – and what has caused the comparisons is not that it’s like Braid – is that it has out-Braided Braid.

    It is more elusive a story, the minimalist narrative is hewn into the environments (which Braid’s may have been in the later stages, but barely), and most importantly the ludology reflects the narrative for me (Braid has one moment of clarity at the end, LIMBO has many foreshadowing events that explain his situation to me).

    LIMBO is a masterpiece in minimalism. Perfectly executed. More of those please.

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