Take a short journey through the edge of hell
To say that I’m immediately suspicious when some new indie platformer gets labeled as an ‘art game’ would be somewhat of an understatement. I have never considered any game to be art, not that I didn’t expect to discover a game that is what I would consider a work of art. Truth is, what one considers art is so extremely subjective that arguing about what is or what isn’t art is an argument made in vain.
Having said that, I think I have finally found a game that I consider art. It makes me immensely happy.
Limbo is a Danish independent puzzle platformer developed by Playdead studios. It’s a fairly minimalist approach to platforming, there really is nothing more to controlling your little character than running, jumping, and interacting with certain environment based objects, such as crates and levers, the standard platforming fare. What’s great about the simplicity of Limbo is that it allows you complete and utter control, with pressing the right button at the right time never being a concern (I’m looking at you, Prince of Persia).
That doesn’t mean that Limbo is simplistic, there’s plenty of ‘what the fuck do I do?’ mind bending puzzle solving moments. Some of these are much more difficult than others, meaning they feel sudden, like running head first into a brick wall. Depending on how hard you run, you might be able to burst through that metaphorical brick wall, but, of course, doing so will probably hurt your head.
The look of Limbo is probably one of the most remarkable things about the game. Draped in darkness and shadow, the world looks like a silhouette, created by an old black and white film camera filming a poorly lit landscape. Shapes are vague, with dangerous objects seamlessly becoming part of the environment, often leading to your death as the game teaches you, quite cruelly, that the shape you just walked into is bad. It’s one of the reasons I consider Limbo art, as the game’s graphics become part of the gameplay itself, meaning it’s not just a pointless dress over a board game. Watching intensely as you move through the environment, you doubt yourself as you take every step, wondering what is going to kill you next.
That doubt is exacerbated by the absolutely exemplary sound design. With every noise you feel you are about to die. Limbo’s sound is a tiny candle in the dimly lit room of gaming. With every game released, the consideration paid to attention to detail with regards to sound diminishes. Gamers don’t seem to care, and neither do developers. But sound should be, and is, a major part of how we experience games. Limbo’s developers understand this, and the result is a rich tapestry of ambiance. Low rumbling, wind, the clanging of metal, the calls of animals that aren’t quite visible. All of them create a sense of uneasiness, a veritable orchestra of dread. What little music there is just creates a tone for the scene, as that music is often nothing more than a series of tones itself.
Limbo doesn’t have a story, not in the conventional sense. There are no cutscenes, no dialogue, not even any text. Nothing is described to you, just a vague sense of what you should be doing. Like almost everything in Limbo, it’s obscured by shadow. There are, however, hints to a story, but in the visual sense, like you can understand the story of a painting. Children seem to be the only people in Limbo, and you seem to be attempting to approaching a girl who sits in the grass. Perhaps they are unbaptised infants, ones that died and are subjected to a cruel fate in Limbo. Perhaps this girl is someone the boy, your character, feels is important to him. Maybe she died, and the quest to find her is a metaphor for loss, the grief of a child that doesn’t understand death.
Limbo, I believe, sets a standard in art games. An extremely important game that everyone should experience, in spite of its slightly higher price tag.