Limbo

I recently had the joy of playing through the surreal, dread-filled, puzzle-platformer, Limbo. Potential players should note that the game might be more accurately described as some sort of experimental art piece that happens to be playable. The puzzles in Limbo, while varied and interesting, seem more about creating the atmosphere of the game than making you feel clever and accomplished – though they certainly do that too.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

To create its atmospheric presence, Limbo relies on making you feel alone and melancholic, rather than merely showing you scary or depressing things. Still, the imagery in this game is forceful. You will come across people that have commit suicide, drowned, or simply rotted away, never finding their way out of limbo.

You’ll find rampant symbolism in Limbo, and there is quite a lot of theorizing about what it all means. Some of Limbo’s recurring themes include: tires, corpses, machinery, cogs, a gigantic spider, water, and an eerie hotel sign. In the beginning of the game your character crosses a lagoon on a boat, conjuring up imagery of crossing the River Styx. The hotel sign that your character must jump across seems to signify transience – staying for a while and then moving on – i.e., being in limbo. I’m not sure what the spider meant, but it was pretty fucking scary.

Of course, Limbo isn’t without its flaws, and I wouldn’t call it a “masterpiece”. If Limbo aims to be a game that is about aesthetics and experience, then I shouldn’t be worrying about controls and timing issues – and I found myself doing that quite often. The game gives you no instructions on how to play, presumably because overt instructions would ruin the look and feel of the game. This would be understandable if the player was only using the arrow keys, but the “control” key is used to interact with the world. As you may have guessed, I just pressed buttons at random until I figured this out. Turns out, random button mashing ruins the immersive nature of a game much more than a “press control to interact”, message would have.

On a related note, it’s often unclear what you can interact with. For some items, (e.g., boxes and levers), its obvious, but for other items, (e.g., random logs on the ground), it is very difficult to tell. Just about everything in Limbo is a simple silhouette, making it sometimes hard to distinguish between what’s the background environment, and what is an object you can grab, move, pull, or push.

There were a few points I got stuck – not because I couldn’t figure out a puzzle – But, simply because I didn’t know what I was supposed to be interacting with. There were also many points where I knew what I was supposed to do, but I just couldn’t do it. The most frustrating example that I can recall has to do with striking a lever just at the right moment, climbing a particular cog, and then jumping from the cog to a ladder. I struggled with this – embarrassingly, I might add – for a good ten to twenty minutes. I’ve heard many players complain about issues like this as well, which makes me think there is something wrong with Limbo, rather than something wrong with me. In short, games shouldn’t sacrifice functionality and playability for aesthetics, and Limbo is guilty of this quite frequently.

In Limbo, you'll "use" the disturbing imagery to make progress.

And yet, even with its flaws in functionality, Limbo is still an amazing adventure. There are so many moments where you find yourself just staring at the screen – not because you are confused by a particular puzzle – but because you are in awe of a particular moment. I found myself asking, “How is it that a game with no color, simple silhouettes, and no dialogue, be so impactful”? I’m still not sure, to be completely honest. Perhaps it has something to do with the sound effects of Limbo. At first, I was disappointed with Limbo’s lack of consistent music, (especially since I recently finished Braid). I thought, “…They are just being pretentious and lazy.” After about thirty-minutes in, it was clear that I was wrong. The music of Limbo is the snapping of traps, the fascistic clanking of cogs, and the dull buzz of insects, humming tirelessly about corpses. When music is used, it is refined and ambient. The scarcity of music makes many instances of the game much more memorable than they would have been, had there been a continuous soundtrack. I imagine that I’ll enjoy the sound effects and art direction even more on my next play through.

Limbo is a short game, but a fulfilling journey. The surrealism and calm of the forests fall victim to mechanical puzzles and machinery, which finally give way to alien gravity-mechanics, making you feel ephemeral, and almost angelic. Just when you feel like you are beginning to understand the world of Limbo – both functionally and philosophically – you are violently thrown out of it, and the game “starts over”. You’ll have to play it to see what I mean, but you won’t regret it if you do. Just remember, hit “control”.

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Exploring Skyrim, Part 1

Today’s blockbuster game titles aim to be epic, but very few succeed. Opening a game with a flashy pre-rendered cut scene and dramatic music — usually involving opera singers for some reason or another – doesn’t make a game epic. What makes a game epic is finding yourself in a grand narrative, with a deep and fundamental sense of purpose driving you throughout the game.

Skyrim is a game that reminds us of what epic means. It does so excellently, and immediately. Skyrim’s spiritual predecessor, Oblivion, opened with the player awakening in a prison cell, presumably awaiting his execution; in Skyrim the game developers found a way to make the opening even more visceral and dramatic. When the player starts the game, the title “SKYRIM” fades into view in cold and stark type, mirroring the landscape you find yourself traveling in. Before long, it is clear that you are being taken to your executioner. Your hands are bound, you cannot move, and you do not speak. All of this creates a sense of helplessness, and allows you to listen to the tales of the convicts you are traveling with. Your convicts-in-arms reveal some of the backstory of Skyrim, including a sort of cold-war between the native Nords and the Romanesque Imperials – a topic that will be more adequately examined in a later blog post.

Quite obviously, the player is not executed; instead, a dragon causes a bit of a ruckus, allowing you to flee. (Surprise, surprise). You can choose whether or not you wish to follow the Imperials that took you captive, or the friendly Nord that you were captured with. For most players, this won’t be much of a choice. All but the most random Nord-despisers will choose the likable Nords over the annoying and militaristic Imperials. This may not seem like a big deal, but it does foreshadow a problem I have run into within Skyrim. The problem is, it feels as if many of your choices don’t ultimately matter.

To be fair, the lack of substantial choice is symptomatic of most games today – the notable exceptions being the Mass Effect series, and Dragon Age. Your actions outside of the main quest line of the game — e.g., whether or not you want to be a murderous member of the dark brotherhood, or a fighter in The Companions guild – don’t affect the main story line. There is little to no cross-over between the various quest lines in Skyrim, which makes the otherwise amazing and immersive world feel a bit inorganic, and stale. The game developers have implemented what they call “Radiant Storytelling”, which will change the world based on your actions. This makes random side quests more dynamic and potentially changing, but important quest lines like the ones mentioned before, will remain the same.

On a less comprehensive level, dialogue choices rarely have any significant effect on the ultimate outcome of a particular quest and story, and much of the dialogue appears to be filler. This isn’t to say that the voice acting in the game isn’t quite good. What this does mean is that you will find yourself selecting boring dialogue options such as: “What’s next? What now? Where should we go?” and the unimaginative “remain silent”. Unless you are immensely devoted to every NPC’s story, you will probably find yourself mashing buttons, (or keys), just to get to the end of a dialogue scene.

Still, it is easy to forgive Skyrim for occasionally falling flat with dialogue and quest choices. The game more than makes up for these flaws in both the quality and amount of content given to the player. The sheer number of NPCs with unique story lines and quests is almost intimidating. In Skyrim, you truly feel as if you are exploring a world, rather than a game. Besides the smaller fetch-quests and the main story line quests, there are also extensive side-quests. These usually involve in-game factions like the Thieves Guild or the College of Winterhold, (a faction geared towards magic-users).

Additionally, and rather amazingly, the three character archetypes – warrior, thief, and mage – are generally balanced in terms of gameplay difficulty. As one would expect, Warrior builds are the most straight-forward of characters. Thief, (read sneak), based characters are a bit more complicated to play than warriors, while mages are generally the most complex. There is a crucial and odd difference between magic users and warriors or thieves. Warriors and thief characters only have to focus on a handful of talent trees in order to be effective. As a mage, it is all but essential to grab Destruction, and very worthwhile to spend points in Conjuration, Restoration, Illusion, and Alteration. Still, what Mage’s might lose in devoting points into a single tree, they gain in versatility.

To nitpick, some skill trees could be simplified or made more worthwhile. Skyrim is a game built around combat, which means that many players, including myself, will doubtless ignore constellations like “Speech” or “Alchemy”. Sure, these perks have their uses in some cases, but I want to kill stuff. I much rather spend my time lighting enemies on fire or bashing in skulls than sitting at an alchemy table combining ingredients.

Thankfully, the wonderful thing about Skyrim, is that you can do what you want. If, for whatever reason, you do want to sit at a table combining ingredients all day – as opposed to traveling around an epic world slaying dragons – you absolutely can do that, or just about anything else you want to do. If you see a rugged and tranquil mountain in the distance, you can climb it. If you wish to kill everyone in a particular town, you can. In short, if you want to be coaxed away into an immersive, compelling, and dragon-filled world, pick up Skyrim – assuming you haven’t already.

I’ll continue to explore the world of Skyrim, and will be writing follow up posts soon.

Thanks for reading. Keep on playing.

Andrew

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