Art and Frustration

by Rick Dakan

29 July 2010

Limbo's aesthetic and gameplay work in perfect synch with one another, and time and again it produces those moments of pure frisson that only a great game can give.
cover art


(Microsoft Game Studios)
US: 21 Jul 2010

Review [9.Aug.2011]

There’s no doubt in my mind that Limbo is art. Just look at the thing! It’s all super-artsy and stuff, with its evocative yet minimalist art style and bleak, moody, creepy, disturbing look. From moment one the game stirred emotions in me, and I think that’s what art needs to do to be art. I felt intrigued by the mysterious world and this strange boy I was controlling. The shadow-heavy world lingers just on the edge of being inscrutable, but never leaves you in doubt about the important things. And that horrifying, damnable spider from the early part of the game? Right now it has my vote for villain of the year. At first, second, and third look, Limbo drove right into my brain, eliciting a full spectrum of experiences. This is a model example of an artistic endeavor unique to gaming.

Yes, yes, Rick’s going on about art and games and stuff again. And of course I’m not the only one hurling the “A” word at Limbo. Some might even argue that the game’s trying too hard to be taken as serious art, but I think that’s a pretty ridiculous argument. Its aesthetic and gameplay work in perfect synch with one another, and time and again it produces those moments of pure frisson that only a great game can give.
But then there’s the other thing you end up doing “time and again” in Limbo—repeating the same puzzles until you get the timing just right. We’re all familiar with the experience of repeating a word over and over again until it starts to lose all meaning for us. Just sit there and say “Limbo” 100 times and you’ll see what I mean. Also, try and drop one crate on another crate and then climb on top of them before the buzzsaw gets to you so you can jump onto the ledge 100 times and you’ll see what I mean. OK, that section of Limbo I just described didn’t take me 100 tries, but it probably took me 10 or 15, and I can tell you with dead certainty that be attempt five or six, once I’d solved the puzzle and it was just down to hand-eye execution, I wasn’t feeling anything but frustration.

The game soars at those moments when you’re right on the edge of understanding what you’re supposed to do. There were several occasions where I was moving forward, thinking as fast as I could even as the silhouetted world creeped me out and fired my imagination. The sense of relief and exaltation when I made it through a puzzle/death trap in one go was the best. Seeing a clever, gruesome death once or twice before I perceived the way forward was just as gratifying, albeit in a different way. In a perfect world, the game would be an equal mix of these two feelings, with some atmosphere building stretches of walking through the blighted, shadow-heavy landscape.

But of course the game can’t balance forever on that knife edge, because it’s impossible to guess who will have problems with which puzzles. Some I solved instantly, some I stared at for what felt like hours (OK, it was minutes, but it felt long). More than a couple I looked up online. Obviously the designer chose to make some puzzles harder than others, but how could they know exactly how to balance the game perfectly for everyone. And so I don’t imagine they tried.

Instead they went with the standard, tried and true, puzzles get harder as they go along formula. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Limbo is a really good puzzler/platformer, and it has more moments than most of pure inspiration. I think it would’ve been even bolder to try and walk the knife’s edge I wrote about, to see how close to the constant they could make my engagement with the game, but I know that’s hard, and I imagine it would’ve made the game even shorter than it already is. I wonder if any game could ever do what I want, at least for every player. Probably not, although, Diogenes-like, I’ll keep searching for that imaginary perfect game.

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