Friday, January 13, 2012

How Low Can You Go: Limbo

So let's talk about Limbo. It's an award-winning indie platformer about a boy in limbo. He encounters all kinds of dark horrors on his quest, solving puzzles and avoiding the many, many death traps that lay in wait. Or, in my case, hitting every single death trap. Multiple times. And having to buy a new keyboard because it got smashed to bits in an unrelated incident involving the wall and projectile force.

Limbo is a difficult game that has you dying constantly. Some people praise its difficulty as being uniquely challenging in a world of games that hold your hand too much. It's definitely true that mainstream games are a little on the easy side, but that doesn't make Limbo's difficulty necessarily good. It borders on the gray area between satisfying and tedious, leaving the game a mixed bag of fun and frustration. Which, coupled with other major problems, leaves me disgruntled with this art game.

Let's just get it out of the way first; Limbo looks really good. Despite being very minimalistic in appearance, with its monochromatic color scheme and solid silhouettes, the visual design has fair amount of depth and complexity to it. The different layers in the foreground and background move as you move around the levels, which is not only stimulating to the eye, but adds a lot of depth and immersion to this otherwise flat world. Certain animations are also eye-catching, notably with the way shadows sometimes play and interact with the silhouetted level design.

This is a game where you can take your hands off the controls for a minute and just stare at the visuals. You might even say that it looks better in stillshots than it does in full motion, as if they might be framed and hung in an art gallery. It looks especially good in the earlier portions when you're outside wandering around the woods, in part just because I find the natural elements more interesting, but also because I feel like there's more interesting scenery and setpieces in the environment. Once you're into the more industrial areas of the second half, however, the scenery becomes more drab and less stimulating.

One minor issue I have with the visuals is the continuity shift between different environments (or lackthereof). You start out in the woods and then before you know it you're running along rooftops, and then you're deep in a machine shop or something. It's not really clear how you got to these areas, except for the understood rule of "go to the right," in part because of how non-descript the solid black visuals are. I just felt like I was running through black most of the time, instead of being a part of a persistent landscape.

Which brings up my only big problem with the visuals: because everything is shrouded in black silhouette, it's sometimes difficult to differentiate between usable items and the background environments. It's especially bad in the beginning when you have to move logs around, but they blend in with the foreground scenery. I usually wound up dying five or six times before even realizing the thing was there. Similar things happen later with switches in the industrial area that blend in with the background ambiance.

Some people talk about Limbo as if it's a horror game, with a lot of professional reviewers claiming it's the most disturbing game they've ever played. People attribute this to the dark visuals, menacing environments, and all of the somewhat graphic ways that you and other children get maimed. It's true that the kids get killed in some pretty gruesome ways, and yes the visuals are very dark, but it's really not a horror game and I didn't find it disturbing. It's just grim, and shares more in style with film noir than horror. And I liked that.

In terms of atmosphere and presentation, Limbo does something really special that's hard to put into words. It's got a very minimalistic design that also depicts a really fantastical setting. It constantly treads the line between fantasy and reality, putting it in a weird space that lies just outside of ordinary comprehension. It's almost like a contradiction, but it feels so perfect in this case. And that, I think is why people fall in love with this game.

But I sure as hell didn't fall in love with it, because I was too busy raging at the obnoxious gameplay.

The difficulty in Limbo fluctuates back and forth between being a fun, satisfying challenge, and being a stupidly tedious and frustrating affair of trial and error. Bear in mind that trial and error isn't always bad, and can be a great way to give players feedback and reinforce your decision-making, much like conducting a science experiment. You try something, it doesn't work, and you learn from the experience.

But the problem with Limbo is that, more often than not, you don't learn anything from your mistakes. You see a weird contraption in the environment, so you approach it and it kills you in an instant. "Ok, now I know to avoid those things," you say to yourself, but then that particular trap (or any variation thereof) never shows up again. You see a weird looking switch on the floor, so you step on it and get crushed immediately. "Ok, now I know to jump over those things," you say to yourself, but then the very next switch makes it so that you get crushed if you DON'T step on it.

I might have this backwards, but I'm not changing the picture.

I appreciate that the game doesn't repeat its puzzles (except for the boxes that you have to push around, of which there are literally thousands), but it doesn't build on its previous puzzles and the lessons learned. And in the few occasions when the game actually does establish rules, it's quick to break them. You rarely get to feel any sense of mastery; when you die, it's not because you made a mistake and need to improve, it's just the game sadistically killing you until it becomes rote, because you know everything that's going to happen ahead of time.

When Limbo isn't contradicting its own rules, it intentionally deceives and misleads you. It drops red herrings all over the place, making you think you're supposed to be doing one thing, when in actuality you should be doing something else. One spot had me falling into the same pit of death for 10 minutes straight due to a combination of deception and bad level design.

I was sliding down a steep rooftop, and naturally fell to my death the first time. But I saw a rope dangling and swaying down beneath this razor blade, and figured that was where I had to get to. But the rope is damned difficult to get to, because if you jump too close to the edge (or with too much force) you land on the razor, and if you jump too early (or without enough force) then you come up short and miss the rope. I kept trying different combinations of speed, where I jumped from, what angle I jumped at, and how hard I jumped, but could never get to the stupid rope, all the while thinking that I was sucking at the game.

Well it turns out that there's a sign floating in the background that you can press to change the gravity, so that your feet land on the pole and you walk straight up the screen. But there are three problems with this puzzle design. First is that until this point, we'd only ever inverted gravity--we'd never made it go left or right before. Second is that we'd never interacted with a gravity switch in mid-air before--we were always standing still on flat land. Third is the fact that this sign/switch blends in with the other random crap in the background.

The sign is difficult to notice in the first place, because it's a dull gray like the other stuff in the background, instead of being a solid black, and because the lightbulb on the edge doesn't show like the other switches we'd used before. Even though I had (eventually) noticed it was there before looking up the solution to this sequence, it had never occurred to me that I should press "action" on it, because the puzzles had never introduced this kind of mechanic before (making gravity go left or right, or hitting switches in mid-air).

You remember how good Portal was at introducing the player to new gameplay mechanics while building on the previous mechanics? They introduced one new twist at a time, and then they mixed it with other tricks you'd previously learned. It was designed deliberately so that everything developed sequentially, without holding your hand, and still putting you in challenging situations where you had to figure out how to do things that the game never explicitly taught you to do.

If Limbo had taken lessons from Portal, we'd have been introduced to the "gravity can also go sideways" concept in a safe environment that let us get the hang of it before having to use it in some kind of creative scenario. Instead, the first time this concept is introduced is during a life-or-death instance where you have only a split second in which to possibly stumble upon it. That's just not good design.

You might be thinking the point of Limbo is that its world is intentionally cruel and unforgiving, and that the game would lose its charm if it took the Portal approach. Well, maybe, but keep in mind that the first time Limbo introduced gravity switches was in a completely safe scenario where you could walk around and press the switches without consequences. You weren't even crushed by a box or thrown into a spike pit or anything.

I like a game that challenges me, and I'm especially familiar with games that aren't afraid to kick your butt and make you learn the hard way. Some of my favorite games are like this. But the difficulty in Limbo is not the kind that reinforces the lessons in any kind of meaningful way, which makes a lot of its sequences a simple matter of tedium. I might be willing to excuse this obnoxious difficulty from an artistic standpoint, but I can't praise it in good conscience.

Especially considering the whole time I was experiencing extremely annoying input lag. The kind where I press "jump" and the limbo kid doesn't jump until nearly a whole second later. (Realistically it's like a 0.6-0.75 second delay.) But in such an unforgiving game that requires such very precise timing, the input delay caused me all kinds of unnecessary frustration, especially in the games more notorious trial-and-error sequences. This computer isn't really a gaming PC, but its specs still exceed the system requirements for such a simple game. Apparently this is not just an isolated experience with my own computer.

And, well, that's Limbo for you. I enjoyed its artistic expression, but as a video game it frustrated me with its inconsistent design elements. The challenging difficulty was really fun at first, but then it turned into a matter of tedious trial-and-error and lost its appeal very quickly. At least there are frequent check points, though, so it's not so unbearable as to make the game unplayable.

PS: Anybody have any tips for repairing keyboard-shaped holes in drywall?


  1. Uhh... I got stuck at that same exact puzzle where you have to hit a switch mid-air to flip sideways. I also kept trying to futilely jump for about 10 minutes before searching for "limbo frustration" and coming across your site and the solution (thanks!). Totally agree about the poor design choices for that puzzle.

  2. Baught Limbo in a humble bundle pack mostly to get psychonauts and bastion. Tried the game twice and never touched it again. Like you said it's way too much trial and error and I don't get any satisfaction from solving anything. Plus the controls are all sluggish. Wouldn't mind the thing if the interactive traps and buttons were distingable from the rest of the environment.