When LIMBO was released in the summer of 2010, the phrase “indie game” was hardly in my lexicon. In fact, at the time, whenever I heard the phrase, only two games came to mind: Braid and Fat Princess. Neither was of much interest to me as I was too wrapped up in “real” (big) games, such as Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age: Origins, Uncharted 2, GTA IV, and any number of Nintendo DS games. These “real” games translated into real (really big) time-eaters – games that took weeks to complete, that had you making the tough choices, and that contained monsters and guns and pretty places. I was so engulfed in open worlds and dialog trees that I couldn’t see anything beyond those barriers.
But seeing a gameplay review of LIMBO that summer made things…different. Not immediately different. The evolution was slow, the evolution of my mindset. Because I wasn’t much interested in anything that wasn’t expansive. LIMBO was short, contained, and minimal. And I just couldn’t unsee it’s…that…look.
Now, I’m not entirely sure I understand LIMBO or understood its story at the time I was playing it (last year), but I’m fairly certain that it involved a boy seeking a girl. And that boy’s journey was fraught with peril and dead things and big, nasty spiders, as any decent journey usually is. You, playing as the boy, romped along in a world that was, literally, limbo – that strange place between heaven and hell. The setting was alive but colorless, serene yet dangerous, and many a puzzle were set in your two dimensional, side-scrolling path.
The game gave you no direction at its start and only the simplest move set – forward, backwards, up, down, jump, and perform an action, such as activating a lever, pushing a button, or moving a block. So, upon waking up in your strange, new land, you started moving forward to see what was there to be seen. And what was there to be seen was quite sad and lovely. Oh, and deadly. In LIMBO, death was imminent. Because the moment your little boy tripped or tumbled or got to close to spiders and saw blades, it was the end. And the end, it was always vicious and viscous.
While I liked LIMBO well enough, any criticism that I type now will bring about my own undoing. Because as a puzzle game, LIMBO is remarkable. As a platform game, LIMBO is stunning. And as a storytelling game, LIMBO is sublime (if vague). My problem with LIMBO, and the one reason it took me so long to complete on Steam, was its limitations.
Ever since starting my journey with “modern” game some time ago, I’ve slowly, and not always consciously, been reconditioning my gaming expectations. Because before I started playing the likes of Fable and Mass Effect, I was used to simple. Simple stories, simple control schemes, simple gameplay. Though the games themselves were far from “simple,” their complexities weren’t overbearing and didn’t take away from the tasks at hand – save the Princess, get Samus to safety, kill all the demons, beat up the other player, drive to the finish line, and so on. Once I started playing larger games, RPGs and the like with open worlds, fancy mechanics, and control schemes that outweighed gamepads, I complained…but only for a little while. Yes, it took me extra time to get used to newer, bigger controllers with their swanky analog sticks and top buttons. It took me extra time to memorize what each button did and how to use any and all capabilities that a game offered. But once all that was in the bag, I was golden.
And it’s what I came to expect from future games.
And it’s what I got because with my fresh, mad skills, I gravitated towards games that gave players lots to do. Lots of ways to get from beginning to end. Lots of ways to customize your controller so that you could shoot with one button instead of another. Lots of ways to mix up your “talk” and “draw weapon” moves. And lots of ways to forget everything that all the buttons did. But that was okay! Because in those games, I was doing big things with big people who were involved in big stories.
And then, along comes LIMBO to screw up everything my fingers had learned over the past half-decade. Okay sure, you could do some things, enough to get you through the game, but here are all the things you couldn’t do:
Now, while I couldn’t imagine doing most of these things in LIMBO, damn if I didn’t want to at least be able to run faster and jump higher/longer. My move-big reflexes constantly wanted the game to go faster or be more explosive (not literally), and the game pushed back with its limitations. No, you can’t walk any faster. No, you can’t jump and further. No, you can’t crawl even if you really, really want to. No you can’t…no you can’t…NO YOU CAN’T SO STOPTRYINGALREADYANDENJOYTHEGODDAMNGORGEOUSGAME!
Which is what I did. I stopped trying to the push the game into something it wasn’t and sat back and watched it happen. But the horrible thing is, though I don’t have a problem with slow games, in the very back corners of my mind, I kept wanting LIMBO to be more than what it was. All those moments I had where I was enjoying the game’s simple intricacies (oh, how mesmerizing were its backdrops, from the eerie forests to the industrial wrecks), were permeated with feelings of do-something-bigger/be more satisfying/be less slow!
I can’t properly rectify my feelings concerning LIMBO because is a beautiful, creepy, thoughtful, delightful, and morbid game that I found wholly frustrating in the most personal kind of way. Then again, LIMBO developer Playdead didn’t make the game for me. If they had, I probably would have requested the double jump…at least.