8 Jul 2016

2010 - 360/PC

Let’s look at this simply, in black and white.

To those who got excited for this style after watching the first trailer, let me ask you: isn’t it obvious that an artist can create a greater depth of atmosphere with selective use of other tones, than they can limiting themselves to shades of gray?

Ah, but wait: we all know the striking effect black and white photography can have. Draining the colour from a photo can make it look timeless, as if the subjects were perfectly carved statues, or perhaps eerie, as if the world in the photo had been zombified.

A photo gets away with it because it is a complex image regardless. When you take away colour you can better focus on the form, composition, and lighting. But Limbo really has very little to make up for it’s non-use of colour. The problem is that Limbo is so visually simple there is nothing of interest to focus on or enhance, so the effect is wasted.

Even in a photo, good use of colour could be even more enticing — whether the feel you aim for is calm, oppressive, joyful, morose, chilling, colour come can be harnessed to simulate that emotion, which is what film-makers do all the time.

Pan's Labyrinth doesn't look half as bizarre in grayscale as it does in blue and green.

I've never seen Mishmi: A Life in Four Chapters, but this image is haunting — in spite of it being dominated by the colour pink.

What the folks at Playdead do by neglecting all other colour is avoid having to take the more artistically difficult but rewarding steps of working out effective uses of colour for the emotions it wants to invoke. They avoid any garish or dissonant combinations, but also miss any higher atmospheric potential. It’s not exactly aesthetically offensive, but I’m offended by how unindustrious it is.

I think this example sheds light on much of design philosophy behind Limbo.

Limbo has no colour, but it also has no story, no coherent world, no characters, no music, and absolutely no detail (under any application of the word). In pointing this out I may be in danger of inviting scoffs from the fans and developer: "that isn’t what Limbo is trying to be”, they might say. I do believe director Arnt Jensen had faith in this desaturated, minimalist "style". I also believe it was a mistake.

Maybe some comparison will get my point across. Here is a game released almost 20 years ago, in 1997, by very talented artists (many came from the film industry), people who had a story to tell, people who didn’t shy away from demanding visuals — and these stills doesn’t even take into account the additional animation including that in the backgrounds that make the world feel alive, or the wonderful music.

Perhaps unbeknownst to the half-brained flocks of journalists that unanimously awarded Limbo glowing reviews, there is an entire history of a cinematic style of platformers, many with similarly fragile protagonists, struggling through oppressive world's that are enhanced by ambient soundtracks. These are games, like Oddworld: Abe's Oddyssey picture above, are utterly saturated with the sort of atmosphere that Limbo could only dream of. They are developed worlds that have locations and events and characters.

Oddworld is filled with characters, characters that are the most twisted and original caricatures of real life stereotypes you will ever see, like the cigar chomping sales-focused bosses that are also literally slimy animals; octopi in this case. It's a grim, cynical world where the where stark, strange towers of cold metal contrast with expanses of natural yet otherworldly beauty — that are earmarked by the octopi for further exploitation. It's your goal to save the people of your species before they are turned into literal food products. There's an experience that will stay with you.

In eschewing any story or world Limbo has crippled itself from the start. The brick-a-brack setting actually negatively impacts all areas of the game. Below is the designer’s philosophy for the puzzles — which, in fairness, is rather commendable:

"At some point, half-way maybe, we really concentrated on putting these things together in a natural way. Arnt was really insistent on everything feeling very natural in the environment. We wanted to avoid the feeling of going from one puzzle to another, even though in some cases that is what you're doing."

... but I’m chalking it up as a fail. There is no natural part to the environment, it’s all just a random collection of stuff that is there in order to make up puzzles. So game very much feels like moving from puzzle to puzzle.

(Perhaps what he means is that the puzzles and platforms are made up of real world objects like the giant neon hotel sign that is deadly when it is lit up. Which works fine, but it’s not exactly ambitious)

Here’s the heart of it: in one of the most famous examples of the cinematic platformer genre, Another World, you can become so taken in by the dangerous, alien world that as you explore new areas of the planet you'll walk unnecessarily slowly to be cautious, you put up shields if you if you feel suspicious, and you run when you get panicked. You live the game.

In contrast, Limbo is the sort of game in which you constantly tap the jump key whilst moving to madly hop to your destination just for something to do, and in the hopes it will get you where you are going slightly faster. And then, because the puzzles are pointlessly spaced out, you'll eventually even get bored of the jumping.

When you do get to a puzzle you know you’ll re-spawn seconds behind yourself if you die. And as these are trial and error puzzles anyway you might as well charge wildly into the danger and get the kid killed just to see what happens so you know how to solve it when you get back to it in two seconds time.

Is this the style of play the team and Playdead wanted? No, but it is the style of play Limbo encourages. If they wanted us to tread cautiously in a mysterious world, maybe they should have given us something to be afraid of by making death meaningful. If he wanted us to soak in the atmosphere of the surroundings maybe he should have given us something to look at that would absorb our attention.

Even in 1987 Prince of Persia, perhaps the first game in the cinematic platformer genre, was making greater artistic progress, relative to the time period, than Limbo, with it’s smooth running and jumping animations that were copied from videos of the designer's brother running and jumping:


That’s some real ingenuity, what you could call proto-motion-capture in a videogame 30 years ago. Then, 30 years later: look at the way Limbo-kid’s legs move when he jumps. His giant head never even turns as he runs. He looks goofy.

I guess it is funny to see this goofy-looking kid get constantly crunched and dismembered and impaled within the game’s floppy physics engine, but I don’t think comedy was really what the developers were going for, either.

By the way, I’ve only been talking about 2D cinematic games so far, when of course almost every game genre is thoroughly cinematic these days, increasingly so for at least a decade, since God of War popularized the cinematic beat-em-up, Uncharted did the same for the Third Person Shooter and Modern Warfare did it to the FPS — and if you think there aren’t scenes in Modern Warfare more grim or impactful as the silly twist ending in Limbo you’re kidding yourself.

So what is good about Limbo?

One of the hooks of , maybe the only hook, is the close escapes. The timing in every puzzle is designed so it’s enough to cringe when a circular saw misses you by a hair’s breadth. When combined with scripted events you have some potential for excitement. There are a few such moments in the game, the first and easily the best being where you are chased by a giant spider near the start, and eventually take you revenge on your pursuer by dropping a giant rock in his head. The scripting of this chase is reasonably nice. But cinematic platformers have been excellent at this sort of thing for decades.

The puzzle’s aren’t completely vapid. Many of them have an small "a-ha!" moment. They cover a variety of concepts (gravity, rotating worlds, water displacement, momentum ect). They’re all solvable in a few tries and the game never even attempts to explore any of the concepts it introduces deeply (every concept in the game is used only once or twice), but they are at least somewhat imaginative, and you are introduced to new types of puzzle often enough that you don’t go comatose. So... that’s something.

What the game does have graphically, a cheap substitute for detail, is a film grain filter over the entire game. This simple filter is absolutely the best graphical trick this game performs. Sometimes these simple filters can be very effective. That’s the whole point of Instagram right? I’m not just taking the piss: the film grain filter was, like, a quarter of the atmosphere of Mass Effect, and if you turn it off in the settings everything just looks shitter. In Limbo, can you imagine playing the game without the filter, so you can really see everything for the simple vector graphics that they are. God, it would like like a flash game.

Limbo does also introduce some smooth Newtonian physics into the genre. They would feel a little floaty for a game with proper graphics, but in this game it happens to somehow suit the vague, dreary environments, as well as the cartoony character.

There are some other nice details. If you hit a circular saw at just the right angle, intestines spill out of the boy. Awesome! If a moving platform picks up the boy from below he jumps a little in shock. Subtle, but a nice touch.

It’s not that the game isn’t conscientiously designed for what it is. It’s very polished, though for such a simple game made over something like four years you would damn well expect it to be. But everything it attempts to do is so unambitious and trifling it’s hard to get very absorbed in it. It would make a pretty nice kids game if weren't for all that intestine flinging (or maybe because of it?).

Limbo would be a harmless project if the journalists hadn’t latched onto it as a masterpiece, as a work of “art” because it had black and white graphics and it was easy to play. Not one critic had a dissenting opinion. Not one asking “does this really add to the game”, or “has this been done better before”. Even the most negative reviews of Limbo only complain about how short it is (a mercy, in my opinion) or how it isn’t good value for money, further showing that the critics of videogames have no critical faculty whatsoever.

The Limbo site quotes this as from a review: “Dark, disturbing, yet eerily beautiful”. Not even a child would find this “disturbing”, and how aesthetically insensitive do you have to be to call it “beautiful”? This is just so called "critics" throwing around words again to fill up a page, and probably to look hip. It’s time to stop thinking it’s hip to love rubbish.

Look, this is what is comes down to: I’ve played Limbo twice and each time I was entertained at a few moments but by the end was just wanting it to be over. It’s is a plod through a dreary world of simplistic monochrome vector graphics, that occasionally brings you to puzzle solvable in 2-4 actions. Whatever filter you look at it though, that’s bad art.


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