Max has been playing LIMBO ...
Examining aesthetics and mechanics in game design …
In my mind (as someone who’s got zero knowledge on how game development works or how to do it) there’s two main aspects of game design:
The Aesthetics (how your game looks, feels, the tone, the art. Everything from the sound design to the cutscenes and how you perceive the world of the game) and the mechanics (what you do, how you do it, what your character is capable of, how easy or difficult it is to do what you need to do to progress in the game).
LIMBO, a 2011 game developed by Arnt Jensen and Playdead Studios, got me thinking very intently about those two aspects. Just in case the title didn’t give it away, I’m going to be dishing out spoilers for LIMBO so if you don’t want to know how it ends, cover your eyes and navigate away from this page!
Everyone told me that LIMBO was a horror game and I could certainly see that. It’s dark, it’s bleak, the atmosphere is oppressive and stifling. It’s entirely in black and white. And when death’s happen they’re often surprising and often viscerally disturbing. It wasn’t really scary for me up until the spider showed up …
Now if you’ve played LIMBO you know exactly what spider I’m talking about. If you haven’t played LIMBO then it’s possible that you also know exactly what spider I’m talking about, and that when you heard “Oh yeah a giant spider stalks you throughout the first level” you decided (quite rightly) that you weren’t about that life and you gave LIMBO a miss.
This spider is, so far anyway, the scariest and most atmospheric part of the game to me. In every encounter it is slow, and precise and takes it’s time up until the point it strikes where it’s lightning fast. What’s more disturbing is the way you deal with this pursuer. You’re using bear traps, boulders, and all sorts of nasty things placed with deliberate care that very suddenly snap back to cut down your pursuer.
The VERY disturbing way you finish it off, tearing off it’s last remaining limb with your bare hands and then pushing it’s body into a spike trap to use it as a makeshift bridge finishes off the odd comparison, with the spider’s ultimate end being just as bloody and grotesque as the (many) deaths you will have over the course of the game.
And then that’s it …
There’s a few clever puzzles involving luring feral children (Fun Fact: I thought they were old men until I checked the wiki) into traps that you probably fell for three minutes ago, and using their bodies to trigger traps or as rafts to get across the ocean. But despite this I find myself feeling less for my fellow man than I did for the giant hideous spider monster.
That spider helped so much to set the tone of the game. After that it becomes less about how tiny and insignificant you are in the space of a gigantic oppressive world, and more about just finishing puzzles amid several (albeit beautiful looking) set pieces. One such puzzles also involves a little white slug that burrows into your brain and forces you to move in one direction until you encounter a bright light or the little crab … bird … things that eat the slugs? The idea of some kind of monster controlling your brain by just boring through your skull should be terrifying, I know I certainly don’t want it to happen to me …
… and yet I can’t think of it as anything other than a neat little gameplay mechanic.
You encounter these bugs three or four times throughout the game, once in an admittedly VERY trippy sequence that tricks you into thinking you've almost completed the game. But each time I know what I have to do: Find the crab-bird-whatsit and jump up so that I can move properly. A few times it'll take you further away from your actual path but it isn't actually a loss of progress towards your end goal because they're unavoidable.
I'm not saying it's a bad mechanic, Hell it's a great mechanic, you have control over your speed and jumping but can only move forward, meaning some dangers have to be tackled creatively and quickly as you can't turn around and take a minute to think about them. What I'm saying is that I can't think of it as anything other than a mechanic.
There's a few other set pieces that had a similar effect on me, one puzzle involves using a giant wasp to get to a higher level, it's another disturbingly huge insect, but didn't give me that same creeping fear the spider had. It's a bit of a shame because the art style is something unique that stands out against other puzzle platformers of a similar type. At first I was a little disappointed when the forests and caves gave way to vast machines and abandoned(?) cities, but as I progressed further I found myself a little drawn into the mystery surrounding it. What happened? Was there some kind of disaster? Is all of this taking place in the same area? Am I in a flashback? A dream? A Nightmare? Does LIMBO take place in Limbo?
What also draws it apart from other Puzzle games is how well it signposts and designs it's puzzles. They're not overly simple, but it's refreshing to be able to grasp what you're supposed to do with them from first glance. A few times I'd inevitably gotten frustrated, googled a walkthrough or the answer and found out I had the right idea, I'd just mistimed my jump or forgotten to take advantage of the physics engine to swing a little higher or faster in one direction.
A lot of the puzzles later on rely on the game's physics engine, not that they don't make some interesting puzzles compared to the early ones, but around the city stages it becomes less about using bodies or putting stuff into position and more about whether or not you can time a jump off of a chain properly and things like that. Towards the end it starts playing with gravity a few times which I felt was pulling further away from the game's previous puzzles yet at the same time engaging me with the stages that felt more "down to earth" and less otherworldly and dangerous than the early ones.
LIMBO starts off strong, it goes strong, it doesn't have a particular moment where it stops being fun and starts being frustrating, nor does it have a moment where I peter off and think "I'll do this some other time". But it is a game with an interesting relationship between it's aesthetic and mechanical elements and it's one that kept hold of my imagination and engagement for as long as I played it.