Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Fools These Gaming Mortals Be - A Review of Limbo

"What?!" was what I said when the credits rolled on Limbo. And then, later, I thought very definitively: Fuck that game.

It was not a "What?!" as in "What was that about?" or "What did that mean?". It wasn't a "What?!" with regard to what happened in the game or at the end of the game. I wasn't confused or lost at any point. In fact I quite like the fact that the game never explains itself. You are given a title and the environment of the game and a vague goal and from that you can devise a pretty astounding and emotional story. I wish I hadn't read a synopsis of the game and I wish there wasn't a synopsis of the game because it tarnishes the experience.

I've never played a game that never had any kind of tutorial or introduced you to its world quite like Limbo. It's one of the best beginnings I've ever experienced and the manner in which the game ignores any narrative convention and instead focuses on an emotional experience rather than a coherent one is exceptional. I wasn't even disappointed with the actual ending. It's an excellent ending.

My "What?!" referred to the fact that the ending happened when it did. My "What?!" is more accurately expressed as "What?! I paid 1200 MS Points for this!" The game felt like a four hour experience, if that. The only reason it may have felt somewhat longer is that I have been ignoring it for the passed month, playing it periodically in frustrated little spurts, and decided today to pick it up for thirty minutes and play for a bit. And, without me even thinking it a possibility because I at no point felt like the game should be nearing completion, I beat this little, obnoxious game.

Limbo is critically lauded as the second coming of Christ. I've not heard one bad thing about it. Everyone is praising it. Normally I respect truly artistic and imaginative endeavors and sometimes I'm even easily convinced to like something simply because of its artistic cache (I use the phrase artistic cache somewhat ironically. I'll let you decide what I'm being ironic about). Case in point is a movie like Gerry. I love Gerry. But is Gerry good? I find it compelling. But I find it compelling more because it exists rather than its entertainment value. I think a part of me likes it because it's so desperately and clearly trying to be modern art on film. I find it compelling because it's daring and I like the cinematography and I feel an emotional connection to those two lost characters. But I wouldn't say that anyone needs to see Gerry. I wouldn't suggest that Gerry is entertaining or fun. And entertainment and fun is, I believe, an essential aspect of film and art and what makes a film good art. This makes me question whether or not something like Gerry is actually good art. There are some people in the film world who would suggest that Gerry, or a movie like it, is better than Back To The Future and that just simply isn't true.

How does this apply?

Gamers are trying desperately to convince the world and themselves that games are art. I've never understood why the convincing was quite so necessary and important (but not for the reasons Ebert suggests). I think the proof is clear and has been clear since the beginning. When you have artists doing stuff...the stuff they're doing is art. That's a rather "pedestrian" way of putting it but it's the simplest way to do so. The clearest example is in art-design and the actual drawings and art work that are created prior to the game designers doing anything. The people drawing those sketches are artists and their art work is then translated into a digital image. I'm not even mentioning all the other aspects that are clearly artistic in their own right that go into game making.

Of course games are art. Everyone knows it. The only reason there's a debate is because people like to debate. Apart from the legality of them being considered otherwise, I don't feel I even need to defend the medium because it defends itself, and I wish gamers and particularly game reviewers and game developers were as confident. If they were more confident I feel they would have a clearer mind. I feel they would not be so pretentious and easily fooled, like a film buff that thinks a movie like Gerry is a great movie. Developers and reviewers so desperately want to convince the world of the legitimacy of video games that they will applaud any example that supports their goal, regardless of the game's actual worth.

Limbo is clearly trying to be art. In many ways it is. In too many ways it is. The fact that the game makes its artistic goals overtly clear by being so purposefully unique means that the critics are going to hop on this little gem and raise it up as an example of video game legitimacy. A critic's hunger to demonstrate video games as art will cloud his/her judgment of a game's quality. Our desire to like anything that's deep and meaningful means we're likely to ignore somethings' failures and focus on its triumphs regardless of how astronomical its failures may be, regardless of whether or not it actually ignores what makes something good art within the medium it functions. We who are hungry for art will see only the beautiful art design, the gorgeous sound and haunting music, the frightening and disturbing imagery, and the evocative story of Limbo. To put it simply, we're blinded by the pretty colors and get all excited.

If I may be so bold I would like to state what I believe is the difference between good art and bad art. Bad art is art that does not fulfill its purpose or function properly within the confines of its medium. Good art does. Limbo is bad art. The reason Limbo is bad art is because while it gets atmosphere, emotionality, art design, story, sound design, and an assortment of other essential aspects of a good video game wonderfully right, it completely and totally fails with regard to the two absolutely most important tenets of a good video game: gameplay and fun.

Yes Limbo has some pleasurable puzzles. The controls are smooth and it's fun to watch your character get chopped to bits...the first few times. It's satisfying (kind of) to figure these puzzles out. But it's ultimately not fun for one very simple reason. The game is about failure. The game forces you to fail. And not just once. But repeatedly from beginning to end, Limbo forces players to die over and over and over and over and over and over and over...

It's not merely a situation like other games where the objective is clear but there are simply difficult obstacles in your path that you find a challenge to overcome (though you will encounter this as well). Limbo is a series of forced deaths, where there simply is no other option for a player to figure out a puzzle than to die repeatedly. Sometimes it's as simple as needing to leap to your death to see a few more inches of screen ahead of you to be able to know what the game wants you to do.

And so I played this game, marveling at the art style, the gorgeous black and white, the music, the pale lamplight eyes of my shadowy self, and the occasional flickering neon. But I was incredibly angry the entire time because all I wanted to do was enjoy the game and enjoy its beauty but the actual "game" part of the video game denied me this. When failure is not simply a possibility but the main function whereby I'm supposed to "learn" the way the game works I cannot have fun. When I play a video game I want to feel empowered and I want to have fun. I hate being made to feel like an idiot or a failure and that is exactly how Limbo makes me feel. I especially hate being made to feel like an idiot or failure as a result of a defect not on my part, but on the part of the poor game design or poor design philosophy. I have to deal with failure and disappointment in reality enough as it is. I do not need these failures metaphorically represented in a giant saw cutting me in half because I didn't push the block forward in time.

But I refuse to believe that Limbo is even going that far. I do not believe that the game designers are intelligent enough, nor artistic enough to have the following metaphorical purpose in mind: let us have our player fail repeatedly so that they will be forced to reflect on the failures of their real life. I believe only that the designers of Limbo wanted to make something pretty and something that has the appearance of depth, something filled with vagueries so that an infinite number of conclusions and interpretations could be made. This is vain. This is the epitome of pretentiousness and ironically enough, idiocy. I'm convinced that this is where these "artists" were coming from because of the fact that I had to push blocks, pull levers, and swing on little ropes for the thousandth time as opposed to having these traditional platform/puzzle gameplay aspects re-imagined.

The actual puzzles in Limbo are nothing new. I've done it all before and I'm sick of it. I don't want to push blocks anymore. I don't want to pull levers. I don't want to stand on pressure plates to make something important happen. I don't want to wait for the right time to jump. Am I the only one who is fed up with this mindlessness? There is nothing truly mind-bending or terribly inventive here and anyone that praises this aspect of the game is yet again blinded by the fact that these puzzles exist in a cool black and white world as opposed to a colorful one filled with pipes and pudgy plumbers.

This game is inevitably (and incorrectly) compared to the other high-art Xbox Live Arcade game Braid. The reason Braid is good art is that it does not ignore the fact that it's a game. In so many ways it is this pretentious highfalutin, neo-art piece that's way up its own ass...but at the end of the day it's a fun video game because it takes the idea of failure and changes it. It gives you truly mind-bending puzzles that seem impossible and uses an old gameplay feature like time-reversal in a new way that inevitably makes a player feel smart and rewarded. It's fun.

Limbo has the bells and whistles but none of the joy. If, in the manner Braid manages to work time-reversal and not-failing and learning from your mistakes, Limbo somehow managed to work its primary gameplay language of failure and death into the actual theme of the game then perhaps I'd be more willing to accept repeated death. But even then I couldn't ignore the fact that this game is simply not fun to actually play and is eternally frustrating. It's fun to look at. It has some fun moments if you're fortunate enough to not die. But no amount of pretty graphics or soul-enlightening imagery and vagueness will be able to convince me that being forced to run into a giant chainsaw fifty times is fun.

And it's not like I'm bad at video games. It's not like I was bad at this game. As I stated earlier the designers simply force you to fail. There is no other option. This, in my opinion, is a design philosophy at odds with what makes a good video game and what makes a video game good art.

Limbo is a great painting. But it's a bad video game.

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