Nov 8, 2010

every limbo boy and girl

Video games can never be art.
That's the title of a piece by Roger Ebert.  Among the gamers of the world it caused quite a stir.  Having read the piece it is not his best writing.  He doesn't quite answer the question about 'what is art?' and so the piece relies a little on the same definition of porn ("I know it when I see it.").

At face value it is a stupid assertion which he points out, since never is a very very long time.  But up until recently I'm apt to agree with him.  I don't think any video games have appealed to the senses the way art can.

That is until I played 'Limbo'. An arcade game on the Xbox.

Limbo is the first game I have ever played that appealed to my senses less as a video game and more as a work of art. The premise is quite simple. The protagonist, a small boy, wakes up in the forest and encounters a series obstacles that he must overcome in order to 'win the game.' Apparently a preview video or interview hinted that you are trying to find your sister but I could not verify that.

The puzzles are clever and become increasingly difficult as you progress through the game.  But it isn't anything we haven't seen before.  Puzzle video games have been around since Fool's Errand in 1987.

But that is just one layer of the game.  At first it seems like the primary layer.  But as you get farther through and when you finally finish the game you realize there has been another layer lurking beneath.  One that is difficult to describe in words.  I'll try to give you some idea of it.  There may be too much in the way of spoilers but I'll avoid anything purposefully direct.

The ending is unusual. It is slightly jarring in its suddenness. And it is remarkably ambiguous for a game. It's an awkward scene.  Something about it isn't quite right.  It would be as if two long enemies finally reconnect for a final battle and instead they embrace.  But this ending has a wonderful effect of making you reflect on the game.  "What just happened?" you ask yourself. Just before the ending is a slow motion sequence that just holds your attention like any good movie would. It is pure art.  The credits roll and the 'lobby' of the game is displayed at which point you realize something else when you look closely. Something you'll have to see for your own eyes. Puzzles in puzzles.

Then there is the name, Limbo.  In Catholicism Limbo is the edge of Hell.  You aren't quite bad enough to have been assigned a post in Hell.  So you stay in Limbo.  It's not purgatory.  It's worse.  A state of oblivion.  Or it can be the place for those who are unbaptized but are innocent.  And there is another intriguing definition; a place for neglected, forgotten or misplaced things.

Make no mistake the world of Limbo is disturbing.  The small boy can quickly die a gruesome death at the hands of gears, giant spiders, spike filled booby traps, bear traps, horrible machinery.  And to complete all the puzzles you must jump lakes by using other dead floating kids as stepping stones.  When initially playing you are focused on the game play and kind of mentally 'shush'-ing these disturbing elements away.  When you really examine the world though it is utterly horrifying.

In addition the cinematic effort put forth on the look and sound of the game is what I would consider to be beyond what anyone has done in video games to date and clearly approaches some top notch movies.  While horrifying, it is a beautifully crafted world. Wonderful and impactful cinematic effects are used. The video is black and white, depth of field is played with to vary focus, the scenes have vignetting, there is a flicker to the game like an old movie would have, and more subtly the panning and zooming of the viewpoint is often masterful.  These effects all work to really create an ominous feeling.  The 'soundtrack', if you can call it that, is also perfect.  There's a droning quality to the work, and just like in suspenseful movies, the music can increase in volume or melodic intensity to highlight particular moments of the game. I'm dying to get my hands on the soundtrack and there are some rumors it may become available.  All in all, the game's cinematography and music kept reminding me over and over of Eraserhead. Eraserhead was the first movie by David Lynch and in my mind it is still his best movie; thoroughly an art house movie if there ever was one.

And I think the similarities go farther than that.  Eraserhead is really the embodiment of a man's fear of his first child.  And in some way I can't help but feel Limbo is the embodiment of something similar.  It has something to do with fears.

There are many interesting themes presented throughout the game.  To touch on one, and perhaps the most haunting is the giant spider.  The spider is relentless like a fear or a bad dream.  Even after you kill it you realize you haven't.  It keeps coming and coming.  And the way the spider is eventually killed is by removing all his legs one by one; a common and gruesome childhood event.  But one perhaps symbolizing you've overcome that fear.  The giant spider at one point captures you and spins you into a cocoon; bringing up fears of claustrophobia and becoming someone else's dinner.  There are many themes like this that play out through the game.  Bullies, large dangerous machinery, world's turning upside down, laws of physics bending.  It has a psychological effect on you.

So the question remains what does it all mean?  And on that one I'm still not sure.  Nor do I want to give away any specific points as spoilers.  There are lots of theories out there if you read the forums.  Limbo forums are interesting places with lots of chatter about what all this means.  It's definitely something I'd like to chat about over a beer with friends...

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