- GENRE: Puzzle/Platformer
- PLATFORM: Xbox 360
- DEVELOPER: Playdead
- ESRB RATING: T for Teen (Animated Blood and Mild Violence)
- PRICE: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15)
- RELEASE DATE: July 21, 2010
VIDEO GAMES AS…ART??
The whole "can video games be art?" debate is one that has increasingly fascinated me over the years as it has grown in vitriol and vigor. In my mind (and in the minds of millions of other gamers, I'm sure…), there never was really any doubt – video games can be art. Period. End of debate. Although I see the artistic merit more in a title like Bioshock, than I do in something like Braid. Braid just did not resonate with me on any level; whereas I view Bioshock as the almost perfect synthesis of compelling narrative and nail-biting gameplay. You can choose to disagree with me if you like, but you'd be wrong… Just a few weeks ago, the great film critic, Roger Ebert, gobbled down a man-sized helping of crow by finally admitting that he never should have opened his yap and said that video games can't be art. Mr. Ebert, rather bravely, came clean with the confession that his opinion of video games shouldn't be taken seriously because he doesn't know a goddamn thing about them.
It takes a big man to admit when he is wrong and I appreciate that. But rather than rub Mr. Ebert's nose in his noble retraction, I'd like to sit the man down with Danish developer Playdead's new XBLA title Limbo for a few hours. And if Mr. Ebert doesn't walk away with a fresh and enlightened perspective on video games after that session, well, then I don't know what will edify him in the fine art of video gaming because Limbo certainly qualifies as an interactive entertainment masterpiece; a true work of art, if you will.
"UNCERTAIN OF HIS SISTER'S FATE, A BOY ENTERS LIMBO…"
That sentence, quite literally, is the only back story you are given before our youthful protagonist opens his eyes on the gloomy, macabre and strikingly duotone world of Limbo. And it's a harsh world to be sure, a world that tries to smash, crunch and eviscerate the young lad at almost every turn. A massive spider will try its damnedest to eat you. A group of "Lost Boys" will do their level best to deceive you and the environment itself (including, but not limited to, electromagnets, gravity panels, giant cogs, spiked pits, saw blades, machine presses and electrified surfaces) will constantly impede the boy's progress, as will just -out-of-reach platforms, rope swings and devilishly conceived puzzles of all sorts.
To make matters worse, you are very much alone on this quest to find your sister. And don't even expect any tips or hints from the developers. Under the "Help & Options" menu in Limbo you'll find "How To Play" which consists of a drawing of an Xbox controller and the word "MOVE" over the left thumbstick, "JUMP" over the A button and "ACTION" over the B button. Super. Thanks for the big time assist there Playdead guys. Remind me not to call you if my car ever breaks down… The feelings of loneliness, powerlessness and of being a "stranger in a strange land" that Limbo masterfully evokes reminds of the 1991 classic (and another video game I would certainly classify as "art"), Out of This World, which puts you in the shoes of a displaced scientist who has been accidentally teleported to a hostile, alien world. Both games throw a plethora of visual logic puzzles at you (although Out of This World was a bit more action oriented) and give you scant information on what to do, how to do it and just where the hell you are in the first place, which is never a good feeling and done by design in both cases, of course.
IN THE END…
Limbo is an interactive entertainment tour de force. It's a highly polished gem of a game that succeeds on every level: the easy to learn but difficult to master gameplay (you are going to die a lot, and in many horrific ways, so get used to it), the beautifully crafted black and white, shadow world of horrors and the eerily evocative soundtrack create a most cohesive whole as a gaming experience. Limbo never insults your intelligence either, as most of today's games are wont to do with their lengthy (and unskippable) tutorials. There's no hand holding or spoon feeding either in the narrative or in the gameplay. Limbo genuinely wants you draw your own conclusions about it…as any great work of art should.
Typically, I don't particularly care for puzzle/platformer games, but Limbo grabbed a hold of me from the time our young hero cautiously opens his peepers at the outset and it didn't let go of me until he finally reached his bittersweet reunion. And I think it will do same for anyone and everyone who gives it half a chance. If you consider yourself a true "gamer" you owe it to yourself to give this fantastic title a shot. At 1200 Microsoft points ($15), it's a steal and vastly superior to the majority of full-priced, retail games that have been released so far this year.
So, what do you say, Mr. Ebert? This summer movie season has been rather lackluster to put it mildly. Do you have the time and/or patience to humor a lifelong gamer? I want to see if the old dog can learn some new tricks, so there's a space on my couch reserved for you (much like your old balcony seat) and an Xbox 360 controller with your name on it. The world of Limbo awaits you. And once you enter that world, I'm quite sure it will open your eyes to the emotional power and true artistic merits that today's video games can offer. All you have to do, much like our little boy at the beginning of the game, is open your eyes…