Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Zrbo's Favorite Games of 2010, Part 2

Limbo (Playdead Studios)
My second contender for my not-quite-game-of-the-year is Limbo, a downloadable game from the Danish studio 'Playdead Studios', a most fitting name for a game about a young boy trying to survive somewhere between life and death.

You play as a young boy who wakes up alone in a black-and-white forest. You are looking for your sister. There's something other-wordly about the place you are in... like you are in some sort of limbo. The game uses no text to explain anything to you, there's no dialogue, and the sound design is utterly superb in that there's virtually no music, with the game relying only on natural-sounding effects, such as the sound of rushing water or the wind rustling in the trees. Only later in the game does a little music pick up, and when it does, you hardly even notice the change.

This all contributes to the superb atmosphere of the game. The entire experience is done in black-and-white with a film grain effect to give it the impression you're watching some old Ingmar Bergman film (and yes, I can say that now that Little Earl has shown me the Seventh Seal). There's a certain creepiness as the young boy makes his way across a black-and-white landscape, never uttering a word. Just shades of black, white, and gray. For a look at the game check out this video here.

At it's heart Limbo is a puzzle platforming game, requiring you to figure out how to proceed as you move on. And the game punishes mistakes with a grizzly death. Didn't see that bear trap lying in the grass in front of you? BAM, the little boy dies. Luckily the game never sets you too far back, so dying becomes not only a learning experience, but also serves up a morbid pleasure in seeing just how the little boy will meet his fate.

In many ways the game is similar to 2008's Braid, which reviewers loved, and if you recall, I absolutely hated. But where Braid was told through obnoxious overwrought text, telling a story so vague that is was indecipherable (was it about loss? the trials of love? nuclear weapons?), Limbo gets its strength from its outright minimalism. There's no dialogue, no terribly written poetry to read, just a boy in a black-and-white world with a gigantic spider coming his way.

And it's amazing how much the game accomplishes without any of the usual storytelling means. The only discernible feature of the boy is his eyes. These little white dots add a certain character to the boy, and when confused by a puzzle the boy might shift his eyes towards something helpful or useful, such as rope hanging above that the player might not otherwise have noticed. They're very much like when cartoon characters turn off the lights and we can only see the whites of their eyes.

So why isn't this my game of the year? It's difficult to pinpoint exactly. It could be that the game is short and doesn't feel as big or meaty as the other two contenders on my list. Also, the ending is just a tad bit weak. As the Gamespot review notes in it's only criticism, it "ends abruptly". Just a slightly longer coda and this might have been my game of the year. Hell, I'll at least give it my "best downloadable game of the year". Limbo is available for the Xbox 360.

Next time I'll finish off my favorite games of 2010 with a look at my final pick as well as a few honorable mentions.

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