Trial and Error Suspense Horror: A Limbo Review
Originally posted on my blog
Suspense horror is not my wheelhouse. I’m a naturally jumpy guy, so I avoid most horror in general, but suspense...that’s the granddaddy of all horror. Suspense sticks with me long after the experience is over thanks to its best friend unease.
Thankfully, true discomfort, true unease, true terror, they’re not reliably easy things to create. Why else would garden variety horror media lean so heavily on jump scares and similarly cheap tactics? Even if you do manage to reliably create tension, how can you repeat it in the context of a movie or video game? Familiarity is the arch enemy of horror and fear.
This is precisely what PlayDead Studios, designers of Limbo, is grappling with in its game design. They want to keep the player scared and uneasy because the world they are inhabiting is dangerous and foreign, but I think they make a huge mistake in how they address it.
Then again, they do get one thing spectacularly right. In a game with no text, dialog, or story to speak of, they recognize that video games are a mostly visual medium and adhere to the cardinal rule of show, don’t tell. Every obstacle or puzzle communicates its ruleset visually, but, as I said before, incorrectly in my eyes.
Like I mentioned earlier, the world of Limbo is incredibly dangerous. The first dangerous obstacles (if you don’t count one spike pit) a player encounters are a pair of bear traps that kind of blend into the ground they are traversing. If you were too busy gawking at the beautiful ambient art design, it’s likely you won’t even notice them until it’s too late and the boy is snapped in a bear trap so huge that it beheads him. Considering that your entire skill set consists of grab and jump, I’d say your next likely attempt at this obstacle would be to jump, except, oh no, there are two overlapping each other and you can’t jump far enough to cross both. SNAP!
It’s likely that it takes until attempt three for the player to realize he has to grab the first trap, drag it backwards, and then jump over each trap individually. To be fair, death is cheap in Limbo. Checkpoints are so abundant that the player is likely to start again a mere 5 seconds away from the traps to try again, but why design Limbo in this way?
Answer one would be that it emphasizes how dangerous the world of Limbo is and how careful a player should be. I might then ask why an animal or another person couldn’t have run in front of the character and been nabbed by a trap. Answer two might be that it reinforces a sense of isolation if the boy faces these traps on his own, but I would retort that there are later puzzles containing both animals and other people. Playdead even litters the visual landscape with previous failures. Other little boys who have died in gruesome ways, but only following this first bear trap. Even if you didn’t want to use something living, couldn’t a stick have fallen into the trap?
Using trial and error mechanics to create atmosphere feels a lot like jump scares to me. Sure, I was horrified to see my character bloodily beheaded, but I was also annoyed because I felt the game had cheated. I didn’t know the rules yet and it abused that knowledge. I hate to beat a dead horse, but when the player wins, the game doesn’t lose. There’s no reason for a game to be so antagonistic.
Hell, the game even does this right with the mind control worms. The first time you learn of them, one has burrowed into another little boy’s head forcing him to march into a pool of water. You learn three things in this scene, but only one is obvious and one is a lie.
1. Mind control worms will force players to walk directly into fatal obstacles. (Obvious)
2. The player will march aimlessly into danger without trying to avert it in any way (Lie)
3. When infected with a mind worm, the player will always march left first (Obfuscated)
Quick aside, #3 is more brilliant than you might realize. Like all platformers, the object is to get right. The mind worms are a control hijacking obstacle that compels the player to move left, away from their goal.
Another quick fact, along the way the player walks over and crushes dormant or dying (?) mind worms and witnesses some demonic bird-like creatures who live in the roof eating a mind worm.
4. Demonic bird-like creatures eat mind worms
So your first “infection” by mind worms follows rules 1 & 3 right away. Since this is the first time you are infected and you didn’t see where the other boy was going before he was infected, you now have support that Fact 3 is true, but no proof that the worms don’t just march the player into the closest obstacle until your next infection. Fact 2 is exposed to be a lie when the player realizes they can slow or speed up his mobility and he has the ability to jump. Eventually the player reaches a pillar of light and a new fact.
5. Light is agonizing to mind worms and causes a reversal of direction.
The player now walks right and, assuming they learned that Fact 2 is a lie already, the boy successfully leaps over the pit of spikes the worm is driving him into. There are birds above, but the boy cannot leap high enough to clear his infection, so he continues to the right where there is a crate, a stump, and god knows what else ahead. If the player doesn’t have the foresight to think “Hey, there might be a pillar of light ahead” and he assumes that he might have to deal with more obstacles, he might push the crate against the stump, hop up, walk into the light, turn around, and walk straight into the pit of spikes. That’s what I did the first time.
I’ll give Limbo that one. If I had taken in my environment more, I would have assumed the birds were my one chance to clear the infection and not locked myself out of using the crate as a raised platform. Then again, it’s really a split-second decision. The player has no time to think about the way this puzzle is structured and must react correctly to obstacles with no knowledge of what awaits to the right.
Limbo loses my atmospheric involvement (and presumably that of other, similar players) every time I encounter an element whose purpose I do not know until it has killed me. However, it does grab me with its brutality.
The inherent maliciousness of Limbo appropriately instills fear into the player. Near every object the boy encounters can and will kill him in some way, so our fear of the unknown comes into play immediately after the bear traps. More terrifying are the excessive encounters with other humans. In the world of Limbo, every other human is either evil and trying to kill you or dead/dying on/from some obstacle you will face. It’s those live boys that really freak me out almost every time I play.
If I had to name the most unsettling thing about those other kids, it’s got to be the way that the boy is complicit in their deaths without reaction. The other kids harass and outright attempt to murder the boy, but he lures them across a trap-filled floor where they are both crushed to death by giant metal crusher thingies and then immediately continues on his merry way.
To be fair, the boy reacts to nothing. Killing giant spiders is treated with the same stoicism as luring those antagonists into a trap. In a game that takes place entirely in black and white (with a protagonist whose only facial features are his two bright eyes), I get that you can’t have the boy emote in typical fashion (ie: with his face), but imagine how much more powerful just a few small animations could be. Looking over his shoulders in fear at the spider chasing him, some sort of “Holy cow, that was insane” fatigued and surprised gesture after he has quasi-accidentally murdered three boys. You know, something normal?
That’s why the game makes me feel so uneasy. I think the player is supposed to feel like those boys had it coming, but I’m just horrified by the entirely grim and gruesome way in which they are dispatched (one by spike pit and two by being pulverized). Instead of feeling relieved that the boy survived and justified in victory, I was stunned at what I’d wrought, but, hey, does it matter what the means were so long as in the end I feel scared and uneasy while playing this game? I can still hear in my mind the note that plays when the crushers slam into their victims. The game lets it linger on for quite a while, actually, as it overemphasizes the horror that you’ve committed.
The real beauty of Limbo is that it handles its elements with considerable restraint. Its minimalist approach allows Playdead to tightly tailor the experience to suit the appropriate atmosphere at any given time (usually grim and despairing at all times). The problem, at least to me, is that the focus on artistic expression comes at the expense of a video game. The pretentious 2D puzzle-platformer is the textbook mechanic for every indie darling over the past few years. Jumps and manipulations are often floaty and feel imprecise, enough so that death can feel like it’s not your fault at times. It all boils down to the fact that Limbo is a better experience than it is a game. That’s not necessarily damning, but any potential players should realize that the wizardry and brilliance of Braid’s mechanics are not present in this game. You’re showing up for an experience (whatever that means) not a game.