Mega64 Does Limbo [GO/ER]
Apr 7th, 2011 by Dan

Mega64 returns with their tremendously hilarious reinterpretation of Limbo. Enjoy.

Trial and Error Suspense Horror: A Limbo Review [GO]
Jan 14th, 2011 by Dan

Limbo per Xbox 360

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.

2010 in Video Games [GO]
Jan 5th, 2011 by Dan

The Super Potato Exterior in Akihabara

Super Potato in Akihabara

As is typical of me, I played a ton of video games this year. Here’s a listing of what I played along with a few short (or long) words on each game. For the most part, this list is restricted to games released in 2010 unless I did not play them until this year. It’s also mostly in chronological order, with some skips here and there.

Mother 3: Definitely did not come out in 2010. I reviewed it already, but let me say that there is significant beauty to this game. Affecting and heartwrenching, this is easily among the best games I played this year. Do not play this on an emulator because the music-timing of the battles is deliciously fun and the time lag of emulation makes that impossible to experience.

Mass Effect 2: The first AAA game of the year. My review trended toward disappointing, mostly due to the way that story was handled in this iteration compared to part 1. Still, an undeniably great game whose heist-story mechanics and plot are unique and interesting in the gaming landscape. I can’t wait for part three in November.

Heavy Rain: Almost as exciting as actually doing the chores your imaginary wife forces you to do in real life. The execution just missed with this one and its plot twist was asinine and felt cheap. If you’re allowed to hear the thoughts of the protagonists, but you fail to provide a logical reason as to why that person is lying to us (himself?), you’ve lost me.

Pro Yakyu Spirits 2010 (Professional Baseball Spirits 2010): My baseball game of the year. I love taking the Carp to the Japan Series each year. I spent countless hours developing my franchise. This game was worth every dollar I spent importing it.

Final Fantasy XIII: Thoroughly disappointing. Expect more from me on this (edits from the future!), but SqueEnix really dropped the ball something fierce here. A game that suffered from complete lack of creative direction. Final Fantasy XIII is the head of the snake eating its own tail that has become SqueEnix.

Yakuza (1, 2, )3: Did not put that much time into this one, but I did play its prequels to completion. Fiercely Japanese in design, I just haven’t found the time to get deep into this gem. I’m sure it’s actually pretty great.

Mega Man 10: It lacked some of MM9’s magic (partially by being easier), but still a razor sharp example of why the Blue Bomber captured our hearts in the first place. Pump Man’s power, while heavily reminiscent of Leaf Man, is deliciously fun to play with. Using it again Solar Man was also tons of fun for me.

Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilve: It was fun to go back to the best two games in the series. The Pokewalker was stupid, but I have high hopes for Black & White. These games are easily dismissed as rehashes, but they’re still white-hot proof that JRPG design doesn’t have to be needlessly complex to be addictive and elegant.

Alien Swarm: Valve gave me this game for free. I played it maybe twice. Decent fun, but I’d rather play Left 4 Dead 2.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey: Never beat this game. SMT continues to be ridiculously tough and legitimately mature in their presentation of mankind’s eternal struggles against its darker tendencies. Maybe it’s the first-person dungeon crawling, but something about this game prevents me from ever picking it up most days.

Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse: I’m lumping all five episodes into one entity. I find TellTale adventure games to be workmanlike in quality. With the exception of the last two or three episodes of Tales of Monkey Island, they lack the extra oomph that could make them truly great. That said, The Devil’s Playhouse was the most hilarious Sam & Max iteration yet. From Sam & Max’s insistence on pronouncing General Skun’kape as skunk-ape to their episode-wide fight over what to call the menacing Sam clones (Samulacra or Doggleganger?), these games were absolute riots. Now if only TellTale could figure out how to make them great games as well…

Monster Hunter Tri: One gaming session. The sword swipes pack so much friction it’s beautiful. Despite this, never picked it up again. Got a sick black classic controller out of it. Now if only I played Wii more often…

Super Street Fighter IV: Played the hell out of last year’s iteration. Opted to play other games since it was structurally similar to vanilla Street Fighter IV. Kind of wish I’d played it a lot more this year.

Green Day: Rock Band: Played it once, exported the tracks to Rock Band 2/3, never felt the need to boot it up again. Despite only 1 hour of playtime, unlocked an achievement. Fixing the ‘D’ rank that came as a result on Giant Bomb is the only reason I will ever boot this up again.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies: Practically perfect in almost every way that a JRPG should be. I understand why the story was left more generic than years past, but the lack of an interesting narrative is what kept me from finishing.

DeathSpank: Played the demo once. Bought it on PC to support Ron Gilbert. Might actually play it one day. It seemed funny.

Comic Jumper: Hilarious in a juvenile way, I slogged through the repetitive, mediocre gameplay just to see more of this game. I think Min “played” this the right way. He watched me beat it and got to enjoy the presentation without having to touch a controller.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty: Am I the only person who hates what they did at the end of this story? Sure, it has legitimately far-reaching consequences for the sequel, but I think they’re also legitimately less interesting. Still, as perfectly constructed a game as they come. I fell out of playing it, but it definitely feels like I could pick it up at any time and have fun with it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game: A loving tribute to River City Ransom wrapped up in a franchise that I really enjoy. Sounds like a recipe for success to me. Loads of fun, but, like most middling brawlers, starts to wear on you toward the end as there’s not enough variety introduced in later levels.

Worms: Reloaded: Love Worms. Loaded this up once and never did it again. I’ve hated all Worms interfaces since Worms 2, mostly because they obfuscate and hide customization options more and more as they transition toward console friendliness. I wish they’d put more effort into their PC version.

Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, Dead Rising 2, and Dead Rising 2: Case West: I’ll lump these all together since they are mostly the same game spread out into chunks. The prologue and epilogue (Zero and West, respectively) are just small and feature-gimped enough that they lack the oomph of the full retail release. Dead Rising 2 itself was everything I wanted it to be. A more robust co-op system would be all it needed to be top tier, but I still had loads of fun with it. As a bonus, Min and Dead Rising 2 taught me how to play Texas Hold ‘Em this year.

Civilization V: You probably saw my review where I hated on the terrible AI. I haven’t played since they patched/fixed it, but if they did it right, this game could totally fall back within my good graces. I do sincerely love this game, it’s just not what I hoped it would be and, in its present form, not as good as IV.

Rock Band 3: Harmonix went and made a perfect Rock Band game. Now all I’ve got to do is get my hands on a pro-guitar and I might actually learn something practical from a game that lets me indulge in all my favorite music.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale: Ever wanted to run a JRPG item shop? This indie game translated from Japan is charming and fun, but I haven’t had the time to devote myself to it yet in 2010.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: So good until the end. Can a stupid ending mar an otherwise good game? Yeah, kinda. I still loved it for the great acting (weird to say, right?), but stupid ending + sub-Uncharted 2 traversal-style gameplay mires this one in the mediocre bin. The fighting system could also have used a little less frame-lock in its animations (is that what this is called?). Can’t count how many times I died because I was stuck in a seconds-long super attack aimed at the air.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn: Unparalleled artistic vision ties this game together. I haven’t put too much time in, but it seems super easy. I want to play with a friend to get the most out of this. What do you say, Min?

Super Meat Boy: Juxtaposing Kirby and Super Meat Boy is wrong on so many levels. One is like chamber music. Beautiful, complex, but not so complex it’s tough to listen to. The other is kick-you-in-the-teeth, bite off a squirrel head, make you a man heavy metal. Super Meat Boy is so deliciously crunchy in every way that it might be the best game game on this list. Where Starcraft II is perfect with a Beatles-type polish, Super Meat Boy is The Clash; unabashedly punk rock. I love this game. It’s so addictive and fun.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX: Did I say Super Meat Boy was perfect? Pac-Man CE DX (PMCEDX) is video gaming distilled to its primal essence. Eat a whole train of 30 ghosts and I dare you not to feel primitive fun stir deep within you. Words cannot express how great this game is in bite-sized chunks.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge: Is it cheating to count a re-release? This is probably the greatest adventure game ever now with a commentary track recorded by the big three: Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Tim Schafer.

Poker Night at the Inventory: Strong Bad is unbelievably annoying, but banter between Max, Heavy Weapons Guy, and Tycho are always a joy. The second half of this year’s poker lessons were learned here. Now if only I could get straight flush and four-of-a-kind hands so that I can 100% the achievements in this game!

Back to the Future: The Game: The voice acting and atmosphere in this game are both spot on. Unfortunately I hit a game breaking bug and had to start over. That sucked.

Limbo: First played this on 31 December, so it still counts. Deeply atmospheric, but darkly disturbing and difficult for me to stomach more than once a day. I want to go more into that in another post. Unfortunately for the game, I think the controls are a touch floaty, which I mostly find frustrating because I need to beat it dying fewer than 5 times for an achievement.

And that was 2010 in video games (for me). I missed some huge ones (Super Mario Galaxy 2, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, Call of Duty: Black Ops), but I think I got a good spread in there. Here’s to another great year in gaming for 2011.

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