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Best of the Decade: Limbo


Platform: Xbox 360

Release Date: July 21, 2010

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Developer: Playdead Studios

I think most who hold the hobby of gaming close to their heart would agree that the medium is perfectly capable of being considered art. When it comes time to decide which games constitute art, consensus is decidedly less clear. Outside of a few select titles that seem to pop up repeatedly in such discussions, such as Shadow of the Colossus, I’m not sure most gamers know what an “artistic” game is supposed to look like.

Should we look to games like Heavy Rain, which aspires as much as is possible to be a film, for our example? Should we turn to games like Flower, which dispense with most recognizable aspects of being a game at all in favor of being visually interesting and delivering a strong message? Or is the answer somewhere in between?

I think with Limbo we’re a step closer to knowing. Of course, as with any type of art, there isn’t simply one easy definition. Looking at games like Shadow of the Colossus and Limbo, however, it does become clearer what is required on a fundamental level to be both a game and art.

Limbo, like Shadow of the Colossus, does not sacrifice gameplay in favor of presentation or a heavy-handed message. It is simple and straightforward. It does not give away any answers, leaving the interpretation up to the player. There are as many ways of interpreting its simple tale as there are players who play it, yet its minimalistic trappings are almost bound to elicit some kind of emotion, some kind of reaction, from all who play. 

Such minimalism isn’t required for a game to be considered art. It certainly helps to focus and cut out unnecessary elements, but the game’s key strength lies in simply being a good game. More importantly, any message or meaning the game may have is derived not from cutscenes or detailed explanations, but rather in interpreting the gameplay itself. Interactivity is fundamental to making the experience both entertaining and meaningful, which is key to understanding the potential power of this medium as art.

Enough of the museum-speak though. Limbo is simply a phenomenal little title, all else aside. Like Portal, it’s another example of a game that embraces conciseness and succeeds marvelously. It’s no longer than it needs to be, but plenty long enough to be satisfying. There’s no filler, fluff, or downtime. It feels focused, precise, and purposeful.

The striking art style creates a mesmerizingly gloomy atmosphere. The puzzles don’t require you to have a degree in physics or resort to an online guide. Instead, they simply challenge your perception, requiring you to pay close attention to your surroundings and use common sense. 

Limbo also is yet another brilliant example of why I put Geometry Wars on this list so many entries ago. This type of unusual, concise experience simply would not have been possible before downloadable titles came into widespread acceptance and it’s precisely games like this that make me so excited about what the Internet brings to this medium. 

Limbo is both great art and great entertainment. It is both great fun and highly emotional. It is beautiful and frightening, striking and foreboding. It is one of my Best of the Decade. 

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