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Shodan's blog

3:30 PM on 07.26.2010

Fumbling for meaning in Limbo

What follows is not a review, because it's got bigger spoilers than an insecure kid's hotted-up Honda Civic. I'm assuming that you, the reader, have already played through this game and are also trying to come to terms what the heck it all meant. This is my attempt at interpreting Limbo's plot with the sparse imagery we're given to work with.

I'll say it again: spoilers lie within! If you don't care about getting spoiled, you should stop reading anyway, because the game's crowning glory sits atop a marvellously bittersweet journey best experienced firsthand.


Playdead's Limbo is a game about a nameless boy who wakes on the floor of a forest, his glowing eyes the only feature differentiating his silhouette from the stones and branches in the foreground. Upon lifting himself from the ground, he advances through this bleak, grey forest in search of his missing sister.

We know the boy's motivation from the numerous previews written about the game, but no indication of this is provided in the game itself; even the official website doesn't tell us, leaving those without prior knowledge in the dark. Obviously - and interestingly - those who begin without a clue may develop a completely different interpretation of Limbo's powerful, wordless narrative.

The initial forest setting is deathly quiet, serene and, oh... full of menacing things that want to kill you. No big surprise for those of us with the Hates the Outdoors trait. It is here that the boy must begin to manipulate the repressive environment to advance past the endless obstacles that would rather have him crushed, skewered, or eaten alive by a giant spider. There are countless ways to die, each one intricately and gruesomely animated, and it is likely that the player will experience most of these during the course of his playthrough, perhaps willingly.

Many games operate on the thinking that death is 'bad', and punishes you in some way for it. Die in GTA4 and you're footing a hospital bill, as well as the forfeiture of whatever mission you were attempting. Die in World of Warcraft and it's a nice run back from the graveyard for you, as well as damage to your armour once you are in possession of your corpse again. Other games know to hit the gamer where it hurts: right in the ego, with a frustratingly long loading screen that must be endured before play is resumed. Whatever the case, the message is clear: DON'T DIE! As a general rule, we try to avoid death.

In Limbo, however, death is unavoidable, nay, necessary. Many of the game's physics-based puzzles don't impart any clues about how they are solved from mere observation, and the player will find himself throwing the boy into bottomless pits and against electrified walls, trying to figure out how to manoeuvre his small protagonist through each deadly trap in order to survive. These numerous methods of death are grisly, and all the more horrifying when we realise that we are essentially murdering a small child repeatedly.

Why does this game put a small boy through something so awful? It might be a psychological approach to a very obscure backstory - is the boy so willing to throw himself into harm because the loss of his beloved sister has defeated his own will to live? Or does he force himself to do these things because he feels responsible for what happened to her? Is this his way of paying for it?

The boy's repeated death is fascinating and nearly unwatchable. The player will likely have trouble stomaching the other gruesome acts he is forced to commit as well - using floating human corpses as stepping stones to cross a lake, or tearing the last remaining leg from the body of a giant, dying spider, with a nauseatingly realistic flesh-shredding sound driving home the lunacy of what the boy is doing. Watching these scenes unfold through the blurred foreground and occasional pools of almost divine light gives the impression that the player is merely an audience to a macabre play; it feels like cold, cruel punishment. Whether the game is punishing the boy or the player is something that is up to the player himself to decide.

From the forest, a sinister bread-crumb trail of human corpses - some impaled, others hanged or caged - soon dwindles into a path dotted with crude, man-built structures, additional obstacles for our tiny hero. Up until now, the boy's only foe has been nature, so it is a shock to not only encounter other human figures here, but also discover that those who are not yet dead have turned to Lord of the Flies-style vigilantism, and are pursuing the boy with makeshift darts, sending boulders down hills to crush him if he doesn't fall victim to one of their spike-filled pits. It feels like a childhood game turned fatally awry and at this point the player may begin to feel gravely protective of the boy, wondering what on earth could have made these other children turn against him so coldly. They might not be needlessly aggressive; maybe they too were brought to this semi-hell for their own punishments, and they are merely fighting back against the hostile environment that the nameless boy now happens to be a part of.

Again, shades of guilt colour the story, an implication that the boy could not have warranted such treatment had he not done something wrong himself. This is also alluded to in the lever-controlled mechanical spider the boy comes across - built by the enemy children, this replica seems to suggest that his nightmarish foes were created, perhaps self-conceived as a means of further punishment.

Regardless of how uncomfortable the player may feel about killing the other children, he will soon realise that it's a kill-or-be-killed world, and these new, silent opponents form the next evolution of deadly puzzles to outwit. The player's reward for defeating these enemies is their slowly diminishing presence in the game, their rudimentary huts and weapons gradually eclipsed by immense industrial structures.

Machinery pervades the landscape from this point on, until the poetic shapes and shadows of the opening forest setting are entirely replaced by the hard lines of cement floors, grinding cogs, and sudden, frightening bursts of electricity. Despite the urban features, this city is ruined and barren of any other life, except flies, maggots, and the occasional butterfly...

The first glimpse we have of the boy's sister is in this machinery-dominated, final third of the game. A white butterfly dances about the boy, a premonition of hope; continue on, and the machinery gives way to the trees of the forest again, a still oasis from the unending noise of the city's machines. This is where we see her, a long-haired silhouette sitting atop a grassy slope. As the player moves towards her, what appears to be a mind-controlling maggot launches itself from above onto our protagonist's head, and against his will he finds himself running in the opposite direction. By the time he returns, the mirage of the girl on the hill has all but dissolved, and the player is greeted by the hard, unsympathetic reality of conveyor belts and large crushing mechanisms, a portentous metaphor for the boy's tale: a one-way trip resulting in crushed hopes.

It is here in this factory-like wasteland that we come across the first and only written word in the game - a lethal, flickering neon sign that the boy must traverse reads HOTEL. With this textual representation rendering the hotel the only concrete aspect of the game's plot, we can assume it to be a huge, devastating marker in the boy's story. The hotel is, after all, where the game ends - and perhaps where it begins. It is arguably the most affecting part of the game - many of the puzzles require reversal of gravity, pinpoint precise timing, or the literal overturning of the world to complete, something perhaps representative of the boy's journey; upon breaking through this dismal city, the boy and the player will experience the bleak revelation that is the game's end.

The final puzzle, in which the player must alter the course of gravity just moments before being sucked into an enormous sawblade, sees the boy catapulted through a glass pane and back into the forest where he began. His body floats in impossibly slow motion, this moment of accidental death framed by an explosion of glimmering shards.

This is the end, and it takes us a second to realise that we are back at the beginning, in a profoundly Don't Look Back-esque moment. This truly is a limbo, an inescapable cycle of colourlessness. It's not all for nothing, though.

In the end, our boy finds his sister. But it's no happy ending; she doesn't look happy to see him, and he only stares through her, waiting for her to turn, to speak, anything. She is unresponsive, a ghost.

The game affords the boy - and the player controlling him - one brief, tormenting moment of realisation before fading to black. He, too, is a ghost. He probably has been all along.   read

11:03 AM on 07.01.2010

Silent Hill: Homecoming = Awesome! So long as you're not playing it.

I had a massive post half-typed up about the irritance of being as uncoordinated as myself, and attempting to play Silent Hill: Homecoming. Truth be told, if Konami hadn't so cleverly slapped the "Silent Hill" title on the game, I would have given up on it upon my first encounter with a skinless dog. My post was vitriolic, and picked on everything from (what I felt was) the unforgiving combat to the fact that the Shepherds' back yard opened out into a cemetery. I mean, seriously? Who'd buy that kind of real estate?

After playing other Silent Hills, it was frustrating to play a new game in the franchise that focused so heavily on combat. I don't strictly believe that games should be ALL about the story; if there wasn't that interactive, you-build-it element of gameplay that allowed each player to shape his own game, we would all be content just reading books. But the fact is, the previous Silent Hills rely less on their combat than they do on that inescapable, endless dread that never lets us out of its sight. Nobody played SH2 to its end for the stellar, zombie nurse-huntin' gameplay; we wanted to know what exactly the town was punishing James for, and why Maria was so batshit crazy.

This wasn't the case with Homecoming; however much I cared about Alex Shepherd's despondent return to his childhood was soon overshadowed by the frustrations that came with an ungainly combat system and - the bane of electronic gaming - sliding puzzles. I wanted to finish the game so that I could say it was finished, and try to convince myself that it was even slightly worth the AU$90 I'd paid for it. I wanted to finish it so I could bury and forget it, along with the white-knuckled, controller-crushing annoyance of constantly missing that dodge button and get owned by scythe-headed flesh bags and monsters with their guts falling out.

But, after one full week of yelling at my television and growling at the loading screen after yet another death, teeth clenched in rage, I am converted. It is the most amazing game ever! (Besides maybe Peggle.) The only difference between a week ago - when I began writing my first Silent Hill post - and now was that I had toughened up and actually completed the game.

But if that's all it took to make a game fun, any game on earth could be a masterpiece, you might say, and yes, it is a little more complicated than that. The endgame sequence (I got the hospital ending, for those interested; I killed off the cop only because I wanted to keep the first aid kit for myself) sparked no great revelation. I was left wondering "wtf just happened?" as I regained normal use of my hands during the following few hours. My adoration was not immediate, but enough ambiguity had mired the ending for me to want to figure out what it all meant.

It was thanks to the internet that my newfound fondness for the game had developed; defeating blade-limbed spiders did not enhance my gaming experience, nor did solving nonsensical puzzles or making it to that final cutscene. It was the many hours I spent afterwards, poring over the details of Alex's backstory and theories about monster design - hours spent not even playing the actual game - that made the Homecoming experience eventually enjoyable for me. In moments of scripted thrills, when boxed into a corner by two or three faceless monsters with no bullets left in my handgun and only one wimpy health potion left to drink, I naturally wasn't going to pause to analyse their design. It was only during my hours of post-game internet research that I was truly able to appreciate the horror of their creation, the meaning of their facelessness, and their animosity towards Alex.

It's not the first time that I have found unearthing a game's backstory as satisfying as playing the game itself (or, as in this case, immensely more so), but it is one of the few. Pretty much the only other game I can remember enjoying in the same way is Silent Hill 2. I suppose my question to the Destructoid community is this: what were your experiences with the Silent Hill series, as well as other deliberately obscure games? How often has your enjoyment of a game lay in more unconventional places?   read

1:14 PM on 06.17.2010

Misery, and those others who revel in it

It's often assumed that a person who says they study computer games at university is failing quite spectacularly at being clever. "So you play Bejeweled on your iPhone during lectures, very funny," a nonbeliever might remark dryly. It can also be assumed that games is the degree of choice for one who wishes to shirk his responsibility of contributing anything productive or significant to society (okay, I'll concede a mild defeat there; it would seem that a lot of people do sign up to the course expecting it to be a vague excuse for an academic path, requiring minimal amounts of effort).

But I'll defend the pissy little Bachelor of Arts degree I'm currently working towards: this stuff is hardcore, man. I don't spend my days in a grimy, curtained room in the basement of my university, "studying" the science of perfecting headshots, as entertaining as it would be to do so with the highest classes of smelly, unwashed nerd. It's not too different to other uni courses; I write numerous essays, scrape my way through some barely-relevant subjects. Sometimes I'll get really excited about postmodernism, feminism, hegemony, and other topics that don't tend to escape the walls of tertiary education. But the fact is, during a uni term, I almost never get to play the games I spend so much time writing about. I continue to buy them, of course, and they stack up on my bedroom floor, sad and unplayed. It is only at the end of a semester, irritated and exhausted, that I can finally begin to chip away at my massive backlog of games. I will choose one, curl up on the sofa with my cat, and not be seen again by another living person for weeks.

When I finished my exams last week, I left the examination room (in which someone had written "NO POSTMODERNISM" in marker pen on the wall, to my silent dismay) early, skittering home in the cold and dreaming of finally settling down to some Alan Wake.

I'd first heard of Alan Wake years ago, and then never again after that. I assumed that its development had been unceremoniously dropped in favour of another mindless console shooter with some implausibly masculine hero. I was surprised and delighted to discover that despite the silence, its development had continued in apparent secrecy, resulting in the game that I pounced on after returning from that last exam. Alan Wake has turned me into a furtive creature of the night, twitching tersely like its coffee-fuelled and stubborn, tragic protagonist, tension moulding my hands into the shape of the Xbox controller.

The game is at once unassuming and mind-blowing. The titular hero, if you could deign to call this tweed-jacketed suspense novel writer that, is experiencing a severe writer's block that prompts his wife Alice to organise a holiday in a pretty mountain town, where they rent a wood cabin on a lake. It's all very sweet and rustic, framed by vivid sunsets.

Alice believes that the picturesque surroundings will reignite his will to write again. For some reason, Alan is less than impressed by this, and after a heated argument things go screwy; he inexplicably finds himself fleeing unknown terrors in thick forests, and as for Alice, she's gone missing, and he has no recollection of what might've happened to her. But he keeps finding pages lying around, parts of a typed manuscript that he didn't remember writing, each page unfurling one more tiny clue about what might have happened to his wife - and to him, too.

It's a little bit Silent Hill and a lot of Stephen King, tinted by the faintest trace of delicious self-referentialism - an enthralling play for anyone who has ever wondered what would happen if the line dividing fiction and reality began to splinter...

Strangely, prosaically, Alan Wake can feel like a Saturday night spent watching a DVD boxset, and its episodic format appeals strongly even to this non-fan of television. Each episode begins in modest circumstances, but shadows descend quickly to wrap you up tight in their web while something awful readies itself to devour you. A massive revelation marks the end of each episode, fading into a blank screen and the sort of catchy song you'd hear on the radio in a town so far from the city; outdated and flecked with banjo, but something you'd still sing along to. It feels like it's time to get up and stretch your legs, make a hot chocolate as the intermission soundtrack plays merrily in the background. But if you're as emotionally invested in the game as I am, needing to know what becomes of Alan because, as an aspiring writer, you need to know just how far one would go to keep himself writing - you sit down and play the next episode. And then the game tears into you once again, leaving you a wreck by sunrise.

Alan Wake feels like a trainwreck relationship that keeps me awake at night and fills me with dread (and - I'll admit it - shame. Am I seriously encouraging such obvious and sinister use of product placement by loving the game so much in spite of it?). For some reason, I can't let go even despite the awfulness it brings to my living room, and I feel oddly distressed at 7am the next morning when the sun comes up and it's time to hit the hay. But it's okay; Alan, I think, is simply building his own world of torment around him, constructing the place with metaphors and obsession. While my experience of it is nowhere near as dramatic, I relish watching his reality break down into swirling mists and howling winds, faceless characters and then, finally, just words. Words that glow, and painful screams.

Alan is looking for that which keeps him writing. I think I have found my own.   read

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