Limbo is a game eagerly anticipated and much beloved by gamer and critic alike. Its visuals are crisp and unique, its gameplay polished and enjoyable, and its plot subtle and thought provoking. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, and that’s more of an achievement than you may realize. Why? Because as we’ve discussed in the past, there is a fairly firm split in the game and art communities, and there are few things more divisive than something that claims to be both.
Once a game gets labeled as artistic, the first volley is going to come from the snobs. A gaming snob hates the idea of something even remotely mainstream being considered artistic. “What? Microsoft is pushing it? It must be mass produced trash. Fneh fneh fneh.” Art doesn’t arrive with a big colorful ad campaign and the support of a major corporation. It comes with japanese subtitles and music by Philip Glass. I think that Limbo snuck under the radar with this one because the producer’s name is Mads and it is in black and white. Any monochromatic Danish puzzle game is just niche enough to get the thumbs up of the indie elitist. As for the art snobs? Well, they aren’t going to call this game art, because it is a game, and since games have never been art, they never will be art. Luckily the opinions of art snobs don’t matter in the slightest in this realm.
Just getting the snobs on board isn’t nearly enough to guarantee a win, though. You see, by their very nature, elitists are a narrow, wormy slice of the audience. For every elitist, there is a dozen anti-elitists. These are the folks who hate the stuck-up jerks in the trendy clubs so intensely that anything that gets their okay must suck like a Japanese duck- a creature well known for its sucking prowess. Just hearing people give it praise sets their hype sense all a-tingle, and realizing that it is the connoisseur that is singing those praises is enough to relegate it forever to the “over rated trash” bin. So how do you get these folks on board? Well, decapitating a little boy with a bear trap is a good start. Nothing brings an art house piece back to the level of the masses like a little wanton destruction and over the top violence. If your game involves tearing a massive spider’s leg off with your bare hands and marching slowly to your death with a worm lodged in your brain, it might just appeal to the same fellas who spend their nights tea-bagging a fallen’ spartan and chain-sawing a locust in half.
One would think that satisfying both the unpleasable minority and the blood thirsty majority would mean that you are home free, but it turns out that there is a third faction in this war. See, there are people who don’t recoil from something artsy by assuming that it’s fartsy, and yet don’t require at least a dozen head shots to call something fun. No sir, there are people who object to one game being called artistic because it implies that OTHER games AREN’T. “Super Mario Bros. is a platformer just like Limbo. How come everyone is calling Limbo art?” Well, I’m not going to say that any well made game doesn’t deserve the distinction of being called art, but think of it this way: A good game might be art, but a masterpiece is definitely art. It is the difference a mural and a primer coat. And Limbo put the extra effort in, making sure the mechanics are polished enough to be a good game by any measure, then slopping on a heaping helping of atmosphere and creativity to seal the deal.
It is a precarious balance trying to score a win with a black and white, atmospheric, Jungian journey through the psyche amid a batch of summer blockbusters. On one hand you don’t want to come off as being so la-di-da that the average Joe won’t enjoy it, but you also don’t want to shy away from all of the carefully crafted visuals and expertly designed puzzles that draw in the snobs. Most of all, you don’t want to alienate people by making them insecure about their pet games either. And yet somehow Limbo pulled it off, all while sharing a name with a Jamaican party game. Now that’s what I call impressive.