Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Game Ramble: Limbo

It seems to me that one of the things that hampers the ability of video games to tell good stories is their length: a modern game is likely to offer somewhere between eight and eighty hours of gameplay, and it's difficult to drag out a single compelling story arc to that kind of length, at least within such a predominantly visual medium.

One solution, the one generally favoured by Rockstar for example, is to pad out your plot with subplots and shorter arcs, and this can work to a degree, though I can't think of a single game where I've found it absolutely satisfactory*.  The other, more common answer - perhaps the classic one - is to devolve the story into a series of quests, doling out plot advances as rewards.  But while this fits more comfortably with the strictures of a game, it takes an awful lot of set dressing to make it feel like a genuine narrative.  (I'd argue that the most recent Tomb Raider pulled it off, though barely.)

I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of games that put any serious effort into storytelling favour one or the other of those approaches.  But not Limbo, of no.

And before I try and justify or explain that claim, it's worth pointing out that, as a game that can potentially be completed in under an hour, Limbo is of a length that actually could sustain a conventional narrative structure.  Yet in fact the plot it has is so slender that, were this a film, it would struggle to fill ten minutes: a boy wakes in a strange world, comes across other boys who react to him with fear and hostility, eventually encounters a girl who may or may not be his sister, and continues onward, apparently looking for her.**

Not much plot at all, then, by the standards of any other medium ... and yet I'd argue that Limbo, in its own way, is a masterpiece of storytelling, and one of the most involving games I played last year.  And the reason for that, I think, is that what it does with amazing subtlety is to tell many little - well, I guess we can't call them stories, as such, so let's go instead for the purposefully vague and made-up "narrative incidents" - that add up to something with the feel of a much bigger story.  Which I suppose is a long way around saying it's all about the atmosphere, something Limbo is positively dripping with, and yet this is a game that does such a great impression of combining its every element - music, sound effects, design, gameplay - into something with the convincing feel of a story that it feels petty indeed to call it anything else.

An example: Having survived a thoroughly nightmarish encounter with a giant spider, you - as Limbo's lost-child protagonist - stumble upon what at first glance appears to be another giant spider.  But there's something not quite right about it, and as you draw near, it becomes apparent what: this isn't a real monster arachnid but a dummy made from metal and rope.  And as you slip past its groping leg, the truth becomes clear: a boy of about your age is working a lever to control the contraption, and as he sees you he runs away in panic.

Within the world of Limbo, that small first encounter tells so much: that you're not alone in this world, that others have had to contend with the same horrors that you have and learned to compete with them, that, yes, the traps you've come across were set by someone and that that someone is afraid of you, afraid enough to try and hurt you...

My point here - and I think I do have a point in mind for these Game Ramble articles, though I'm not quite there with working out what it is yet - is that video games are a new narrative medium, with new narrative rules that are still being figured out, and that perhaps Limbo points at a third way that can, in the right hands, be as or more successful than the two storytelling modes I started this article talking about.  Because one of the things I love about video games is that they are absolutely not beholden to reality, or really to anything that's gone before; yet, even to this day they spend so much time imitating films, and to a lesser extent books, and to an even lesser extent paintings and sculpture and every damn art form that's come before.  And really, why do that?

But Limbo is an example, and an intriguing one, of a narrative that could only possibly work in the medium it was created in.  It's unapologetically a game; it tells its story through the player's interaction, and has almost no narrative outside that interaction. What it has, instead, is something that currently only gaming can offer: the ability to provide an alien space with its own logic and history - a space that's basically one big story - and let the player inhabit it, exploring, teasing out its secrets and, if you're up for it, ultimately trying to figure out its meaning.

* Red Dead Redemption probably coming the closest, but even that spun its wheels for a long time on some decidedly odd tangents.

** Not that even this much is stated, but - at the risk of *SPOILERS* - we can assume that's what's been happening from the ending.


  1. Shadow of a colossus is a great narrative game with barely a narrative...

  2. That's true. Shadow of the Colossus might even be more successful in its storytelling-without-much-actual-story approach than Limbo.