Forces of Habit: Brain Worms in LIMBO

When I was a kid, I played the old Mario and Sonic platformers a lot. The old 2-D, sidescrolling ones, where plot wasn’t really an issue and you just sort of moved through levels because they were there. My friends and I even had a joke:

“How do you beat a sidescroller?”

“Hold right.”

Ten years later, and bam: I’m playing LIMBO. And suddenly holding right doesn’t sound very appealing anymore.

LIMBO is a creepy game, and one of the first things it does is force you to question your instincts as a gamer to constantly move to the right as soon as you start. It is a game that even goes so far as to punish you for doing so, a game that asserts from very early on that if you continue to progress as convention has trained you, you are going to die. Or drown. Or get sawed up. It is only through backtracking, stopping, and thinking about your surroundings as a whole that you’re able to advance, and only through your exercise of the freedom afforded to you that you’re able to succeed. LIMBO essentially forces you to consider your avatar (a young, nameless protagonist who looks eerily like a silhouetted Calvin, minus the Hobbes) not as a detached and passive psuedo-Mario figure, as is the convention, but rather as a vehicle through which you can interact with and redefine your environment. In short, a vehicle that represents yourself.

However, as soon as LIMBO teaches you to do all of the above, it turns the system around and strips you of everything it’s worked to open your eyes to by introducing a mechanic just as simple as it is sinister:

Brain worms.

They’ll drop down and burrow into your head, zombify you, and force you to march whether you like it or not. After all the pains LIMBO goes through to teach you to question direction, progress, and mindless playing, it forces it back on you, and as a player, you’ll find that you will not like it one bit. All of a sudden you’re no longer questioning or interacting. You no longer have any control. You can’t explore. You can’t brace yourself against death through careful forethought or planning, and it’s almost as if LIMBO is saying, “Hey, you. Gamer. You remember that linear way you used to consider all the sidescrollers you’ve ever played? Well, why don’t you go back to that for a bit and tell me what you think.”

If it weren’t for the brain worm mechanic, I don’t think LIMBO would be anything more than an ordinary puzzle game. But the fact that LIMBO’s developers chose to go out of their way to point out, multiple times, that having mindless directions imposed on you once you’ve gotten used to exploring on your own isn’t any fun, proves that they’re trying to tell you something. Namely, that LIMBO is challenging its predecessors as well as the conventions of its medium, and challenging you as a gamer to go back to the accepting, detached way you used to play sidescrollers as a kid, to see if that still feels fun.

And suddenly holding right doesn’t sound very appealing anymore.

 

  2 comments for “Forces of Habit: Brain Worms in LIMBO

  1. January 29, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    “How do you beat a sidescroller?”
    “Hold right.”

    Sometimes that (almost) works.

    If it weren’t for the brain worm mechanic, I don’t think LIMBO would be anything more than an ordinary puzzle game. But the fact that LIMBO’s developers chose to go out of their way to point out, multiple times, that having mindless directions imposed on you once you’ve gotten used to exploring on your own isn’t any fun, proves that they’re trying to tell you something.

    I’m inclined to agree with you — the brainworms certainly are both quirky and infuriating — but I also think that LIMBO could still be pretty solid without that. For me, it was the atmosphere, clever platform-puzzling and the vague, threatening hints about whatever-the-heck-is-going-on that made it successful aesthetic.

    Your comment, though, draws out a relevant parallel to Roger Ebert’s probably misguided but actually insightful argument that games can never be Art because Art depends on an artist imposing her vision onto the helpless audience. This is, of course, only one of many definitions of art, but it nevertheless points to that oscillation between having and losing control that I happen to think (as you seem to be saying as well) does drive one of the core aesthetics of game play as an artistic (or literary) practice.

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