Sunday, July 29, 2012

Reflections (Double Feature!): Limbo and Slender

Ever play a creepy video game in the dark with headphones on in the middle of the night? Here’s a tip: don’t do it.

Unfortunately for my mental health, I travel down that rabbit hole a bit more often than I should (I give myself very good advice, but I seldom follow it). Recently, I found myself playing indie games Limbo and Slender far past even the most ungodly hours of the night, when all the good little boys and girls are asleep, and all the rest of us are staring at screens with bloodshot eyes and wondering how the sun managed to come up without us noticing. (And whether or not we’ve developed fangs yet, or perhaps severe allergies to garlic, sunlight or crosses.)

Generally, when I write reviews (which I will refer to as “reflections,” since I am neither an expert nor a proper critic of anything whatsoever), I’ll be writing them in a rather more conventional manner: one at a time. But in this case I simply couldn’t choose, so I’ll be writing a bit about both Playdead’s Limbo and Parsec Productions’ Slender. However, I want to emphasize that these games are two very different animals, and therefore my goal here is not to choose one as being “better” over the other. I am simply comparing the ways in which elements like vagueness and the creep factor function in these two fantastic games.

Also, I got lazy and didn’t feel like writing two separate posts.

Presentation Points: Fancy versus Free

I'd like to start off by mentioning the fantastic presentation of the recently released Limbo: Special Edition, which happens to be the particular copy of the game I purchased. The hardcover box is nicely done, with awesomely gruesome cover art that just makes you want to smile and twirl your twisted (possibly imaginary) black mustache in anticipation. The extra goodies are nice as well: it comes with several delightful little art cards (perfect for decorating any room you don't plan on sleeping in anytime soon), a sticker of the main character's silhouetted head, a digital copy of the short but haunting original soundtrack, annnd (drum-roll, please)... a pair of blue and red 3D glasses. Yep, you can now experience the morbidity of Limbo in Stereoscopic 3D! Of course, anyone who remembers that kind of 3D knows it's pretty hard on your eyes (what kind of 3D technology isn't?), but it's definitely an interesting way to play the game, and I highly recommend trying it, at least in small doses. The game itself is pretty short (I played it through to the end in one sitting), but also pretty satisfying, and a good game with neat extras is well worth the $24.99 price tag. (You can also buy a downloadable full version of the game, sans bells and whistles, from the official site for an even cheaper $9.99.)

Slender, on the other hand, is available only as an internet downloadable, with no hard-copy releases that I'm aware of yet. However, this is only fair, since the game is also completely free. You can download the latest version of it for PC or Mac from the official site, or from various mirror sites floating around the internet. And really, the last thing any Slender player needs is a pair of 3D glasses; if two dimensions nearly gave me a heart attack, three would probably make my soul implode. Or explode. Or something else extremely and violently unnecessary.

Putting the "Fear" in "Atmosphere"

One thing that the two games have in common is a nice and creepy atmosphere. As I mentioned earlier, my edition of Limbo came with a digital copy of the soundtrack, which I think would make for fantastic use as ambiance at something like Halloween Horror Nights. It's not melodic in the sense that most movie soundtracks are - there's no particular theme, and it would be rather awkward to hum along to. But it achieves exactly what it's meant to, subtly adding to the player's sense of eerie isolation and of being utterly lost in a strange, unwelcoming land. The industrial effects in "Rotating Room" are particularly well-suited to the latter parts of the game, where the wilderness of the woods begins to give way to what appear to be the remains of man-made buildings and machines. Even if you were to play the game with the sound off, however, the imagery alone is still likely to do a number on your brain. There's no color whatsoever, just silhouettes, shadows, and the occasional (usually quite small) light in the darkness, making the whole game a sort of shadow-puppet play, giving your mind more free reign than most games do to impose your own personal fears and interpretations on the game as you play. There is also a foggy feel to everything, especially the background - and, as anyone who's ever seen The Mist or played a Silent Hill game knows, fog is never a good sign. (Of course, the prospect of a gruesome death following a single wrong step or foolish mistake generally doesn't make for comforting thoughts, either.)

Slender, once again, is more simplistic in this respect. There is no soundtrack to speak of, but this works for the game, not against it: not being able to hear Slender Man pursuing you, but knowing he could be anywhere (like RIGHT  BEHIND YOU) is one of the scariest things about the game. What you can hear is the crunch of dirt and grass under your feet as you walk around, and your in-game breathing as your stamina begins to run low (especially if you panic like I did and start running about blindly like a crazy fool). And, unlike a lot of games where it's somewhat comforting to die (since after you've done it once, you know what happens), finding out for the first time how abrupt and horrible it is (without knowing when it will happen) actually might make it even worse to try and play a second round. The setting is pretty basic: a dark forest, with lots of trees and the occasional abandoned car (there's also a terrifying tunnel and a horrific and oddly labyrinthine bathroom), but like Limbo's silhouettes, this lets your imagination run wild, and you begin imagining your dear friend Slendy waiting behind every tree and around every corner - and don't even think about looking back.

With Great Vagueness Comes Great Interpretability

Aside from the creep factor, something else these games have in common is the ambiguity of their respective stories, though the effect achieved by this differs. Like everything else about Slender, the plot is pretty straightforward: you're lost in the woods, and you must collect eight notes while avoiding running into the enemy that is pursuing you. (Sounds a lot like Hide, by the way, though I do believe Slender is the better of the two.) This leaves a lot for the inquisitive mind to wonder about (like why you would get yourself into this situation in the first place), but these questions aren't likely to come to mind until much later. During the game, the sparse details and lack of exposition only work to heighten the tension, as there are no plot twists or nagging mysteries to distract you from your fear.

On the other hand, Limbo is anything but simple. Sure, the basic idea is plain enough: a boy searching for his lost sister. But there is a definite depth to everything in the game, a sense that everything has a meaning, though some of it may be difficult to discern. Having played it through twice, I'm still not sure exactly what was going on, although I have a pretty good idea of what I think happened to the boy and his sister. According to Christian Nutt's interview with the co-founders of Playdead, Arnt Jensen and Dino Patti, the game was purposely designed to be as ambiguous and open-ended as possible: they find it "scary" when gamers come close to correctly interpreting the original idea, "because," as Jensen says, "then there's too many clues." For me at least, being lost in terms of the plot just added to the feeling of being lost in the world of Limbo, and it sure makes for some interesting post-game reflecting as well. (I have notes on what I've figured out so far and everything. Yes, I am that much of a nerd.)

Final Thoughts: To Play, Or Not to Play (Hint: It's the First One)

The main point of all my rambling and meditating on these two games is this: if you haven't played them yet, you darn well should... unless you're prone to night terrors or have a preexisting heart condition, in which case, stay far, far away from them. Slender will make you jump and/or fall out of your chair (and possibly scream like a little girl), while Limbo leaves you with more of a lingering, haunting feeling afterwards (though there are a couple of at least minor jump moments in it as well). Limbo is a creepy good time, even if the trial-and-death method of solving puzzles can get a bit frustrating at times, and Slender is one small step in gaming, but one giant leap for the terrifying creepypasta genre. I highly recommend both, although I'd also recommend you keep a box of kittens close by for comfort afterwards.

Also fun: watching Tobuscus' and PewDiePie's "Let's Plays" of Limbo and Slender, respectively, on YouTube. Just be ready to turn the volume down when necessary; they both have a tendency to scream. A lot. :)