Video games can be art and art can be video games, but rarely are either regarded as such. You don’t play a video game, enamored by its beauty. And, if you do, you are probably losing the gameplay. Video games are rarely written up in Artforum and art is rarely written up in IGN. The two worlds do not collide and do not seem to have a reason to, beyond the limits of the tangential video art world.
Limbo, an Xbox Live game released last summer, straddles this line. It is a video game, but it also is an incredibly deep artistic thought. The game plays simply enough, side-scrolling in 2D with only two “moves” (jump and push/pull) that you must discover for yourself. The game is “trial by death,” if you will. The story is simplistic and is not really explained: you play as a little boy who is just roaming through a dark, dangerous world searching for something. You deduce from the name that he is in a purgatory of sorts, which manifests itself as many different demons. There are many puzzles and “challenges,” but it being so simultaneously basic and difficult makes it a gamer’s delight: good gameplay, good story, good visuals–and nothing is ever explained.
In terms of artistry, the game–literally–feels like you are manipulating a melancholy, minimalist, monochromatic animated painting. It’s a dark cartoon-like version of a German Expressionist film. Created by Danish independent game studio Playdead, Limbo is the brainchild of Arnt Jensen, the game’s director. Through ups and downs over creative control, the group decided to ensure that the product was exactly how they wanted it–not Microsoft, not IO Interactive. The result is magnificent: a stoic, dark meditation on the search that befalls us in the afterlife. In this case, the search for answers and meaning underlines the ultimate goal in the game, which is stated in the tagline: “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.”
No one actually knows what limbo or purgatory or “the in-between” is like at all. But, if it is actually like this, then I guess we have a beautiful, puzzle filled, black/white/gray pre-heaven to look forward to.