I rarely love something without a critique.
It’s just a fact that things can always be done better and videogames are no exception. I expect them to be intelligent, aesthetically pleasing and both simple and complex simultaneously (I know…high standards). Above all, though, they must be fun. If a game starts to feel like work I am putting it down – this is, after all, my leisure time. Surprisingly enough, there are some games out there that meet my criteria and when they do, they suck me into their worlds until I become an all-consumed recluse.
The majority of these are puzzle games; I love the challenge. The Professor Layton series was my gateway drug into the world of puzzle games and they set the bar ridiculously high. They really are just the cat’s pajamas.
Recently, I have found solace in the arms of Limbo by Playdead Studios and The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom by The Odd Gentlemen. These side-scrolling platformers each take you through a series of puzzles in which the player must control and manipulate the environment (using time, space or items) in order to progress. These manipulations become increasingly complex until they reach the point of near ridiculousness….and you will love every minute of it.
As similar as they are in terms of their mechanics, their atmospheres couldn’t be more different. One is hauntingly beautiful, the other charmingly humorous.
Limbo is the story of a small boy on his journey through a strange black and white world in search of his sister (or at least that’s what the description on XBox Live says. The game itself doesn’t offer an explanation nearly so concrete). It takes you on an expressionistic adventure in full of disturbingly violent puzzles and creepy environments. The imagery is stark and the sparse sound design leaves the player with a sense of nothing less than impending doom. Keep in mind that the main character is a little boy. With each failure you are forced to witness his body being impaled, drowned, crushed or dismembered; it is really quite heartbreaking.
Inversely, The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom is a quirky puzzler in which you manipulate time by creating clones of Winterbottom to aid in his unending quest for delicious baked goods (the man loves pie enough to bend the very fabric of reality, its hard not to appreciate his dedication). The game’s visuals are uniquely reminiscent of silent movies and the work of artist Edward Gorey while the music is a maniacal blend between a sideshow and a movie house (appropriate for this mustachioed, pie thieving bastard). The sound of the incessantly looping piano is the gaming equivalent of Chinese water torture, so the faster you solve things, the better. Winterbottom was so mind breaking that I was forced to play it with a friend passing the controller back and forth – sometimes a fresh set of eyes is what you need to find the most obvious solution when your brain has become too bent and cramped.
In the end these games tell you a tale and may drive you mad. Don’t feel bad if you walk away, hands grasping your head and declaring, “this game makes my brain hurt!” Trust me you are not alone.
My only critique is that there aren’t more of them.
P. S. – These downloadable gems are both available on Xbox Live Arcade and Winterbottom is also available for PC via Steam. In addition to being awesome, they are reasonably priced, easy to obtain and you don’t have to find a spot on the shelf for them.