There’s this statement thrown around nowadays praising the setting of a game, over its inhabitants. I’ve often heard people refer to Grand Theft Auto IV as a game about Liberty City, not about Niko Bellic and his plights throughout the metropolis. The same claim is affixed to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But my issue with this argument is the fact that these environments are static. The locale may operate as a toy, or, the setting may act as a canvas, the avatar as a paintbrush and the player as a painter. With this expressionist mentality in mind, there is one glaring problem with open world games: perception.
Perception dominates the open world experience, shaping exactly what each player takes away from each game. This perception comes as a natural yield of the player’s decisions. To some people, Grand Theft Auto IV is about committing endless acts of theft and violence. To me, it’s about free will, the mindless futility of the American Dream and a general comment about Western culture. By allowing so much choice, the impact of particular aspects of open world titles are reduced. The setting becomes a toy (Grand Theft Auto), or a canvas (Elder Scrolls) to interact with.
DMC: Devil May Cry, takes these assumed roles, and flips them upside down. Limbo, the outré demonic dimension of DMC, takes the stage in this reboot of the revered action series. Although the game is as linear as they come, the narrow confines allowed Ninja Theory to appoint their creative talents towards the creation of this vivacious world. Thusly, the player has infinite freedom through the game’s manifold combo system, while lacking any interface with the environment. Instead the surroundings interact with the player, allowing for creative level design that hinges on its animosity for the protagonist. These conditions promote Limbo as the star of the show, while overshadowing the characters to a point of periphery.
I know this is a trite complaint, but most games don’t take advantage of the colouration that contemporary hardware can provide. Once in a blue moon, big budget titles like Uncharted 3 and Halo 4 offer vibrant level design but are still restricted by the realism demanded via brusque consumers. Then there are titles like Viva Piñata, which modestly solicits candy coloured animals gallivanting about a brilliant garden. Though nothing can compare to the harlequin level design featured by Limbo, in DMC.
Ninja Theory fears no persecution; the game is drenched in colour. While other games continue to delineate warm and cold colours in favor of a harmonized aesthetic, DMC abolishes said pattern for a splatter of beauty in absolute dissonance. The forced collaboration of warm and cold is deeply ingrained in the philosophy of DMC‘s gameplay, by means of juxtaposition. Speed versus power, angel versus demon, good versus evil — it all comes down to using the collision of disagreeing elements to enrich the experience.
The architecture of Limbo uses the lack of harmony quite literally, as it skewers perception through disorienting the player. Many games use oblique camera angles as a means to shoehorn the player into a difficult position, while adding a cinematic exponent to the equation. Naturally, this would force the player to maneuver in irregular patterns, as an attempt to take control of the scenario. At the same this removes some of the agency the player once had in the given situation. However DMC is able to shake the player without pressuring them into any stipulated outlook, through the incongruent arrangement of its sets.
Upside-down, slanted, broken — Limbo’s architecture is off kilter in every conceivable manner. It’s for that reason that the player is at sea upon a level’s introduction. While navigating a chasm via floating rubble the player may land on a horizontal structure, then the apex of a vertical edifice, all while adjusting to the fact that the ground sits in one corner of the screen and the sun shines perpendicularly. To add to the utter confusion already at hand, the environment distracts and threatens the player through messages sprawled across its faces. Strange to say, but this literally gives the setting an ounce of character as it entices the player to “come closer,” or overtly expresses ire, stretching lines like “fuck you Dante” across its walls.
However, these frequent bursts of rage pave the road for Limbo’s most distinguishing feature: it’s alive. Palette and level design bind together to create beautiful environments but at the core, Limbo thrives on its abrasive heartbeat. It moves, transforms, and kills. Its only motivation for drawing breath is to see Dante die, and is relentless as a result. Earth crumbles beneath Dante’s feet, platforms in proximity tear themselves apart, hallways encroach personal space — the list goes on eternally. What’s to be noted is the fact that Limbo is dynamic and hostile, not only affecting the art direction, but the gameplay as well. These adversities construct Limbo as a domain to be overcome, rather than simply navigated.
Though the vigor of the level design’s doesn’t end with the reorganization of its constituents. Limbo’s colours dance to beat of combat, oscillating in harmony with the music. This is best exemplified by a location called Devil’s Dalliance, a nightclub where motionless textures do not exist. The veneer of the floors glow with movement akin to a lava lamp, while massive visualizers fluctuate in the background. Floors, walls, ceilings — every texture breathes in and out, booming to the beat of the music.
Colour, level design and animation, all twist together to shape Limbo as a beautiful monstrosity. I don’t mean to undercut the fidelity of open world games — I think they’re incredible feats of design. Though expansive worlds hinge upon the discretion of player, who might prioritize certain sections, but leave other territories uncharted. Therefore, focus is shifted to the interaction between the player and the world, instead of the world itself. In DMC: Devil May Cry, the world ambushes the player regardless of their compliance. This allows for Limbo to channel the flow of interaction, leaving the player to succumb to its mandates. It’s undeniable: the devil does cry. Though they aren’t tears of suffering. Given the magnificent design of Limbo, I can only assume they’re tears of joy.