Alone


(Spoilers: this game is amazing)

The beginning of Silent Hill 2 is a lonely, quiet thing. A wooded path. We mistake the crunch of gravel for the panting of wolves, and my friend urges me forward. I run not because I’m being chased, but out of the fear that I might be chased. I move not to progress the story, but because, in that dreary New England fog, I’d rather be anywhere other than where I am right now.

Limbo is an entire game comprised of the first twenty minutes of Silent Hill 2. Yeah, it’s a platformer. Yeah, it’s a series of puzzles where failure is punished with startling fatality. But it’s not like those games. It’s sometimes scary, yes, but it’s more often somber. It’s quiet. I barely understand the goals, so I keep moving forward and hope for the best. The fear is everywhere around me, but rarely directly in front of me. I think of exploratory photos of decaying insane asylums, or abandoned bomb shelters under Beijing. Hollow. A world that had so much life in it, then something scooped it all out. People used to live here; this was something, once.

Like looking at those pictures on your computer monitor, the fear of Limbo is mitigated by the TV. Safe. It allows you to explore these worlds, to play the detective while shrouded in the comfortable distance of the screen. I feel that same dread, that same loneliness, looking at images of Chernobyl. “What was this place? What went wrong?” I move through Limbo’s broken buildings and shattered forests, observing, as I do with those photos, but also experiencing. My heart swells with pathos. I want to look away. I can’t. I explore these ruined buildings. I wonder about who lived here. I wonder about this cruel world. I want to know who put me here. I want to know why.

I want to know about its giant, scary spiders, its bear traps, its crushing blocks, its men who chase me with blowguns. I want to know who I am. Am I the enemy? Am I the anti-christ? Why am I met with hatred… or is it fear? I’m looking for a reason, any reason. Maybe my character is doing the same. The first time we see someone who might not kill us they’re gone in an instant. It’s over an hour until we find them. During that time I wonder if we’ll ever see anyone, friendly or not, ever again. I run down that path not because I know something is chasing me, but because I feel something is chasing me. Not because I have a purpose, but to find my purpose. The nameless boy bears it without complaint. Crushed. Maimed. Spiked. Stabbed. His deaths are not the goregasms of Gears of War. They  are a soundless sigh. A gentle slump. He resigns himself to his fate. He is dead. It is over.

Then he is pulled back. Forced to try again. And again. And again. He will not stop. He can’t stop, just as I can’t stop, just as I never stopped clicking the ‘next picture’ link in all those pictures of Pripyat. Ruined swimming pools, trees reclaiming the tops of buildings, rusted ferris wheels. I convince myself that somewhere there is a ‘why,’ just as, somewhere, those pictures also have a ‘why.’ The boy, he thrusts his fate upon me, and when he falls onto the spikes he thinks, maybe, “this time, it’s over.” It is never over. There is always somewhere else, some lonely place where men once lived. He climbs that tattered ladder, swings on that rotten rope.

Even in its cruelty, Limbo is kind. Its solutions always on the tip of my tongue. Moments of ‘what do you want me to do?’ are rare, and the frequent instances of failure are mitigated by generous checkpoints. They have to be. I push forward not because of pop-up messages, but because of a need to know, uninterrupted by narration, or unlockable weapons, or achievement points. As I walk, as he dies, I realize our need is not specific. If I could just know one thing, any thing, it might make it easier. I find a hotel. Its neon sign sparks a violent warning. Where did everyone go? Why?

In the middle of the night, there is no world but Limbo’s. I look at my clock. It’s 1:30 AM. The outside ceases to exist. I have that same funny, clammy feeling that comes over me when I read too many urban legends before going to sleep. The game is so quiet. That only makes it worse. So little sound there might as well be nothing at all, just the crunch of the boy’s feet, the creak of metal, the rushing of water. No grunts of exertion as he jumps, no screams of pain as he dies. The rare moments where the score swells only serve to remind me that sometime, sometime soon, there will be no music. I’ll be alone with my thoughts again.

Limbo is a triumph. It’s what I want from Live Arcade. It’s what I want from video games. Against all odds it wedged itself into Xbox Live amidst all the poker games and 1990s-era First Person Shooters.  It’s scary and sad where most videogames make you feel strong and brave. I keep pushing forward, even as I’m hoping it’ll stop. Silent Hill 2 was the last time that happened. Instead of twenty minutes, I ran that silent path for four hours. It’s nearly ten years since Silent Hill 2. I imagine it’ll be a just as long before it happens again.