“Limbo” is a puzzle platformer released by the Danish studio Playdead originally on July 21, 2010 for the XBOX Live Arcade and then spread to just about every major digital distribution platform. In the history of indie games, Limbo might fit into the Second Age. There was that which preceded “Braid” and that which followed “Minecraft.” “Limbo” fits right in the middle of the two.
Or should I say LIMBO. Because that’s what the title screen says. And capital letters, when used sparingly, tend to be spooky.
LIMBO is a game about of a boy journeying through a dark world. Some of the surrounding materials, such as the Steam store page, refer to him as searching for his lost sister, but this is not apparent in the story itself. Whatever the case, LIMBO actually has a very interesting plot. It’s not about the boy’s coming of age or politics or anything necessarily deep, it simply shows the decrepit condition of a fallen world.
As you take the boy deeper and deeper into LIMBO, you’ll encounter the story through the questions you ask yourself. How did that get there? Was there an alien invasion? Or are those demons? Why does everything want to kill me? Am I playing the bad guy? It never answers these questions, it simply allows you to fill in the gaps however you so choose. Or, if you prefer, not at all.
I’ve never played anything that had the atmosphere of LIMBO. It’s completely in black and white, but interestingly (just like the game’s lack of a story) I found myself imagining color where none actually existed. I remember some waist high grass blowing in the breeze and distinctly seeing it as a dried green, but upon closer inspection it was actually gray. If there’s a good criteria by which I usually judge art, it would be in how well it deceives. If it can trick me, it can earn my respect.
However the game’s visual genius goes much deeper. Shapes in the background and on the edge (literally the English word for Limbo) of the screen tend to appear faded so as to make you focus on the action, but also serve to heighten the romanticism of the game’s imagery.
The sound also deserves similar merit. At crucial points in the story, there will be alarming swells of brass instruments or the most unnerving drones of ambient noise. But what I found most satisfying about LIMBO’s sound is when it used none at all. When I accidentally killed the boy (usually in a gruesome way like a beheading), there was no mopey “uh oh, so sorry” sound. When I successfully solved a puzzle and laid waste to my enemies, there was no happy “You’re a winner!” jingle. All the game gives you is the clear message is that it’s your intelligence keeping you alive. The world does not rejoice with you when you conquer it, it just sleeps quietly under your feet. And it does not mourn when you are crushed, it just silently embraces your ignorance into itself.
But the real reason this game is often touted as an example of “art” is not for its spectacular visuals or sound, but for its emotional pull in the midst of action. The first time I died in LIMBO came as a complete shock. I was enchanted by its visual splendor, but once I slid down a hill too quickly and shattered every bone at the bottom I found I was trapped in a nightmare. You see, the difference between a good movie and a good game where the hero dies is in the issue of responsibility. In cinema, the director put him down. In a game, you put him there. It’s a very intimate and frightening experience.
In terms of controls, I was satisfied with what LIMBO did. It packs in a remarkable number of actions on a thumb-stick and three buttons (I’m using a XBOX controller hooked up to my PC) and I had no problem navigating the game’s world. While the game does emphasize blurring in various capacities – sound and barely sound, shadows and almost shadows, story and imagination, or even whether its a puzzle-platformer or a cinematic platformer – there’s never a point where it’s unclear how to actually operate it.
When you need to jump, you’re not going to think pull a switch. When you need to drag a box, you’re never going to think climb a ladder. This might sound overly basic, but I walked away feeling impressed with how clear the game was about what to do when you saw something. It does this, once again, all through the visuals. With the blurring on the edges, your eyes start to ignore what’s around you. You adjust to looking right into the action.
Movement, however, feels a little shoddy. Sometimes the game is compared to the likes of Another World or the early Oddworld games, but I can’t help but feel that within the context of itself it was slower than it needed to be. I was okay that the boy didn’t jump unreasonably high, but the actual lead into the jump felt delayed.
My biggest complaint with LIMBO might be that it ultimately failed to complete what it set out to do. The atmosphere was palpable in its early acts because the boy’s challenge makes sense. If there was a trap set to maim him, it was clear who set it. You don’t know why they’re after him, but you know someone is after him. Eventually the game just gets too big. There’s a point where you think, why is a giant ball about to crush me? Why is the world spinning ever so slowly after I pulled that lever? The game never ceases to be fun, but its charm ultimately struggles in all the bombastic chaos.
So no, I cannot easily grant LIMBO access into the Martian Sunrise Canon. While I strongly enjoyed the game’s atmosphere, there are puzzle platformers out there (i.e. Braid or Portal) that fit better as a complete package. But it is at least impressive to know that this is Playdead’s very first game. It’s like your 5 year old kid made you something with his Crayola’s on par with Revenge of the Sith. Maybe it wasn’t quite what it should have been, but dang… this kid is going places.