We find ourselves in a day and age of near-photorealistic 3d graphics and complex, multi-pathed storylines in our video games. Even the venerable Mario has come a long way from his 8-bit, side scroller roots, now serving up entire Galaxies for our enjoyment. So let us suppose that you imagined a completely linear game with the barest thread of a story, very little replay value, no multiplayer, no color, no 3rd dimension, no dialog, and even for the most part no music. Also, most of it is so damn dark you can barely see what’s happening.
Sounds awful on paper, right? Except then, you put it all together, and you get this:
LIMBO is not just one of the greatest gaming experiences I have had this year, it is a work of art (and yes, I’ve heard all of Roger Ebert’s arguments against video games ever being art, including his backhanded retraction. In this case? He can suck it). I say this despite being fully aware that it can be completed in a matter of hours, and that it’s not a game that’s going to change if you play it twice. It is a complete and total throwback to the days when the side-scrolling platformer was king, but it is also so much more than that. It is a full-on experience.
The closest comparison I can draw on for what playing LIMBO is like comes from my college years almost 20 years ago, in the form of an imported French game known in the U.S. as Out of this World. You can actually find a free demo of the game at the creator’s official website here, as well as his development commentaries, if you’re curious. The game itself is very dated graphically (as you might expect), but it has a sense of momentum and action to it that had me coming back again and again, even though several parts were almost a gruesome trial-and-error process of death until you found the right sequence and timing.
Out of this World (or Another World, as it was called outside the US) was another game that was mostly silent except for the sound effects, with a story told mostly through inference as you progressed through it. And when I say “progress” I mean “run your goddamn ass off while nearly everything you encounter tries to shoot, eat, or otherwise kill you”. Another World was not big on the idea of rest stops. It plunged you straight into the action from the first cutscene, where you appear underwater. Start swimming upwards or drown. Whew. Okay, you made it to the surface. Now you can take a moment to… oh, whoops. Guess you should have kept moving.
It’s not all like that, and to be fair neither is LIMBO. But the same principles apply of a side-scrolling environment with a very limited control set, and an emphasis on smooth, continuous animation. If you go to the controls help menu option of LIMBO, it shows you an Xbox controller with three arrows pointing out “MOVE”, “JUMP”, and “ACTION”, in such a minimalist fashion you can almost hear the game sighing at you and gently urging you to just start fucking playing, already.
When you do that, LIMBO doesn’t even bother with an opening cutscene. It just fades in on a gloomy forest, presented in luscious contrasts of black and white. You might, as I did, be caught staring at the screen for a minute or so, waiting for something to happen, before you start tapping a button in impatience. Then a pair of eyes blink open on the forest floor, and a moment later the silhouette of a young boy sits up. His quest begins. What quest? Does it matter? If you want, the wikipedia entry has a backstory for you, but for the game itself its enough to know that the boy needs to keep progressing to the right. Well, occasionally to the left for a bit, but in the end he will always return to the rightness of his cause. We know this intrinsically, no matter how many times the Princess is in another castle. This is the basic purity of the 2-d platformer.
The official description merely states: “Uncertain of his Sister’s Fate, a Boy enters the unknown.” Regardless of motive, the journey you (and the Boy) will undertake lies somewhere on the razor thin line between horror and wonderment. I cannot say enough about the visual design of this game, which on the one hand has a cartoony, child-like aspect, but on the other confronts you with elements of deepest nightmare: a gigantic spider that stalks you as a nearly formless entity heralded only by hairy, knife-like legs; a decaying industrial wasteland of shrieking sawblades and crushing gears; a Lord-of-the-Flies camp of silent, murderous children, filled with booby traps and gibbeted bodies. All of this presented in the visuals of a classic monster or suspense movie, a maestro’s feast of light and shadow akin to the stylings of Metropolis or The Third Man.
On the audio front, I mentioned before that there is very little music. Most of the game is a matter of ambient sound effects, the most common of which are your own footsteps echoing as you run onwards. It’s strange because this lack of a soundtrack is exactly how real life sounds, and yet when it happens in a game it becomes surreal and otherworldly. Even sinister. Perhaps because it recalls those times, late at night, alone, when we become most aware of silence and the things that break it.
Limbo as a concept is often presented as a kind of Hell, or at least a land upon Hell’s borders. The game does not need you to think deeply about this, but it does make you aware early on that you have taken a sharp right turn from the world you know, and the Unknown is before you, no matter how much trappings of it might mimic the mundane. The physics engine of the game is both incredibly robust and incredibly important to solving some of the problems, and yet as realistic as the physics are, sometimes those physics become the physics of Limbo rather than Earth, and you must adapt to them quickly or die.
And you’ll die. A lot. In very gruesome ways, even if all you’re really seeing is a silhouetted body come apart. There’s enough for a gore filter to be included that blacks out the suggestion of what a giant sawblade does to flesh. The environment is so dark, sometimes you won’t see the traps until you walk right onto them. Sometimes jumping on the switch causes the block to fall and crush you. Then the very next switch kills you because you didn’t jump on it. Sometimes you can’t see where you were supposed to go next until you’re already at the bottom of a pit with a giant boulder rolling down on top of you.
So yes, the game is not fair. Even when you spot that deadly bear trap hanging from the ceiling, you can’t tell which way it’s going to swing until it’s too late. The saving grace of this is that the lives are unlimited, the autosave function is very generous, and the load times are very quick, allowing you to Groundhog Day your way through the obstacles in a step-by-step fashion. With that said, there are times you can see the danger coming, but those opportunities mostly just made me feel like Darwin’s mistake since half the time I’d be staring stupidly at the falling crate instead of running from it. Far cleaner to just die horribly a few times as the designers intended, until the lightbulb finally goes on in your head and you figure out the crazy thing(s) you need to do to proceed.
That’s another thing, is that the puzzles in this game can be very odd and very intricate, and yet I solved every one without having to ever run to a cheat guide, just by virtue of persistence and having an open mind when a certain strategy wasn’t working. Sometimes (and this is such a wonderful metaphor I can’t imagine it’s accidental) you have to delve into the darkness to find salvation, such as a crate tucked into an obscured overhang. Sometimes the timing necessary seems all but impossible, but if a 36 year old casual gamer like myself can manage it, I reckon others can. What I’m really getting at is that anytime you successfully navigate one of the nastier sequences, you will puff out a sigh of relief and feel a sense of accomplishment that buffers you against the next dose of insanity. Not to mention making it really difficult to put down the controller.
And when I mention keeping an open mind, I mean it. “Fiendishly inventive” doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what you face in your quest for rightness. Plus there’s occasionally a hefty dose of wrong in order to get right. I won’t spoil it, but fairly early on you cross a deep pond in a… unique fashion I don’t think I’ve seen in a platformer. Then find out shortly after that something even more ghoulish is required. It’s moments like this, combined with the relentless atmospherics, that have led several critics to consider that LIMBO may be the first ever instance of a “horror platformer”. If not quite that, it’s at least a platformer whose every jump lands squarely in the Twilight Zone. This is a platform game that actually has people debating its existential meaning after finishing it–without irony–and considering the ending I can understand. Again, no spoilers from me, but there’s a bit of an Inception-esque feel in terms of leaving you guessing. Not bad for a game where the story was never at the forefront.
At the moment, LIMBO is available on Xbox Live Arcade as a free demo, and the full version can be grabbed for 1200 Microsoft Points (about $15). In my opinion it’s well worth the price, but hey, try out the demo first if you want… just be warned that the demo ends on a very effective cliffhanger all but designed to coax a purchase out of you. I know it made me take the plunge… but fortunately, these designers deserved every penny.
Spend a few hours in LIMBO, and you’ll experience classic gaming joined with an atmospheric perfection and imagination rarely seen in even the most cutting edge entertainment. So what are you waiting for? Go to Hell. And enjoy the trip.