Breaking the water of this year’s Summer of Arcade is Limbo, a game about childhood, survival and death. Although the concept and gameplay don’t exactly scream, “Summer fun for everyone!” the game is hauntingly gorgeous, provocative and deserves its place in the limelight of Microsoft’s marketing machine.


Limbo is the first child of the Danish studio Playdead. And just a glance at Limbo distinguishes it from any other downloadable or console title.


It’s no stillbirth.


Its aesthetic is film noir: black silhouettes fade in and out of focus against a powdery grey and mother-of-pearl atmosphere. The world is detailed and dynamic and the animations move with a dreamy, gentle languor. The sound design vivifies the experience. Droning bass ebbs and flows through the game’s eerie silence, and sometimes an ambient, Brian Eno-esque blend of notes briefly alights on Limbo, dissolving the disquiet with moments of gentle wonder.


There is no text, dialogue or context to what’s happening in Limbo: you simply play as a boy who awakes in a forest and wants to get out.


As the boy sits up, opens his opal eyes and starts ambling past the silhouettes of tree trunks, Limbo seems to be missing something. There is no music and the boy doesn’t appear to be disturbed, frightened or even in a hurry to get somewhere. No narrative presents itself. The game has begun. That’s all you know.


This introduction induces a feeling akin to dreaming. And I don’t mean the game looks dreamy – although it does – I mean the game presents itself like a dream. Playing it feels similar to arriving in those dreams in which you wake up and find you’re already in the middle of a task – as though your dream had existed before you fell asleep and found yourself in it. Not yet knowing your goals or desires, you just go with it and not too long after you’ve started dreaming you realize what’s going on.


This is sort of how Limbo greets you: it introduces itself with what it tastefully lacks. For as you manage the first few puzzles (a pit, a puddle, a bed a thorns), become accustomed to the boy’s puerile animations, the lack of music and the darkness, you start to feel comfortable in Limbo’s gloom. However, once you understand the controls, it only takes a minute for the guiding force of the game, lying in ambush in every shadow, to reveal itself: death.


Death is my Shepard, I shall not want. That’s the gameplay in a verse. Death leads you through Limbo. It works to point out where puzzles are and, in a way, how to get around them (after they’ve killed you, of course).


The first time death (with no cloak or scythe) greets you the effect is physically startling. It isn’t scary, but perturbing. The boy, defenseless and guileless, dies so quickly he’s given no time to scream or utter the faintest cry. It’s just: boy, bear-trap. beheaded! A raindrop runs down your vertebrae. A profanity flees from your throat. Even for a gamer used to ridiculous violence, Limbo’s world feels especially harsh.


After you witness the first few deaths, the unsettling effect fades. After you die, you’re instantly placed before the puzzle that killed you. No loading screens, no waiting; you just get to try and survive again until the next puzzle kills you. This mechanic keeps the game fresh; without it Limbo would be impossibly frustrating.


As the game progresses, the forest landscape gradually morphs into a flooded industrial dreamscape, where the puzzles incorporate some bizarre physics and become increasingly clever and pleasing to solve. The last quarter of the game is simply brilliant.


Despite having a child protagonist, Limbo is not for children. Both the audio and visual aesthetics give Limbo’s violence a degree of objectivity – as if, in Limbo’s world, that amount of violence were ordinary. The boy doesn’t whimper or cry when he’s crushed by a rock or shish kabob-ed by gravity. The lights of his eyes go out and he dies –simply: gore sans agony. And since the boy doesn’t seem to feel for himself, you feel for him, and depending on the situation, your response to his despise may be a grimace, gaff or laugh. 


Playing the silent hero, you’ll chance upon the corpses of many children – noosed, hanging in the ether, imprisoned in wooden boxes, drowned, impaled, crushed – and the shadows of other (living) kids who want to kill you. The unexplained hostility of Limbo’s populous and its complete lack of camaraderie is unnerving. Despite the game’s dark sense of humor, there are moments, such as when you use the cadaver of a drowned boy as a raft, that deftly frame the loneliness, sorrow, and mundanity of survival. 

The loneliness of the experience and irony of the inhuman child protagonist produces a longing for a human touch, which does appear in the game as a brief, ghostly vision of a little girl.


Limbo will take you around 4 or 5 hours to beat, assuming you get stuck for a while at one or two puzzles. Compared to some games, that’s short, but Limbo makes use of every minute. The game never stops; it flows, sweeping you up in its atmosphere and increasingly difficult puzzles. No cut-scenes. No loading. No repetition of gameplay. Just running, jumping, dying and solving.


One common criticism of Limbo is that its ending arrives out of nowhere – without an appropriate escalation or structured climax. The ending is certainly surprising, but I enjoyed it. I found it complimented, albeit strangely, the difficulty progression, producing in me a feeling of elated weightlessness – as though I were a sprite slowly spiraling to the floor of a parking lot in a 2-D fighter after the last roundhouse met my chin and rendered liquid life a glacier as the neon K.O. told my bruised and cross-eyed avatar that it was o.k. to loose, to die. It’s an ending I trust I’ll remember if not mentally (as in how exactly it came about) then physically, the way one remembers the feeling of his first back-flip attempt on a trampoline.


As far as replay goes, it’s there, but in the form of a different game. Assuming you remember the puzzles, the game isn’t about puzzle solving, but one where you collect orbs for achievements or try and beat the game with fewer deaths. And, for a sadistic 10 points, you can try beating the game in one sitting, under five hours dying fewer than five times. If you’ve got some free time this summer, that’s something to shoot for. (And for some reason unknown to me, I’m going to attempt this.)


There may be some of you who don’t think $15 is worth 5 hours of 2-D gameplay. To put it bluntly, you’re wrong. Limbo is an achievement. Its gameplay never repeats itself, its style is unforgettable and it’s sure to spur an emotional response in any humanoid with a steady pulse. And, above all, it’s fun. If you’re not broke, I’d encourage you to throw a small bouquet of Microsoft points at Playdead’s feet. Although I’ve played Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead this year, I get the feeling that Limbo will be the highlight of my 2010 gaming experience. Get it: Go play with death.


P.S. And perhaps, with time on our side, a game like Limbo will make Roger Ebert print off his blog, eat it whole and ingest his defensive and asinine ink like an old, embarrassed octopus. Perhaps.