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