It’s challenging to speak about Limbo without ruining what makes it so amazing. As you enter its world, it has that unusual quality of a dream that is slowly transforming into a nightmare. Stark black and white visuals make you question where you are. There is no music, and the audio is oddly amplified, inexorably pulling you into the dark forest where this little boy awakens. You begin walking, and the horrible danger and beauty of your surroundings begin to take shape. Through a brief but brilliant adventure, you feel yourself completely absorbed in the game’s shadowy netherworld.
On the surface, this downloadable XBLA title is a side-scrolling platformer of jumping, climbing, and puzzle solving. Pull switches, push boxes, activate contraptions – many of the standard genre mechanics are in place, but channeled through a filter of evocative visuals and original design concepts. It has almost no story to speak of beyond a vague description of a boy’s search for his sister. I found myself applying my own interpretations to the unfolding quest and its startlingly abrupt conclusion, but those ideas are best left for players to sort through on their own.
Along the way, gamers encounter one puzzling situation after another, each challenging them to think in a new way. In every case, the physics of the world are at play – first in normal ways, like how a ball moves on a sloped surface, and later in increasingly abnormal ways, like how gravity functions in a world without traditional rules. The game triumphs because every one of these encounters stands alone. Each time you think you have a grip on where you are, who is chasing you, or even the nature of the world, everything changes. That’s all the more impressive because each event flows seamlessly into the next, blurring the passing between environments and puzzles. The only constant is the extreme peril. The presence of the little boy should by no means communicate this as a game for children. The hero regularly dies in gruesome, painful ways as you make inevitable mistakes, and his age makes those scenes all the more startling.
Limbo has some challenging hidden achievements that will reward subsequent playthroughs, but the initial run is only five or six hours long. I beg you not to let that dissuade you from trying it out. As I played, fellow editors would occasionally tap my shoulder and draw my attention away, and I would catch myself jumping – not because I was scared, but because I was so engrossed in the experience that it felt jarring to be pulled out so suddenly. Play it. Turn up the sound. I challenge you not to feel the same.