Developer: Playdead Studios / Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios / ESRB: Teen (Animated Blood, Mild Violence) / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $15.00
Limbo is unabashedly inconspicuous. True, it’s only three hours long, and it really has no story to speak of. The soundtrack is mostly ambient noise with very little music. The stark black and white visuals convey very little minutiae about the main character, who doesn’t even have a name. But in the era of big budget, cinematic tour-de-forces, Limbo is an example of amazingly realized and artfully compelling design.
Let’s start with the visuals. Black, white, and varying shades of gray make up the world of Limbo, a dense forest filled with mechanical deathtraps. The sharp silhouetted characters in the foreground stand in contrast to the hazy machinations of the out-of-focus background, lending a dreamy quality to the entire game. Once you’ve completed Limbo, you may in fact wonder if it really was all a dream, so surreal is the experience.
The various obstacles and characters your glow-eyed main character will encounter share the same shadowy presence as everything else in the world of Limbo, but manage to still communicate their enigmatic nature through their animations. The giant spider, for example, is as creepy and disgusting as any arachnophobe’s worst nightmare. All of this lies behind a grainy filter that helps stylize the world in a believable and interesting way.
The audio complements the visuals very nicely. From the padded, leafy footfalls as you run through the forest to the slimy, slinking tik-tik of the aforementioned giant spider, Limbo’s sound design is as minimally powerful as you will find in gaming. For the most part you will be playing in eerie silence, discovering this hauntingly beautiful world inside the echo chamber of your own head. Occasionally, the bursts of white noise or the hiss of record static will punctuate particularly important moments, imparting the drama to great effect on your psyche and game experience.
Limbo has no story. You start the game waking up in a forest, with your only option to move forward. There is no real context given for why you should continue on the hazardous path before you save the extremely compelling puzzle design. Even death holds no sway, as you will simply be revived at one of the game’s generous checkpoints.
The narrative of Limbo is revealed through its piecemeal environments, its strong abstract emotional displays (like the dead children hanging from branches), and its clever gameplay design. As such, you’ll take away different memories and interpretations of what exactly the game’s narrative is than I did. Some will appreciate the Freudian thanatos of the small boy whom they guide on the journey, while others will delight in simply frolicking in such an evocative, mysterious world. If there is such a thing as a pure concept of “game,” then Limbo is one of the best illustrations of that concept we’ve ever seen. It displays a very high level of competency in tying its visual theme to its gameplay theme and translating that through the television to you.
You will die, a lot. This mystical dream forest plays host to a number of dangerous creatures, precariously perched rubble, and large machinery. There are a number of box-pushing puzzles, but they never feel out of place given the make-up of the in-game materials: wood, metal, pipes, boxes, conveyor belts, etc.
Limbo’s main driving force is the gameplay, pure and simple. Sure you can make the boy stand in the forest forever, or hide from the horrors therein. But as a player, you will want to take him as far as you can through the maze, because the brain-bending challenges the game tasks you with overcoming are that damn good. By the end of the game you’ll be performing some truly creative tasks, like juggling items using shifting gravity panels, and navigating rotating rooms full of spinning buzz saws. Playing Limbo is a real treat, and its elegant simplicity and unique design are rare gems in today’s gaming landscape.
It’s only three hours long, there is no real consequence for failure, and it’s priced at $15. Even so, Limbo is an experience not to be missed. It is the distillation and refined product of style, substance, and creativity that is only possible in an interactive medium. Buy, buy, buy.