Limbo may be about many things: physics, the loss of innocence, a reinterpretation of recent gaming history in the style of 1920s cinema, but above and beyond all these subjects it is death – and the finality that follows – which casts its ominous shadow across the exploits of this unnamed, silhouetted and enigmatic young boy. Death is the one constant, from the child that chillingly hangs from the branches of an angularly drawn tree to your own repeated demise as you figure out how to progress deeper into the world, and it’s to Playdead’s credit that this mood is maintained from the unforgettable opening through to the heart-stopping conclusion.
Redolent of German Expressionism – which itself paved the way for Film Noir – the rich monochrome of Limbo is a striking aesthetic, made all the more effective because, as well as ensuring that the game looks unlike anything else, the way it’s used is in keeping with those movements’ philosophy. In cinema and theatre the high contrast black and white, deep shadows and abstract sets were meant to reflect loneliness, threat, sadness; Limbo’s visuals and sparse sound design work towards much the same effect. Thankfully a subtlety underpins this approach, so despite the potentially contentious on-screen subject matter, there’s never any sense of gratuity when death occurs (the “potentially contentious” aspect is the fact that the boy you play as will die often, and in all manner of ways: drowning, decapitation, being impaled on a spike, falling from a great height and landing like a rag doll…it’s a sadists’ dream).
As well as killing off eight year-olds in ever more creative ways, Limbo also does other things that most games don’t (or, in some cases, shouldn’t), like asking you to make leaps of faith, and using trial and error in the solving of puzzles that often lead to a sudden death. But the checkpoints are always fair, the solutions tantalisingly hover within the realm of logic, and after every death the screen seems to linger for just enough time for you to look at the landscape and work out what the developers are trying to hint. You could even argue that the probing, instinctual nature of the gameplay neatly mirrors that of a young boy exploring new surroundings, however hazardous and frightening they may be. These frequent deaths underline the impression that your first playthrough feels very much like the practice run for a second, smoother journey; part of Limbo’s appeal will be in taming the environment until it can be played through in its entirety, in one seamless audience-impressing hour and a bit (the Achievement for completing the game with a maximum of five deaths will likely provide 10 of the most coveted gamerpoints of this or any other year).
Limbo is ostensibly, underneath these weighty images and even weighter themes, a 2D platformer that takes inspiration from two games with similarly one-worded titles, Portal and Braid (Gabe Newell is pointedly thanked in the end credits). Like those modern classics, Limbo introduces new ideas and devices at an expertly judged rate, until what began at the start with just a simple jump button has blossomed into all manner of gravity switches, magnets, and strange neon maggots (you’ll see). While Limbo may lack Valve’s self-reflexive wit and Braid’s mind-bending devious streak, it is still a supreme example of persistent invention, with the later platforming sections in particular playing like the best Bowser castle level Nintendo never made.
The one criticism that has regularly surfaced since Limbo’s launch is that of the game’s length. At a trim three or four hours for the first playthrough it isn’t a significant investment, but very few minutes of this time are wasted. The control of mood is masterly, the visual style invites immersion, and as experiences go it’s certainly better to be this tight, to be this memorable, than risk being bloated or losing the interest of the player. Also, the aforementioned temptation to keep returning to Limbo until the game has been mastered is strong. That it achieves this not through the pursuit of meaningless surface dressing collectables but via economical storytelling and the world’s nagging atmosphere, is laudable.
“Uncertain of his Sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo” – this is the only explicit communication of story, and it exists in the dashboard menu before you’ve even started to play the game. Why the boy’s sister is missing, the origins of the world he now inhabits, and the events that have led gangs of children to form Lord Of The Flies-style hierarchies is told with such attention to minimalism that it makes Ico look like a Final Fantasy cut-scene in comparison (a slight exaggeration, but you get the point). The smaller nature of indie development has obviously helped in bringing such a vision to complete fruition; only the forthcoming The Last Guardian promises something as affecting but on an even more epic scale.
Limbo is a game about death that manages to invest the act of dying, at least in the context of gaming, with a rare impact – quite an achievement considering how often it happens. Guilt, heartbreak, shock – they’re not the standard videogame experiences, but Limbo, despite its adherence to a familiar design framework, is not like many other videogames, as richly cinematic as it is unashamedly lyrical. An instant classic.
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