There are a few games that we can look to as strong aesthetic experiences—games which strike us visually and tonally on the level of a good film or painting. Independent Danish studio PlayDead’s Limbo can definitely be counted among these. Everything about this title, from its stark, nostalgic opening title card to its Gaussian glowing lights, shallow focus, and rich shadows, brings to mind some lost F.W. Murnau film. There’s something about Limbo in tone as well as texture that just screams its German expressionist roots: the anxiety, the ambivalence, and the grim atmosphere are all palpable from the first screen and follow the player through every puzzle and its harrowing descent into the dark.
“Limbo”, like “purgatory”, arrives in our shared mythological lexicon via Catholicism as a place where dead technicalities go. Although sometimes treated as the edge of Hell, it’s often viewed as a sort of neutral place, often lifeless and far from comfortable. People who wind up in limbo aren’t generally evil, but they aren’t godly in the conventional Catholic sense either. It’s this role, as a morally ambivalent in between space, that makes limbo a fond subject in storytelling in both the literal and metaphorical sense—it’s a place for uncertainty and negotiation of the self, the rationalization of the unpleasant. And there are plenty of unpleasant things in Limbo, just as much as the game is beautiful.
There’s also a limbo for children, an idea that comes into play quite hauntingly even in opening chapters, where players are forced to question their boy protagonist’s circumstances. Is he a visitor who can come and go, or does he belong here? How much of what we experience is an objective space, and how much is a matter of his perception? And are those other kids we see . . . well. There are no hard and fast answers to any of this, but some may find the dark implications as uncomfortable as the brutality that accompanies them.
Limbo is a puzzle platformer, distinct from many others due to its much touted physics engine. Objects slide, swing, fall, and crush with satisfying physicality. It makes for a pleasingly visceral and bloody little horror game. Despite the absence of color, the all but absent, yet always deliberate use of sound is also notable in how it accentuates the overall atmosphere. Though not necessarily a scary game, there’s just something classically “horror” about it in that “looming shadow of Nosferatu” kind of way. Really, the amount of cinematic references going on relative to the game’s length is quite impressive, but the developers never take you away from the play aspect. Taking note of the littlest cues in the visuals and sound work can become the most rewarding part of solving its many puzzles, which start out simple and barbarous (three words: swinging bear traps) and steadily work their way up to absolutely mindbending.
Comparisons to Braid seem to have cropped up in places, although the surface similarities are passing at best (two-dimensional XBLA platformers about damsels in distress who aren’t or endless sliding panels of meaning beyond the obvious). Beyond those, the games are two vastly different aesthetic encounters. Compared to Braid‘s baroque treatment of text and painterly visuals, Limbo is a dressed down, silent era netherworld fantasy with nary a word to be seen outside a Citizen Kane-esque neon sign. And while Braid‘s rewind mechanic is employed directly in service of its themes, Limbo‘s autosaves and restarts are a little more typical gameplay fare.
Really, the physics engine steals the show here and with good reason. Even the wiggle of individual links on a length of chain has to be admired for the artistry that has gone into it, one small element of the no doubt enormous task of rendering everything visually seamless with the stylized aesthetic. The point at which the player has to stop to admire the sheer elegance of using simple spin and inertia to hurl boxes into their reach, to then take these said boxes and cross a sprawling mech-organic landscape to yet another puzzle-ground with them is when we have to acknowledge that we have an exemplary piece of work on our hands here.
Most of the puzzles admittedly remain limited in their solutions, although the functional space, skilled timing, and creativity necessary for many of the later obstacles keeps the overall experience fresh and engrossing. The game’s frequent, totally invisible autosave feature and absence of loading time allow for endless trial and error. This works both ways though, as (given the setting and theme of the game) that nagging subconscious thought might start to drift up: “what if I’m meant to fail?” There’s definitely something Sisyphean about the deadly loops that you can get yourself into, forced to watch your silhouette protagonist’s head go rolling again and again until you make that ledge that you somehow kept overlooking. That isn’t to say that the difficulty is brutal, but it’s sure to provide a challenge in some key places, even for seasoned platformer players.
In the end, the short play time may be the most damning (ha!) part of Limbo‘s 1200 Microsoft Points ($15) price tag. Many players might find the 3-4 hour experience simply not worth the money. But critics said the same of Jonathan Blow’s Braid in 2008, and that title certainly enjoys no shortage of critical acclaim or consumer interest two years after the fact. What appears at the outset to be a short experience in Limbo can yield depth in the unlikeliest of corners. In particular, completionists will find the game is anything but a gimme with its achievements. I racked up a grand total of one (out of twelve) on my first run, so you can be assured there is plenty of replayability should you go looking for it.
As a distinct, beautiful little game of exquisite design and masterful execution, Limbo is definitely one of the most memorable playing experiences that you will have this year. As an art game with plenty of wrenching moments and an elegantly bookended narrative, it’s a must-play. For those who just enjoy unique visuals and a taut physics engine, it’s great for that as well.