US: 19 Jul 2011
Limbo‘s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses stem from its dedication to a sense of mystery. For the majority of the game, the player is in the dark. Limbo‘s gloomy world only offers fleeting glimpses at anything resembling a plot, and its puzzles force players to scramble through the dark to escape imminent death. Few other games possess Limbo‘s constant feeling of dread. But this murky world carries a high price: Limbo‘s dedication to its ambiguous story and startling puzzles causes it to wander by opportunities that could have supplemented its superficial horror with lasting thematic and mechanical depth. By the end, it’s difficult to know how much of the experience was haunting and how much was hollow.
Limbo starts strong, thanks largely to its deliberate obscuring of its plot and structure. The only explicit explanation for the game’s events and mechanics actually comes from outside the game itself. The description text that appears before downloading the game simply states: “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.” With only this brief explanation to prepare them, the player is immediately thrust into a situation that demands exploration and experimentation. Limbo travels a well-worn path: players follow the ancient, 2D pilgrimage from the left side of the screen to the right side. However, as you explore its mysteries, you quickly discover that Limbo differs from it’s side-scrolling brethren, both in tone and in execution.
Speaking of executions, you will quickly realize that death comes swiftly and suddenly in Limbo. Limbo‘s shadowy, grey world is filled with fittingly grim obstacles and traps. Often there is no logical way to predict the danger that lurks ahead, which results in abrupt deaths that are as unexpected as they are gruesome. By the end of the game, the boy will have been beheaded, crushed, drowned, and impaled more times than you can remember. Generous checkpoints and minimal respawn times soothe the sting of failure and eventually make dying more of an experimental process than a brutal punishment.
Death’s impermanence robs it of some of its import, but Limbo still provides plenty of truly horrific moments. Many of these combine the element of surprise with fears that play on our more primal anxieties. In particular, the ominous forest that opens the game conveys the bleak, harsh nature of Limbo‘s world by providing examples of environmental dangers, vicious beasts, and the unique brand of cruelty only humans can produce. Several times over the course of the game, the boy is subject to events that drastically impact his movement. There are few things scarier than being unable to control your body, and Limbo draws on these fears by wresting control of your avatar at times.
However, just as the gruesome nature of the boy’s death eventually becomes commonplace, the game’s mysteriousness often morphs into aimlessness. Limbo‘s physics-based puzzles can either be described as “discrete,” or (less charitably) “pointless.” Unlike the pedagogical dungeons in Zelda or the didactic nature of Portal’s test chambers, Limbo’s puzzles are devoid of any cumulative value. Very few of the techniques or skills used in one puzzle transfer to subsequent challenges. At times this novelty can be refreshing, since many games err on the side of unnecessary repetition. But this kind of design raises questions about Limbo’s ultimate meaning. A heavy reliance on trial and error and the isolated nature of each puzzle create a static gameplay narrative. Players finish Limbo in much the same way as they began it: without a deep knowledge of the game’s systems other than the knowledge that they will be subject to unforeseeable dangers.
Limbo‘s story falls victim to a similar stagnation. The game’s ability to convey an ominous mood is unquestionably strong, but it often mistakes obscurity for profundity. Limbo‘s iconic spider enemy, a splendid incarnation of the game’s sense of creeping danger, meets an abrupt end far too early. The gradual transition from the sinister forest to dark industrial environments robs Limbo of its singular look and avoids any clear commentary on the relationship between nature and human-made environments. Gravity-defying rooms and super magnets sharply contrast with the dank environments and gritty puzzles of the early game. The relationship between Limbo’s children and the elements that constitute their world feels as arbitrary as the game’s many surprise deaths.
Disappointingly, for a game about violence and children, Limbo has little to say about morality or ethics. While it is uncomfortable to see bodies of dead children littering the environment, the meaning behind their deaths is never explored. We get allusions to Lord of the Flies, but no commentary as to why children and more specifically, boys, would turn against one another in an already-harsh world and what this says about humanity as a whole. Even a studio like Rockstar, for all its debauchery, tends to steer clear of putting children in violent situations. Limbo is willing to physically brutalize children, but it treats the philosophical questions of violence, governance, and morality with kid gloves.
Perhaps Limbo is Playdead’s interpretation of Catholic theology? Instead of some grand waiting room for unbaptized children, Limbo is actually an alternate world governed by inhabitants who must struggle to survive until judgment day. It is a world in which life and death are more fluid than in ours. We experience this as players: if you look carefully when death extinguishes the light in the boy’s eyes, he looks the same as he did in the very beginning of the game when he woke up on the forest floor. Especially after the end of the game, it seems reasonable to assume that, rather than waking from sleep, he was simply respawning after one of the many temporary deaths that comprise his existence and the player’s experience.
Of course, the game provides little evidence to support this—or any—interpretation. In both thematic and mechanical senses, Limbo lacks focus. Its plot tells a story without a unified structure or a clear message. Its gameplay tells a story that stimulates plenty of reactions from the player but spends little time fostering the importance of any particular skills. Underneath the game’s moody exterior is an emptiness that is as intriguing as it is frustrating. Limbo’s beauty is derived from its rich atmosphere and haunting environment, but there is little evidence that such beauty has any lasting meaning.