'Limbo': A Little Physics Platformer in the Gothic Tradition

Limbo is a dressed down, silent era netherworld fantasy with nary a word to be seen outside a Citizen Kane-esque neon sign.


Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Rated: Teen
Players: 1
Price: $15.00
Platforms: XBLA
Developer: PlayDead Studios
Release date: 2010-07-21

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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