Limbo is often compared to a title we mentioned early in our Indie Games feature, Braid. It makes sense. Both are puzzle/platformers that were originally released for Xbox Live Arcade. Both have a unique look and feel to them and both feature some amazing audio work. Sure, sounds pretty similar. In reality, the games couldn’t be any more different. Anthony said in his take on Braid that Braid is “about thinking”. Well, if Braid is about thinking, then Limbo is about feeling.
(Note: if you’re unfamiliar with Braid, you may want to read Anthony’s piece before you read this, as I reference Braid several times.)
The game opens with your character, the silhouette of a boy, unconscious on the ground in a mysterious forest. Who is he? How did he get here? Where are we, anyway? What is he doing here? All good questions, but the game certainly won’t be telling you. Calling Limbo’s story “minimalist” is being generous. Most games you can purchase on Xbox Live will have one or two paragraph descriptions. A brief summary of the characters, story, and gameplay, and usually rating and content information as well. Limbo has a one sentence description. “Uncertain of his Sister’s Fate, a Boy enters LIMBO”. That’s it. That’s all the set up you get. Make no mistake, though: Limbo’s lack of a story is one of it’s stronger traits. As you make your way through the game, you encounter a small handful of other characters and travel through a wide variety of locations. No clear concrete explanation is ever given for where you are and what you’re doing. The ending does the ballsiest thing I’ve ever seen a video game do, and it would be criminal to spoil it for you here.
Who and what the characters and locations are is left extremely open ended, and the answers ultimately lie within you, the player. Your interpretation may be wildly different from mine, so there’s no real point in getting into what it all means. Going back to the Braid/Limbo comparison, the two games are actually very similar in this regard. The only difference is the approach. Whereas Braid is content to dump seemingly unrelated text on you and force you to think about how it relates to the rest of the game, Limbo has no text at all. No dialogue, no story. It’s up to you to determine how and why everything fits together. It’s a similar-but-different approach, and one I vastly prefer over Braid’s.
It’s almost amazing that I’ve made it this far in this piece without talking about how the game looks. At the core of it, Limbo is a black-and-white 2D platformer. Through careful manipulation of multiple filters, types of film grain, and multiple foreground and background layers, developers PlayDead have been able to craft a twisted and beautiful world. If you don’t play this game in high definition with the lights off, you are (as The Internet says) doing it wrong. The audio work is just as good as the graphics, if not better. The sound track is filled with ambient noise and occasionally subdued music. If you’ve ever listened to Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land, then you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. Never before has the sound of a footstep crushing some blades of grass ever been this unnerving.
Which is really what the game is all about. So far I’ve only talked about the canvas and the paint…what about the painting? The real meat of the game, and the reason why I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone, is how oppressive and unnerving it is. As you play Limbo, your character will die. A lot. It is possible to beat the game without dying, but it is extremely unlikely to happen on your first try. And that’s not a big deal, but what is different about it is how gruesomely your boy will die. He will be skewered on spikes, cut in half, decapitated, and dismembered (checkpoints are plentiful, if you are concerned). Expect to be shocked by some of the death animations. Nearly every character you meet is hostile. Nearly every location is full of traps and hazards. The world of Limbo is unrelentingly hostile and sure to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s just you, alone, in a dark and shadowy world. The game never takes its foot off the gas pedal; you are always in danger. Each puzzle is accompanied by the risk of death.
And this is where the “lol Limbo more like Braid 2” argument really falls apart. Exploring the world of Limbo has an entirely different feel than Braid, and any other game for that matter. You never feel like you’re solving puzzles in Limbo; you’re merely trying to survive. This is basically the polar opposite of Braid. If you’re stumped on a puzzle in Limbo, you can’t just leave and come back later like you can in Braid. That’s entirely because of the nature of the puzzles in the game and how they relate to the environment. In Limbo, the puzzle is OH SHIT THIS BUZZ SAW IS GOING TO KILL ME. Or FUCK BEAR TRAPS GOD DAMN IT. It’s not “Well I can rewind time and create a shadow, and I need to get up this ladder…” Braid’s puzzles require thought and reflection, patience and time. They are static problems waiting for you to be solved, like problems on a math test. Can’t finish one? Skip it and come back later. Limbo’s puzzles are the environment itself. The solution is simply surviving. Again, it’s a similar-but-different approach, and again, it’s one I vastly prefer over Braid’s. Limbo’s approach to integrating the puzzles into the environment creates a raw, visceral quality that I’ve yet to find in any other game. I’ve played plenty of horror games before, and some of them had made me jump or act hesitantly, but no game has ever made me feel pure dread until Limbo.
To be completely honest, the puzzles in Limbo are not terribly hard. Some require a good sense of timing, but Mario-worthy levels of platforming skill are not required. All of the people I’ve talked to got stuck on one or two puzzles for an extended period of time, but which puzzle differed from person to person. The game is short, ranging from 3 to 5 hours, and very linear. Once you’ve solved all the puzzles, you’ve done everything there is to do except Achievement Hunt. Lastly, the game is $15. For some reason, that is too much money for some people. None of that really matters, if you ask me. So what if the puzzles are easy? This game is about atmosphere first and foremost. So what if it’s short? You’ll pay $10 dollars plus concession prices to go see an hour and a half movie, but not $15 to play a game that’s twice that length? Come on. I don’t understand these complaints against Limbo, but it may concern you, so go into it with that knowledge. I say don’t let these “faults” stop you. Limbo is a fantastic, one-of-a-kind experience. It’s pretty, it’s scary, and it’ll make you feel things that video games have never made you feel before. Can you really put a price on that?
Yes. Fifteen dollars.
- System: Xbox 360
- Released: July 21, 2010
- Developer: PlayDead
- Check it out here, get it on XBLA