No matter your area of interest, it’s hard to deny that the success of the downloadable game delivery medium has benefitted the composition of the modern industry. Before, corporate production and focus groups were the dominant force in nearly any mainstream product. Now, however, thanks to the dismantling of the various barriers to entry (distribution, promotion, etc.), no development team is too small. Thus, we find a species of games emerging at the opposite end of the spectrum, where research and formula give way to creativity and synergy, and dreams of the individual can stand in contest with previously untouchable intellectual property.
Limbo, with its minimalist presentation, is the latest of these unique specimens. Clearly a creature of inspiration, Playdead’s first creation tells the tale of a young boy trapped in a nightmarish, monochromatic world, in search of his sister. It is a side-scrolling, platforming puzzle/adventure game with one seamless level, no music, and no padding—just atmosphere and gameplay alone. And though it is unquestionably brief, its content is rich and its impression strong.
At the beginning, our hero awakens on the floor of the dark forest, seemingly disoriented and, presumably, as lost as the player. His only actions are to run, jump, and interact contextually with his environment, and via these means, you’ll need to survive a horrific barrage of surrounding hazards. Some of these deadly phenomena include giant spiders, malicious circular saws, and terrible industrial machinery—it’s all very fantastic, and yet quite believable, thanks primarily to the matter-of-fact approach to presentation.
A brief but artistic experience
Monochromatic as it is, the silhouettes that comprise Limbo’s world are nevertheless more credible than the ultra-sharp textures and saturated colors of even many hyper-realistic big budget games. Objects fade in and out of focus as they approach and leave the interactive two-dimensional plane, naturally communicating their depth and relevance. The sound—featuring no music, but instead only the subtle disturbances of the nearby environment—is intensely realistic. A film grain effect has been added to the picture to enhance the gritty overall appearance. Only the abnormality of the concept and the cartoony character’s gory death sequences (dismembered by circular saws, stabbed by spider legs, crushed by bear traps) serve to actively remind the player that this is meant to be a fictional experience. (There is a gore filter, by the way, which effectively removes any such material if you’re sensitive to silhouette violence.)
But there is nothing strange about escaping a colossal spider while the forest around you transitions deliberately into some sort of forgotten factory—because that is what Limbo so carefully communicates… and it gets stranger still. Larvae-like parasites that turn you into a unidirectional zombie; switches that rotate the very ground you stand on, flip gravity, or magnetize surfaces; hostile youths who blow darts and set traps in an effort to kill… Limbo unapologetically introduces these wild ideas at will. Contributing to both the realism and the depth of the puzzles is the physics engine, which provides consistently predictable results as you push blocks and position lifts to and fro. Also benefiting the experience is the generous assortment of checkpoints, such that failure is less of a penalty and experimentation is encouraged.
Before you know it, the end will come, and it’s certainly abrupt and unexpected—roughly three hours into the experience. When you’re finished, there are still a handful of hidden glowing eggs to collect (and some of them involve some pretty inventive asides)—each worth an achievement—but it’d be lying to say that the length is not a limiting factor here. A couple more hours of gameplay and perhaps some additional permutations involving the gravity/magnetization puzzles we see late in the story would have made this a near-universal recommendation at the given price. Nevertheless, forgiving value disputes, Limbo is ultimately an unforgettable and somewhat disturbing experience—proving yet again that creativity does, indeed, count for something in today’s industry.