California Literary Review

Video Game Review: LIMBO

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July 26th, 2010 at 12:36 pm

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LIMBO box art
LIMBO

Release Date: July 21, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360 – Xbox Live Arcade
Developer: Playdead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Puzzle-Platformer
ESRB: Teen

CLR Rating: ★★★★☆


A Boy and His Bog

LIMBO, the first release by Danish developers at Playdead Studios, is art in motion. So much so that even playing it briefly makes one question whether or not a museum isn’t a better place to experience it rather than a living room. LIMBO follows the standards of a videogame, specifically of the puzzle-platformer genre, but its artistic vision requires us to answer the question: “Does good art make for a good game?”

LIMBO

This is the beginning of the haunted world that LIMBO asks you to traverse.

As with 2008’s critically acclaimed Braid, LIMBO uses one of the original genres that popularized console gaming in the 80’s: the 2D platformer, as its core. Unlike Braid’s colorfully transcendental focus on the nature of time and control, LIMBO dwells in a minimalism that connects it more to 1991’s Out of this World. Best seen with the game mechanics alone, here you control simply a boy, with no name or history given, and you can do three things: move the boy, make him jump, or make him grab what he touches.

All three of these skills prove to be necessary as the coal-colored kid traverses the haunted and dangerous landscape of the mysterious world he wakes up in. As with the boy’s past, nothing is said to the player, and nothing needs to be said. This place of morbidity and decay can only be experienced as the boy navigates through a seemingly endless path of monstrous forms and deadly traps hiding in the scenery.

But what scenery is on display! Using an entirely grayscale palette, the bogs, decayed factories, and caves the tyke harrowingly runs through drip and rustle with a life all their own, while the paranoiac lighting and filtered camera make the game seem far more like a short film that might have preceded Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The creatures and characters, aside from the boy himself, though few in number and only intermittently seen, are presented all in silhouettes that seem to be inspired by the morbid forms of Edward Gorey or Roman Dirge. The only silhouette to have a break from pure black is that of the boy, whose eyes shine with the brightest white in all this gloom. Visually it often seems that if nothing else, LIMBO might cause pure ecstasy in those who find themselves dying their hair black, putting on a lot of eye shadow, and smoking in the darkest part of the high school parking lot (you know, them there “emo” kids).

LIMBO

Super Mario Bros. this ain’t.

Tying all this together is the amazing aural atmosphere, minimally presenting musical tones for dramatic effect, but maximizing the natural sounds of the darkest woods and oldest machines. Carefully excised interface elements of constant on-screen information and level transitions allow the title to flow beautifully and maintain a visual integrity few games even attempt. The overall effect is stunning, and creates a tense atmosphere that casts emotion like shadows on a cave wall; flickering and alive, but scary in its hazy clarity.

If the game were to be judged solely on the presentation alone it would certainly win awards (and actually has); but there is some meat on the bones of this beast, in the form of a multitude of unique scenarios along the boy’s path. There are at least a few puzzles (which make use of the game’s excellent physics simulation) that will stump some for a spell, while many of the more athletic sequences require precision timing and placement lest the boy meet a grisly end. Usually you pass unscathed ever so narrowly, just as in the traditional game of, well, limbo. When you fail, you’ll get to experience one of a large variety of deaths. Deaths that are genuinely shocking and elicit wonderment to what a simple child’s crimes must have been to warrant such horror.

LIMBO

Let’s put it this way: the thing those legs are attached to is not your friend.

These deaths can become constant, rarely because the player dies unfairly, but because fundamentally this is a game of pure trial and error, and there is little variation to the solution of any of the individual set pieces. The linearity in design begins to shine through as very basic, rarely taking true advantage of the interactive nature of the medium other than in the immediacy it grants. This compounds with the game’s length, as this trek through deathly hallows is a very brief excursion, and it ends abruptly enough to make David Chase startle.

The duration doesn’t ruin the experience, but it does make it difficult to recommend as a purchase to those expecting something grander. Many gamers could feel the investment simply isn’t worth the limited time they will get, especially if they only wish to play the game once. There are elements that help offset this, such as a series of hidden eggs that grant achievements and improved online standing. But, these actions diffuse the immersion of the clean presentation and seem forced, draining it of potency.

LIMBO

Water, water, everywhere, and all of it will kill me.

However, meeting traditional expectations of the genre doesn’t seem to be the point. Playdead has obviously crafted all of these elements intentionally and these aspects can be defended easily in their context: the length ensures the experience remains whole and won’t be broken up into multiple sessions, and the design does cumulatively induce stress, as the knowledge that so many choices lead to death grows in the user’s mind. The objective here isn’t to challenge any preconceived notions or instill new ideas or concepts.

No, the thesis of these great Danes is to capture and encapsulate the many varied meanings of a multi-faceted idea, one that has always related to angst and tension. To create an atheistic landscape of the titular imaginary place of the lost but not quite damned. To craft an expanse that affects emotionally and have you stand at its edge; a precipice that against your own inclinations, will force you peer into the darkness below.

In these goals, LIMBO succeeds completely. It is fine art in a classical sense, promoting a dark, gothic beauty and “a condition of unknowable outcome” (to use the tagline of the eponymous 1999 film and my favorite definition of the term). It really isn’t the most interesting of games, and if approached with traditional expectations, can be overlooked for larger or more challenging titles. As the world’s most beautiful interactive painting though, it begs to be touched at least once by anyone willing to open themselves to it. If you count yourself among these people, enjoy it cautiously. Then show it to someone else; no one should be left alone in LIMBO.

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LIMBO Trailer

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