Ever felt as if you’re a tiny, insignificant spec floating aimlessly in a huge, uncaring world full of bigger, more important and more aggressive things than you? Well the developers of ‘Limbo’ certainly have.
‘Limbo’ is a bleak side-scrolling game developed by the independent ‘Playdead’ studios available on several gaming platforms including the XBLA, the Playstation Network and Steam in which you play a small, nameless boy (or at least you play the silhouette of a small, nameless boy). In terms of story, all we get is the line “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.” I think the developers probably left the plot so ambiguous to allow the players to fill in the blanks themselves and apply their own meaning and reasoning to the little boys grim trek through the desolate and sparsely populated black-and-white world. However, I’ve played through this game quite a few times and I’ve never attempted to apply my own interpretation to it, so basically in terms of story I offer three words: there isn’t one.
Usually a lack of story would be dire criticism for any game, but I think Limbo benefits from its vagueness. You are a little boy, thrown into a world you know nothing about for reasons you will never know. This is a game that relies heavily on its intense and unnerving atmosphere, the success of which in my opinion can be attributed at least to some extent to the fact that the player is completely ill-informed. I think it would have harmed the game severely if at the end of each puzzle, a text block appeared saying things like ‘the boy continued through Limbo, with the hope of finding his sister spurring him on in his search’ in the same vein as Braid. There is no communication with the player at any point from any source through-out the game which adds to the crippling feeling that you are completely alone, isolated and vulnerable.
I think I’ve waffled enough about the abstract features of the game, so what about gameplay? It is a 2D side-scroller, in which the unfortunate little boy you control moves along the screen towards whatever his objective is, avoiding death where he can (but mostly unsuccessfully) and overcoming puzzle sections. The sections of the game that are unashamedly out-and-out physics puzzles are by far the least interesting parts of Limbo. They serve their purpose, as without them the latter half of the game would just be a grim stroll through a scary wood, but earlier sections where the game manages to mingle horrific situations with intricate puzzles were far more stirring.
As I hinted in the previous paragraph, the little boy in Limbo dies a lot. He dies an awful lot. A lot of the game involves trial and error so thankfully there is no punishment for death in this game as you are simply transported to the beginning of the section you perished in. Picture the scene if you will: the little boy is stumbling through the forest, waiting for the next hideous spider encounter when his little, delicate foot presses upon a bear trap, which springs and closes swiftly, tearing the little boy in two as his blood sprays into the air. The traps are almost impossible to spot, so all you can do is wait to be caught like the prey you are, and then avoid them as best you can the next time around. The deaths in Limbo are absolutely brutal. The fact that they are subdued and realistic makes them all the more horrific. If the little boy fell onto some maliciously placed spikes and exploded into pink mist, the effort would be marred compared to what actually happens, which is that the little boy stumbles and falls onto the spikes which pierce his body as he bleeds to death. Watching helplessly as your character dies over and over again just adds to the crushing oppression the player feels during this amazingly depressing game.
So that’s Limbo. Even though it does successfully scare on occasion, I didn’t deem it frightening enough to be included in the ‘horror show’ feature, but I felt such a unique and interesting game still deserved praise, even three years on from its original release. It’s miserable and soul-crushing, but it’s also immersive and entertaining in subtle ways that seem alien to modern gaming. My heart was pumping much more fervently during the intimate meetings with the spider than during any Call of Duty game. This is surely an example that games can be art, as in my humble and probably ill-informed opinion, the greatest thing a piece of art can achieve is the provocation of emotion through reflecting the world we live in. Limbo reflects the tiny child in us all, lost in a big, scary wood, which is what makes the game so unnerving. The feelings it conjures within you are too familiar. However, it is also very pretentious, so to balance this review karmatically, I’m going to have to review ‘Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball’ next week.
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A jaded horror enthusiast, I get my kicks hiding in cupboards from whatever hideous creatures happen to be around. However, I'm more than happy playing a wide range of genres on both consoles and PC. Apart from writing for Z1G, I'm also a History student.