Limbo is one of those artsy 2D indie puzzle platformers that were all the rage a few years ago. Thanks to its striking black & white color scheme, it immediately caught my eye when I first saw screenshots. It went on to become one of the indie darlings of 2010, joining the company of such games as Braid, World of Goo and Super Meat Boy. It could be easy to dismiss it as a pretentious game, as trying too hard with its European art house film sensitivities. It’s fittingly sparse in exposition, as it is in color, visual spectacle or music. It is also a fucking joy to play.
Playdead set out to create a minimalist platformer with physics puzzles and a uniquely eerie atmosphere. What further ambitions they had is hard to judge. It’s tempting to assign all kinds of meanings to the things that happen in the game and because it’s so open to interpretation, the game invites people to make up their own interpretation. But since Playdead stated that they didn’t have an official explanation, the meaning or story of the game cannot truly be judged. It’s a quite infuriating neither-here-nor-there kind of deal, which is ironically fitting with the game’s title.
What is clear though is that the game succeeds wonderfully at evoking an atmosphere that immediately grips you. It’s helped by the excellent feel of control you have over the nameless boy. The rumble and analog stick movement are so finely tuned that it is a joy to play. Playing with a gamepad on PC, I could lean back and easily dive into the mindspace of mulling over physics puzzles and the meaning of it all and marvelling at the beautifully animated characters and environments.
One thought that comes to mind over and over again is “that is so creative”. The puzzles are very inventive and always logical, though not always fair. Many obstacles are only found out by trial and error, because the games visual language isn’t as obvious as you might be used to. This comes off as meant to be exactly this way though, rather than from a lack of polish or sloppy gamedesign. This way, you’ll witness the death of the boy in various disturbing ways over and over again, adding to the sense of danger. The game’s world comes off as evil and ruthless. It’s like a nightmare, with the boy immersing himself deeper and deeper in it in search of escape. Over the course of the game, environments change from dark forests to industrial landscapes, and new types of puzzles are introduced.
My favorite section is when you meet other boys early on. Rather than teaming up with fellow children stuck in a deadly forest, they attack you for no apparent reason. At that moment I felt like I was in The Lord of the Flies, a novel that is criminally underused as inspiration in video games. I had hoped that his is the direction the game would go on, but alas, it wasn’t to be.
So many things in this game are there to tease at bigger things without ever delivering them. Towards the end, the creativity fades a bit and you just keep trucking on from one mental challenge to the next, with a grim determination that you’ll see this through to finally get some resolution. The end then comes very suddenly and yes, there is some satisfaction to be had, but more questions arise yet again.
Limbo isn’t as innovative as some may thought it would be, but it is still a rather rare kind of game. It joins the likes of Another World, Heart of Darkness and Abe’s Oddysee and that is no bad company indeed. I do recommend picking it up, especially if you can get it for a good price. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, and will leave you impressed.