Limbo. The word, in its original Latin, means “edge” or “boundary” and refers to the edge of hell: a place where the not-quite-damned are sent to languish – a plane of existence for the souls of unbaptized infants, or those who might have found salvation… had they not died quite so abruptly. In other contexts it is an intermediate state, a thing unresolved. You wait in limbo to hear the test results, to resolve the legal battle. Whatever definition you use, limbo is not a pleasant place to be.
And this too holds true for the game of the same title. Produced by Playdead in 2010, Limbo is a two-dimensional puzzle platformer that garnered a string of gushing reviews when it was first released. The Escapist called it “freaky, weird genius”, and Xbox World 360 declared it to be “easily the platform’s greatest successor to Braid”. Reviews elsewhere were smattered liberally with the words “masterpiece” and “genius”. It won the “Game Of The Year” and “Best Indie Game” awards at the 2010 European Milthon Awards, and has received further accolades for everything from its sound design to its adventure-game qualities.
Once you play the thing, you’ll see that the praise is certainly deserved. Limbo displays an emotional intelligence that easily outstrips many higher-budget contemporary games. It plays with your perceptions and your emotions even as you play with it. A trip into Limbo is an absorbing experience, and one that will leave you unexpectedly changed. On top of all that, it’s stunningly elegant, even beautiful, and there’s a weight and poetry to every scene that belies its simple interface.
You play as a small boy, only ever seen in silhouette. At the very start of the game you wake up in a forest. From this starting point you run, jump, slide, crawl and clamber your way through a series of increasingly deadly obstacles, escaping dismemberment by the skin of your teeth over and over again. It seems that almost every other living thing in the world of the game wants nothing more than to murder you: you are stalked by a giant spider, hounded by cannibal children, crushed to death in hidden bear traps, and preyed upon by carnivorous flies.
No explanation as to how you ended up alone and in the wilderness is forthcoming, but there are occasional clues. As you leave the forest behind you enter an area that resembles a ruined city. Decayed buildings and broken signs proliferate. Amongst the ruins you catch tantalizing glimpses of the game’s only friendly figure – a girl of similar stature to you, who distinguishes herself from the other creatures of Limbo-world by not immediately trying to kill you. These narrative elements hint at rather than tell a story, leaving the narrative wide open to interpretation. Theories range wildly: perhaps you are a boy who – having fallen from a treehouse and died – is now making his way through hell, or perhaps you are lost in your own brain, while your physical body lies comatose in hospital. Maybe you are dead, and the girl is burying your body, or maybe you are caught between hell and the real world, desperately trying to break through to one or the other.
You could subscribe to any one of a number of explanations as you try to make sense of this puzzling game. Ultimately though, I get the sense that Limbo is not meant to be fully explained. More than anything else it resembles a nightmare – though it has its own internal logic, there is no concrete reason why it exists. That said, I did find the ending somewhat disappointing. It is spectacular, and it remains in keeping with the tone of the rest of the game, but I was hoping for perhaps a little more resolution, a little extra hint towards one theory or the other. Limbo denies the player this satisfaction – appropriately, perhaps – and leaves you to puzzle over its meaning long after the closing credits.
If Limbo is indeed a playable vision of a childhood nightmare, it is a fantastically accurate one. Throughout this adventure you have little with which to defend yourself. The mechanics of play are simple: you can run and jump, push and pull. You can flip switches and climb ropes. There are no weapons to be found, except those that you can improvise from your environment. There are no safe havens, no save points, no inventory, no health counters – none of the usual comforting gubbins of a gaming interface. You are alone. Undefended. And there is nothing to come between you and all the horrors of Limbo-land. This lack of interface is nerve-shreddingly effective at drawing you in, making you a part of what’s going on in the game.
If that wasn’t absorbing enough, it’s worth mentioning that both the graphics and the soundscape are sublime. The aural palette is loaded with terribly realistic gargles and groans, snapping wood and rushing wind. These ghostly sounds supplement perfectly the simple black-and-white illustration-style graphics. The difficulty too is perfectly pitched: the puzzles are often challenging, but rarely is it necessary to repeat one more than a couple of times before finding a way through. This gives the game a sense of momentum – you are always moving forwards, never stuck in one place… and yet it’s not easy, either. There are moments which require both logical thought and quick reflexes. This fine balance ensures that the game flows, and that there are no awkward barriers to your immersion in it.
A great deal of effort has clearly been sunk into Limbo’s design, and a great deal of imagination into its conception. It all goes together to create something that is frighteningly absorbing, puzzling, sad, evocative and mystical. You should waste no time in getting hold of a copy today.