I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. – Henry David Thoreau
Playdead’s puzzle-platformer Limbo debuted at this year’s Independent Games Festival, taking home awards for “Technical Excellence” and “Excellence in Visual Art.” Upon playing the game, people went bonkers. When a game gets this much acclaim early, it’s as if it were developed with an “Attach Hype Here” sign on the back.
Such is the perpetual quandary of indie titles. How do you balance your marketing strategy with potential overhyping? You need people to spread the word about your game, but the last thing anyone wants to do is fail to meet expectations.
Limbo doesn’t just exceed its hype. It smashes it, chews it up, spits it out, rips it apart, and disembowels it without mercy.
The game is nothing if not spare. You control a boy who wakes up in the woods. There’s no heads-up display, no dialogue, no quest text to tell you what to do. A glance at the game’s description in the Xbox Live Marketplace intimates that the boy’s searching for his sister. The title suggests he’s searching for her in some sort of dream or afterlife. All Limbo wants you to know is that the boy’s in the woods and there’s a button for jumping and a button to move objects.
Limbo also wants you to know that the boy will die – often. Spiders, spikes, deep water, fire: these are just some of the hazards you can look forward to steering the boy around. The title screen warns that some of the death animations may be disturbing. There’s no “may be” about it. I’m still haunted by the time a giant spider wore the boy’s body as a glove. A gore filter is provided that minimizes some of the shock value, but that undercuts the title’s disquieting nature. Much of what sets this game apart from its peers is that pervasive sense of vulnerability. There’s no character progression. There are no perks, no power-ups. Run, use your environment, or perish; these are your only options. And some perishing is unavoidable. You can only learn to avoid some traps by discovering them through a grisly death. However, tight, reliable controls and a munificent checkpoint system nip any “I wish I’d stop dying” frustrations in the bud. The boy, whose particular sense of momentum and ability to jump feel wholly unique, controls precisely and predictably. Any time I cried “Boy!” while watching him die yet again, it was not because I was frustrated with how he responded to my commands. It was because I knew I’d failed him.
Not all of the puzzles, however, focus on the boy’s death. Some will wrack your brain until its death. Others may send you crying to forums desperate for some help. These stumpers are doled out judiciously, slowing the game’s pace whenever it’s in danger of becoming a child-murdering spree. How a game this small does so much to establish pace and mood floors me. As I said, Limbo is artistically economical, especially in its visual aesthetic. Despite the game being entirely in silhouette and grayscale, I found myself marveling at elements more commonly hailed in less monochromatic games – for example, the way light pours through cracks in the forest and the flow of water in the caves. The black, gray, and grayer color palette also removes a certain level of specificity from the boy and his environments. This serves a dual purpose. It enables the player to project their own feelings of dread or anxiety onto the boy, whose face is defined only by two white eyes that blink out upon his death, and allows the developers to hide threats in the shadows. Exploration generally has no place in such a linear game, but the stark visuals beg the player to explore with his or her eyes, to find the path or the solution in the beautiful near-darkness.
You will be doing Limbo a disservice if you do not play with a serious pair of headphones or some form of surround sound. The ambient soundscape features no music, only audio cues that alert you to changes in tone or incoming danger. Silence alternates with the sound of the boy walking, which then mingles with the world’s looming background hum. Never have I been so unnerved by a game in two dimensions, and Limbo’s stomach-rumbling atmosphere played a huge part in that.
So it’s an indie puzzle-platformer that fulfill its artistic aspirations, but just what then is its message?, I’m sure you’re wondering. Playdead’s coy about that. At its core, Limbo is about solving puzzles and overcoming obstacles to move forward on a quest for companionship. There’s no effusive text to attach a metaphor to each new mechanic (see Braid). There’s no text crawl at the beginning or the somber end to summarize the story. The boy starts in the woods. He encounters other boys. He goes into some caves, navigates an industrial complex, and attempts to save himself from certain doom in a variety of other environments, none of which repeat. And to explain some of the puzzles in greater detail would ruin any potential satisfaction you might derive from solving them. You will get from Limbo what you’re willing to put in – and then some.
The only issue I have with Limbo is its brevity. I would love more, but I think that might dilute an otherwise amazing experience. Just don’t look at $15 price tag as a reason not to purchase Limbo, or I’d like to send you into the woods to be devoured by a giant spider. I’ve spent more on meals that I forgot ten minutes later. And I’ll be remembering Limbo – its environments, its loneliness, its danger – for years to come.
Playdead’s Limbo is available for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15) on Xbox Live as part of the Summer of Arcade promotion. The developer provided Charge Shot!!! with a copy for the purposes of this review.