Limbo! Everybody do the limbo!

Limbo is a video game, originally an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive title last summer, recently made available on PSN and Steam. The game was critically acclaimed as you may be aware, so I really wanted to check it out, especially given my experience with Braid, a game of similar origin and acclaim. Also like Braid, Limbo is a puzzle-platformer with unique presentation, but I would say that’s where the similarities end.

A boy and a boat. Nothing too creepy going on.

This game is a strongly designed puzzle-platformer, wrapped in one of the most convincingly realised aesthetics of any game I have ever witnessed. Breathtaking monochromatic audio-visuals aside, this game is also a bold gameplay statement, revolving around environmental puzzles so tightly structured that every object in the game world has a purpose as part of the perpetual journey from left to right. This genre is certainly not unique amongst downloadable indie games, but the execution is so tightly tuned and unobtrusive that you can sit back and soak up the experience as a whole.

Limbo de-constructs the storytelling of the genre in a quietly organic fashion, telling its minimalistic tale in images and sounds rather than words. When your avatar, a small and silent boy, wakes up in a dark and strange world, your first instinct is to run to the right of the screen, to progress and overcome any obstacle in your path. Initially it’s the joy of discovery that drives you, especially in a world so compelling as this. There are no levels, no cuts. The world continues from beginning to end without break.

The economy of storytelling here is pretty astonishing. It is a closed experience – everything you need to know is in the game, and you make of it what you will. I had a pretty strong personal moment with the ending, which similarly to Braid, re-contextualises your time spent with the game – though unlike Braid, it doesn’t hit you over the head with it. The story of Limbo is not really told, it is suggested by the game, and inferred by the player. I found it utterly compelling.

One of the larger "enemies" in the game. Without wishing to spoil anything, your interactions with this spider evoke a remarkable pathos.

The gameplay is appropriately minimal in its setup, using directional control, a jump button and an action button. It is the satisfying internal realism of environmental interactions that truly impress. Several early encounters with bear-traps set the stage for what’s to come – a world where the simplest object can be an obstacle, a weapon, a tool, a platform, depending on how you interact with it. That’s not to say you have any real freedom. Limbo is entirely linear, and almost every puzzle has a single correct solution, but the sheer breadth of puzzle designs made possible by such a small selection of objects and interactions is a near-endless source of surprise and delight.

Limbo is a game of trial and error. Nothing is explicitly explained about the world, nor the objects in it. Often, the first time you encounter a new situation, you will walk right into a trap and die – and in some pretty brutal ways. Fortunately, the game checkpoints very regularly, so it’s easy and actually quite rewarding to learn from your mistakes and adapt your strategy accordingly. Despite the tone of the game, player death is taken very lightly, and is as much a learning tool as a punishment.

Outside of a few puzzles with a precise timing on them that require quick reflexes, the majority of the game’s running time has a leisurely, considered pace that really heightens those brief moments of panic when you realise an unstoppable boulder is rolling toward you. Again though, the checkpoint system means you are not heavily punished for your bravery, and that every seemingly-unseen death the game springs on you teaches you a little more about the mechanics of the environment, and the puzzle at hand.

Speaking of the environment, the game does a pretty astonishing job of setting a tone through its striking visuals, and exemplary sound design. Everything is dark, misty, slightly blurred, and yet sharply detailed, full of little touches like electrical cables gentle swaying and roof tiles that slip underfoot, sliding down the roof and over the edge into the darkness below. The animation is similarly sublime, and contextual. As you approach objects, the boy’s hands will reach out to touch them, or to push them. There are some pretty amazing set-pieces too – in particular a large hotel sign.

The music and sound design of Limbo is, to my ears, wholly astonishing, and may well be the single element that glues the experience together. The music itself is barely perceptible as such, consisting of muddy distant tones and the ambience of the immediate environment. Again, that hotel sign is made that much more memorable by its use of throbbing electrical hum and crackle. Machines clank and groan, insects buzz and chirp, and vague organic drones ring out from somewhere in the background gloom.

Limbo is not a stroll in the park, but it is an order of magnitude more forgiving than Super Meat Boy, because it relies on logic and ingenuity rather than pixel-perfect jumping. I feel like this is the type of game almost anybody could enjoy and in time even complete.

I honestly cannot recommend this game highly enough. It’s original, it’s tightly designed, it’s exceptionally well presented, it’s well paced and pretty much the ideal length for an experience so self-contained and memorable. That said your mileage may vary depending on your appreciation of the presentation style or the puzzle-platforming gameplay. It is also quite short, taking me under three hours to complete, but I always appreciate a game that is short and perfectly-formed more than one that is overstretched. My three hours playing Limbo were a more enjoyable experience than fifty hours of Fallout 3.

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