I’ve experienced a pretty comprehensive spread of emotions playing videogames, from obsessive elation to keyboard-smashing frustration, but I have never before had my mood turned in on itself by a game.
Until Limbo, that is. It may be my melodramatic personality speaking, but I was really touched by this little piece of indie perfection, which has finally made the journey from console to PC. By its finish I felt curiously contemplative.
At baseline, Limbo is a side-scrolling puzzler, a seamless string of set pieces that require thought, experimentation and precise timing. Considered as a collection of interacting mechanics, Limbo is a work of staggering magnificence. Actually, scratch that; this game is the bloody apotheosis of good design. Considered entire, though, Limbo is hard to carve. It’s a lonely, ominous piece of nightmare poetry, and it haunted me.
The game’s plot is an icon of simplicity, field-stripped to one bare essential: Somebody you love is lost in this land called Limbo, and you must find her. Presented in a silhouetted spray of overexposed monochrome, every single micron of the game is a postcard from a fever dream that wants to kill you. From its film-grain buzz to the blur of backdrops draped in depth-of-field, Limbo is simply dripping with understated grandeur.
And it feels alive, managing to couple a minimalistic aesthetic with a richness of detail that is almost overwhelming. Items in the plane of play are often linked to reactive background elements – meaning the backgrounds feel like a part of events rather than mere stage props – and the animation, enlivened with convincing physics, is fluid and utterly lifelike.
The audio, too, is pervasive in its own low-key way, with moments of ambient undertone drifting occasionally over the game’s stark aural spectrum. Each sound you hear is imbued with the personality of the thing from which it emanates, and even the muffled rapid-fire of running through this world manages to convey a subtle atmosphere of desperation.
The world itself is an enigma. It has an archaeological sense of narrative, in that it explains nothing, but weaves a tapestry of implications through the things left behind, through the terrible creatures, through the malicious survivors and the remnants of high-tech neglect. There is a story here, but it happened before you, and nothing remains that means you well.
Afraid of the dark
Know one thing: This is a brutal, unforgiving game, and the cruelty and terror your nameless protagonist will endure is all the more unsettling for the fact that he is a child. I may have been able to remain detached from his plight were it not for the subtle details that personify him; his innocence and wonder are revealed when, for example, his face turns up to watch a pair of butterflies in flight, and I felt oddly protective toward him. My inability to shield him from the dangers of this world bothered me in a way I can’t describe.
This may not come as a shock, but I loved Limbo. It’s unbelievable, and it almost feels cheap to reduce its forbidding brilliance to a numerical score. I’m not about to call it a work of art, but its depth certainly borders on the literary.
Limbo just does everything right. Even its fairly short length befits its intensity, and it left me feeling both subdued and exulted by its end.
I can’t recommend it enough.