Bleak, atmospheric and totally engaging
Limbo was originally released as an XBLA title in 2010 to critical acclaim, and has been mentioned in every “games as art” discussion held since. An independent game with a unique visual aesthetic, Limbo certainly succeeds as a moving work of visual art, though how much “meaning” you will eventually take away from it depends on the individual - as is the case with most art.
There is no “story” here, in the traditional sense. You awake as a small boy in a dark forest. You are given no directions, no tasks, and no reason to continue except that the environment is so visually engaging that you want to see more of it. You begin exploring the world around you, and as you progress you come across an increasing number of horrific sights, none of which are explained. In the world of Limbo there are giant spiders, creatures that implant glowing worms in your head that control your actions, other creatures that eat those glowing worms, buzz saws, bear traps, steam vents and boulders. And there are also occasionally other children. You see other children a few times in the game, sometimes fleetingly, as they run away from you, and other times you only see their rotting or bloated corpses. Sometimes they appear to be malevolent forces, leaving you to the horrors of the forest, and other times they appear as much victims as you are.
What this world is remains a mystery. The only thing that can be said for sure is that it is a very cruel and unforgiving place. Who you are, who the other children are, and why you are all there is left to the player’s imagination. This may be off-putting to some players used to lengthy cutscenes and endless text dumps sucking every bit of mystery out of most modern games. Personally, while I love a well told story in a game, not every game needs a defined narrative, and I don’t think we lose anything by removing the already tenuous, “escape” or “go kill bad guy” setups that exist as context or motivation in many games. When I play Super Mario Bros., I’m not thinking “I have to get to the end of this level so I can save the princess;” I’m thinking “Ooh, that’s a tricky aerial section - wait, is that a turtle? - how am I supposed to make that jump? - what a cool little world they’ve created here.” - and that’s the sort of flow this game creates.
As I said before, it is up to the individual player’s imagination to figure out what is going on in this world, and that process is helped along greatly by the audio/visual world the developers have created. To put it simply, this game is beautiful, in a way most games could only dream of. The visuals are of a black-and-white, or grayscale style, but it is much more interesting than just that. There is also this effect happening which is very much like films from the 1930s. The backgrounds are grainy and out of focus, and whenever there is a strong light source (which is rare), it makes the surrounding foreground objects hazy.
In fact, the use of light deserves special mention all around. Your avatar in the game is distinguishable at times only by his glowing eyes. The game imbues certain objects with a bright, sharp light (very different from the background haze) to highlight their importance and to provide contrast. And it works perfectly. With such sparse lighting, when light is used (such as huge, brightly glowing neon lettering), it is very effective. There aren’t a great deal of objects that needed rendering here, but the ones that are there are nicely done, and the animation of your player character is simple, but good.
The audio design also deserves some praise. Like Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, there is very little of what we would call “background music.” Most of the time there are only ambient sounds, such as wind or the hum of machinery. This quiet boosts the sense of isolation and danger and also lends itself to more speculation and contemplation from the player. As with the use of light, the absence of music makes it more effective when it is used. The sound effects, particularly for the spinning saw blades that you’ll find, are very real, very visceral, and they take you instantly out of whatever contemplative trance you were in to remind you that this world wants very much to tear you apart. The sound and visual design come together to make a very cohesive artistic vision, and one that works extremely well.
Of course, in addition to being a shifting canvas, Limbo is also a videogame, and it thankfully never forgets this. The gameplay here takes the form of a puzzle platformer. A favorite of indie developers, this genre combines the side-scrolling, run-and-jump mechanics of the 8-bit days with brain-teasing puzzles, often involving switches, the pulling or pushing of crates, and gravity/physics. Here, the controls are very simple. I played this on PC and Mac, and it defaulted to arrow keys for movement (including jumping), and shift for certain context-sensitive actions. That’s it. You sometimes have to push switches or pull objects into place, but the vast majority of your time will be spent running, jumping and climbing. Luckily, the controls for those actions are responsive and always feel good.
The puzzles range from simply pulling a crate over so you can reach a higher ledge to much more complex puzzles involving magnetic objects, gun turrets, rooms filling with water, and the altering of gravity. There is a pretty wide variety of puzzles to complete, and you rarely find yourself doing the same thing twice. Almost all of the puzzles are interesting or clever, and you feel great when you figure out the solution. Most of these can be solved by some quick thinking and a bit of trial and error. For me, the success of trial and error gameplay is entirely dependent on how much the player is punished for each attempt, and Limbo is very forgiving. There’s no limit to how many times you can try each section, and when you die, you often go back mere steps, and never have to repeat a puzzle to get a shot at the next one. Some may regard this as too easy, but I think it’s the exact right approach - don’t insult the player by solving it for them, but don’t insult their time by making them replay the last 10 minutes with every attempt.
When I reach the bottom of a very positive review like this one, I feel obliged to point out that the game is certainly not perfect. It is very short (I completed it in 4.5 hours or so, and have heard of no one taking more than 6), and depending on how much you pay for it, you may or may not find that to be enough for your money. I tend to value quality over quantity (and even appreciate short games, as my time is limited), but I can understand feeling as though you haven’t gotten enough time out of it. There is also not much of what is typically called “replay value.” Puzzle games often have this problem because once you’ve solved all the puzzles, there is little reason to go back. And the controls, while good for what you are asked to do, are too limited in my opinion. Using only context-sensitive commands is probably easier for indie development, but it makes for a shallower experience, gameplay-wise.
However, for the total experience this game provides, these complaints are minuscule. If you can afford to get it on XBLA or can snag it insanely cheap in the Humble Indie Bundle V (which as of this writing is still available for a few more days), then you should absolutely try this game. The puzzle platforming is solid, but it is the bleak and beautiful atmosphere that will grab you and not let go. If you have any interest in games as art, your game collection and your rhetorical repertoire are both woefully incomplete without Limbo.