Limbo (2010) Running in the Dark
Limbo is an independent puzzle-platformer from Playdead, combing stunning 2D visuals with frustrating puzzles and a pitch black atmosphere which makes it quite unlike anything else on the market.
Launched back in 2010 as an exclusive title for the Xbox Live Arcade, Limbo was a game born out of the frustrations of Arnt Jensen, who in 2004 was working as a concept artist for IO Interactive. He felt the developer was becoming increasingly corporate and while sketching a “mood image” of a “secret place,” he hit upon the idea for Limbo. Initially Jensen had planned to program the game himself using Visual Basic, a plan which soon fell through but did lead to the founding of Playdead when he met co-founder Dino Patti.
Waking in the middle of a dark forest, the player is thrown into the story with no introduction or background. Much like our unnamed hero, we wake up in this world of eternal darkness and violence. It’s a journey that takes us from this strange forest through villages into a crumbling cityscape and factory. Along the way the player is required to solve puzzles and avoid the many dangers and traps he encounters along his way, while processing no weapons or skills outside his wits to pass these dangers.
If anything can be said about this game, it’s that it’s a fiercely original vision with both Jensen and Patti choosing to ignore outside advice from both critics and investors, even going as far as to refuse offers from major publishers in order to retain full creative control. By keeping this control, they were able to avoid things such as multiplayer and adjustable difficulty levels giving players here instead a shared experience as well as one whose soul crushing gloom and often frustrating puzzles have garnered the game quite a cult following, which has carried across to its spiritual sequel Inside, whose release was celebrated at E3 by Xbox players being that it given way for free by Playdead, no doubt in turn hooking in a new wave of players who might have missed the game the first time around.
Devoid of any kind of soundtrack outside of the rustle of grass or footsteps, only adding to what is already an unsettlingly environment thanks to being shot in dark grayscale graphics, these dark visuals prove equally handy for hiding traps such a bear traps which threaten to decapitate the player, while monsters such as giant spiders are unquestionably more terrifying in their creaking, rustling silhouette form than if they had been shown in colour. Still these spiders are just one of the first dangers that your character will encounter as he also has to avoid rolling logs and buzzsaws, while the villagers you encounter (who aren’t hanging from a noose) prove far from friendly to see you swiping away any hope of a friendly face or some kind of light in this game. Unfortunately, these scripted moments of being chased by giant spiders or attacked by the angry villagers slowly fade so that by the final factory set, sections become just a series of puzzles, making it hard to figure out if the game is actually meant to have any kind of plot outside of the one we create for ourselves.
Switching constantly between being both a puzzle and platformer “Limbo” somehow manages to provide frustrating moments for both these aspects of game play with jumps often requiring precision timing to progress with failure often ending in our hero meeting a gruesome demise via a buzzsaw to the face, electrocution or being lanced by a giant spider. There really is no limit to the number of cruel and unusual ways which you can die throughout the game and while many of these are amusing the first couple of times, in the more taxing spots it can feel like the game is intentionally taunting you with these close calls.
The puzzle aspect of the game meanwhile can equally prove to be just as frustrating an experience, often requiring much trial and error as well as out-of-the-box thinking to find the right solution. The real bugbear though with some of these puzzles is that the solutions can often be found by screwing around as seen with a gravity section requiring the player to quickly turn on and off a switch. A solution which is unlikely to come to most as you’d expect something slightly more logical than essentially acting like a hyperactive child who’s discovered how a light switch works.
While the game might not be very long, it ensures that it doesn’t outstay its welcome and by the time you have battled through the final section’s gravity bending antics, you’ll no doubt be ready to move on and to its credit Limbo clearly knows when to quit while ensuring a streamlined and unquestionably challenging experience. Ultimately this is a unique game, boosted by its distinctive art style and tone, which perfectly frame the story. While it might be perhaps a little too dark for some tastes, it’s hard to not mark this as being a key indie title.
Publisher: Playdead, Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4, Wii U, Windows, Linux