Lost in Limbo

As much as I love big-budget video games that take armies of developers and artists years to produce, I still have a lot of fun with smaller indie titles that were probably cranked out in a few months by a handful of guys working out of someone's garage. These often offbeat games aren't afraid to break new ground, whether it's with novel gameplay mechanics or interesting graphical styles. The latter seem to be particularly prevalent, perhaps because limited budgets take striving for photo-realism off the table. To catch your gaze, indie games have to innovate on the artistic front.

The latest game to rile up the games-as-art contingent is Limbo, a console arcade title that recently made its way to the PC via Steam. After seeing the overwhelmingly positive Metacritic scores and gawking at the official trailer, I plunked down $10 to see what all the fuss is about.

As far as visual styles go, Limbo is about as unique as they come. The game's graphics lean toward the minimalist side of cartoonish but have a sinister edge. Entirely devoid of color, the world is painted with a palette that's just a few shades of grey ahead of what was used for the original Pong. The only modern effect appears to be a pseudo-film-grain treatment, but I'm not complaining. The art direction is a good fit for the game's bleak environments and overall vibe. There's also a smoothness and fluidity to the graphics that belies their simplistic nature.

Limbo's stark visual presentation really brings the subtleties of the soundtrack to the forefront. That's a good thing, because the soundtrack is composed pretty much exclusively of subtleties. The mix is dominated by ambient sounds that fit the locale, whether it's crickets chirping in the woods, wind blowing through the trees, water dripping in a dank cave, or machinery humming away. Later in the game, some of these understated audible cues become vital for puzzle solving.

Every so often, you'll also hear snippets of white noise or ominous sounds that feel like they've been pulled from the background of a Tool album. At times, I caught myself wondering whether some of the sounds were coming from the game or had been imagined all in my head.

The eerie aural landscape works well with the graphics to create an unsettling environment for the player to explore. Watch out, though, because the darkness is full of danger. Literally. Hazards like bear traps are hiding in the shadows, and it can be difficult to see exactly what's going on in a given scene. Not knowing whether the next oddly shaped blob in the blackness will help or hurt you certainly adds to the tension, but it does so in an arbitrary way that feels a little cheap and, well, malicious.

Obscuring the world in darkness has interesting implications for this platformer's puzzles, which often must be solved with trial and error because threats typically aren't apparent until it's too late. Making matters worse, the behavior of basic elements like buttons isn't always consistent. Hitting some will save you, but doing the same with otherwise identical-looking ones results in your death. The puzzles themselves are pretty basic once a series of failures sheds light on their mechanics, so there isn't much sense of accomplishment once you've figured things out. The more I play the game, the more I get the impression that it's not only trying to kill me, but also messing with me in the process.

Limbo feels vaguely manipulative, and from what I gather, that seems to be the point.

At least when death comes, it's satisfyingly visceral. The penalty for failure is minimal, too. Checkpoints are distributed liberally throughout the world, and respawning takes only seconds. With unlimited lives, your patience may run out first.

The frustrating difficulty and other quirks associated with some indie titles has caused me to stop playing them completely. Not Limbo, which kept me captivated enough to soldier on until the conclusion. Curiosity is part of what drove me to complete the game, as if there were some greater truth to be learned over the course of the journey or in the final, climactic moment. The last act ends abruptly, and I probably shouldn't give it away. I can say that I felt a sense of satisfaction, some of which was definitely relief to have survived the experience. Except I didn't, because the game kept killing me. Sorry, no grand epiphanies.

Most of what I enjoy in Limbo stemmed simply from traveling through the twisted world that developer Playdead has created. It's rare that games evoke true emotion in me, but Limbo gives me a real sense of anxiety and manages to dish out heart-stopping moments. While not especially frightening, the game is genuinely unnerving. Even my dog got weirded out when I was playing the game in total darkness the other night.

The fact that Limbo maintains an air of suspense with seemingly no cohesive narrative or drama is almost as impressive as its ability to oscillate between being creepy and cute. This is a game both charming and disturbing, clever and obtuse. You'll probably love it or hate it, which is why I'm happy to report that Steam has a free demo to give folks a taste of the experience.

For me, Limbo is more of an experience than it is a game. I'm happy to have played and even to have pondered what it all means, but at the same time, I feel little desire to revisit any of the chapters. At least the twinge of contempt I feel for the developers is tempered by the respect I have for their ability to create something that surely deserves to be defined as art.

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