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.

Comments closed
    • StarBlight
    • 11 years ago

    I found the game to be just what I wanted. Maybe I’m just a sucker for well done ambiance, but this game served its purpose well. I never once even considered a walkthrough as all the puzzles were challenging, but never overly frustrating. If you’re referencing a walkthrough regularly then maybe these kinds of games aren’t your style. That would ruin the game for me.

    I do agree the ending left me a little stagnant but I like how the overall game allowed for your own interpretation and meaning.

    Art was perfect and the lack of a needed interface made the game. The simple controls left for creative puzzles.

    After playing this I learned about and immediately bought Braid. Highly recommended if you like puzzles. That too I finished without a walkthrough as it allows you to bypass puzzles and come back to them. Things that seemed impossible would later on click in your head and you knew what to do.

    Two well done titles. I hope to see more from each.

    • dashbarron
    • 11 years ago

    Amnesia. /shudder

    • Meadows
    • 11 years ago

    Limbo for PS2 so my sister can play it.

    • sweatshopking
    • 11 years ago

    Limbo for wp7 please!

    • Meadows
    • 11 years ago

    The controls are not 100% instantaneous, because the character has two types of momentum to build, but thankfully I didn’t perceive them as “laggy”, either. In my own experience, it was just right.

    When you press a direction, you [b<]accelerate[/b<] to a maximum running speed, and when you press up, you [b<]accrue jumping force[/b<] (up to a maximum value). If you just tap the button (assuming you have no console controller for your PC), you can inch slowly without reaching any maximum speeds, which is a prerequisite in at least one puzzle you will encounter. And if you just tap the jump button, you can make smaller jumps, most often used when dropping down places. The game affords you [i<]more freedom[/i<] and [i<]fine-grained movements[/i<] this way, as opposed to fixed running, and a fixed jump height that would - indeed - come with 0 "latency". (I tried the game, the mood blew me out of my room, and I went and bought it.)

    • Cyril
    • 11 years ago

    The controls weren’t laggy at all for me. Maybe it’s a bug with the game and some configurations?

    • indeego
    • 11 years ago

    Am I missing something because the controls seem lagged. You press forward and .25 seconds later it registers. Makes the game rather frustrating (have to time jumping well before you get to a trap). I’ve tried on two different systems. Seeing a few other posts about it online.

    I must be dumber than Abrasion and Grim because I got to a box next to water and spent the next 20 minutes trying to float and manipulate as my controls lagged behind.

    • indeego
    • 11 years ago

    Not to be snarky, but I’m taking it that the Storage Benchmark revamp you guys were talking about was put on hold for this game? 😉

    • glynor
    • 11 years ago

    Thanks Geoff. Buying it now.

    • kitsura
    • 11 years ago

    For awhile there I thought you were talking about the website which suddenly went down.

    • GrimDanfango
    • 11 years ago

    I originally suspected Limbo might have be as you suggested, but I found in reality my experience was rather different.

    I didn’t have to consult a walkthrough once, and while I did die repeatedly on a couple of the more troublesome time-limited sections, I always found the solution was elegant and logical each time I overcame an obstacle. I also found that the solutions employed just the right amount of sign-posting; you were lead to the solution simply by the level design pointing you in the right direction and presenting the right things to you at the right moments, but never made it too blatant, so there was still considerable challenge.

    I basically sat down for about 3-4 hours and finished the entire game in a single sitting, and felt entirely satisfied by it. I wouldn’t peg it as an all-time great, it never really set out to be in the first place. It’s just a great example of doing something simple, and polishing it to near-perfection.

    I wouldn’t have much cause to go back and play it repeatedly, but I have no complaints about it at all. A fantastic and beautiful experience that was well worth the asking price.

    I look forward to their future works… and no, that shouldn’t include “Limbo 2”. I’m sure the developers are smarter than to fall foul of sequelitis.

    • burntham77
    • 11 years ago

    This game at times reminded me of the movie Eraserhead. There is a constant eeriness and often times I just don’t know what is going on. Limbo is easily the most creative game I have played in years.

    • thesmileman
    • 11 years ago

    I didn’t really care for the game. Graphics were okay but they aren’t unique. I can’t remember but their are two games did almost the exact same thing. I found the game to be die, die, die, find the solution and move on but it was gratifying to find the solution just moved on. I like game where you die a lot if I feel like I achieved something or I was smart to find the solution but the game just counts on you dieing and trying random things until you find the solution to most problems.

    • kpap
    • 11 years ago

    I loved the art style, positively adored the atmosphere, and liked the early puzzles as well. But, half-way through the game, I found the puzzles becoming tiresome “trial and error” affairs, most of them sadly devoid of any “a ha!” gratification, as the earlier ones were.

    Perhaps I’m a bit dense, but I found most puzzles from that point onwards vexing affairs that called for the walkthrough more often than not. And here’s my definition for a “silly” platform puzzle : when you understand its solution through the walkthrough you don’t go “but of course! how impatient was I not to think of that?” but you go “what the hell? so it all came down to moving the ladder/crate/what-have-you half an inch closer to the left and minutely positioning your jump? a hundred times?”

    I may well be impatient, I’ll be the first to admit, but I don’t remember Little Big Planet’s puzzles vexing me to the extent of constantly checking up on walkthroughs from one point onward. In fact, I rarely, if ever, did that at all on LBP.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Limbo is not impressive in many ways. I just think it could be so much better and really loses steam after the gameplay becomes a tired “try twenty different inclinations of moving the rolling ladder”.

    Having said that, I am waiting for the developers’ next effort – I just think they could take a few cues from Little Big Planet (which I seem to be the only one finding similar to this game – all others compare it to Braid) on avoiding player frustration.

    Just my two pence.

    • tbone8ty
    • 11 years ago

    Limbo 2 please!

    limbo for Andriod please!

    limbo for iOS please!

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