By Corey Murtha
On a whim, between relaxing and actively procrastinating, I decided to give the PC version of Limbo, Copenhagen based developer Playdead’s July 2010 puzzle platform title, a whirl. After playing through its entirety in a single, riveted sitting, I felt compelled to write up a proper review. After all, it was the least I could do after being treated to one of the richest, most inspired gaming experiences of my pseudo-adult life.
Indie games, not tied down by the profit expectations of triple-A publishers or greedy shareholders, can afford to take chances. Innovation and focus are often the products of such developers and Playdead’s monochromatic, noir-esque Limbo is no exception. This pattern has parallels in the film industry, where independent releases often carry the unmarred vision of a single individual, or handful of individuals as opposed to summer blockbusters, which lose their artistic thrust somewhere between the first and the fifteenth replacement screenwriter, director, producer, best boy, or catering service.
It’s no wonder, then, that Limbo is often lauded as the premiere example of video games as an art form. Yes, this game is beautiful to look at. In terms of spectacle, think of a Tim Burton animation, desaturated of its color, leaving only black, white and fuzzy shades of gray, brought to glowing life through a dreamlike stupor of crawling spiders, spinning cogs and parasitic blobs of shining goo. Not to mention a stellar soundtrack and sound design.
But Limbo isn’t a painting or a symphony. Limbo is a video game, which makes it such an amazing achievement, a truly interactive artistic expression. The player controls a boy’s silhouette, marked only by his characteristic glowing eyes. He wakes up on a forest floor, seemingly out of place and confused. Aside from the normal “left, right up, down” controls of a 2D platformer, the boy can jump and grab objects. Through a series of “chapters,” essentially a seamless stream of levels, the player advances by solving puzzles, tricking spiders, manipulating gravity and avoiding death at the hands of the unforgiving environment.
You will die a lot, often by horrible decapitation, impalement on a spike, terminal velocity falls, and many other graphic animations that might elicit questions from the uninformed regarding the necessity of violence in video games. Thankfully, in this case, the violence is necessary, not to sell copies to hormonal adolescent males, but for the sake of artistic expression. Death in Limbo is a symbol, a literary device that ties gameplay to spectacle, and spectacle to story, three elements specific to interactive media.
Just like German Expressionism, so much of Limbo’s interpretation relies on visual symbols and the player’s manipulation of them. Since nothing about the story is implicitly stated, it’s up to the players to interpret the narrative for themselves. Playdead itself stated that the game’s conclusion is deliberately open-ended for that very reason. In fact, the game's tagline only reads, “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.” Still, ideally the “auteur” behind Limbo had an intention in mind and the speculation thereof is what makes the game so darn fun.
While the interpretation of abstract story elements is what defines Limbo as a must play and an instant classic, it’s not the only feature available to draw enjoyment from.
The creativity and difficulty curve of the puzzles throughout the game progress at a wieldy pace, walking the fine line between fun and
frustrating. Just when I grew tired of dodging strategically placed bear traps, I was shuffled off to toy with a new game mechanic or a fresh environment. Locales include the spooky forest the boy wakes up in, a rickety, disintegrating city, an industrial factory and some interesting mashups of the three. Yet even these locations, typically gameplay catalysts, symbolize certain aspects of the greater narrative and its themes of life, death, loss and regret.
Limbo is a personal experience, sure to provoke an emotional response from anyone with a soul, which is why I won’t provide my own interpretation here. All you really need to know going in is that the strange boy trapped in Limbo is looking for his sister. The only other advice I can offer is to pay attention to everything. Just like reading Shakespeare, the tiniest thing in Limbo can have huge implications on your interpretation of the narrative.
Also available on the PS3 and Xbox 360 and costing around $10.00 or less with about 4 solid hours of gameplay, Limbo is a bargain. There’s enough game to warrant at least a couple playthroughs, and enough art to provide a lifetime of good conversation.
Challenging, stunning and sincere, Limbo offers a glimpse into the future legacy of the video game medium. Like Jonathan Blow’s 2008 puzzle platformer, Braid, and Thatgamecompany’s poetic adventure title, Flower, Limbo will join the paintings and symphonies, sculptures and photographs, films and theatrical productions, buildings and books of its time under a broader context, the trans-medium context of art history. Like a fine wine, they will only get better with age.
And it never betrays its medium. In keeping with the spirit of video games, Limbo is still a whole lot of fun. So,
—eat your heart out.