You're not welcome here
If you're a bit like me, you don't see every change pushing you out of your comfort zone as an exciting opportunity to tackle new challenges
. Relationships strand, companies cut workforces and accidents happen. You count your loss, adapt, and move on; it's the survival struggle that determines man and gives meaning to life. But starting over can be an unnerving period to become at ease again with the new circumstances.
Despite the Microsoft
marketing blurb describing this game as the search of a boy for a girl, Limbo
is in fact the metaphor for that process. When the boy awakens and painfully slow picks himself up from the forest floor, he is in a bleak environment, rendered entirely in monochromatic colours with a soft filter on top. The boy shows no emotion. He is standing there, a dark silhouette with no discernible features and two glowing eyes. Try to walk left and you receive the Wrong Way
achievement. What did you think? There is no way back. The boy doesn't mind. Resigned, he awaits where you will take him and he won't convey any emotion for the rest of the journey. Limbo is that place between heaven and hell, but you're not sure which one you are heading to.
Not only in visual design is the game an exercise in minimalism. There is no music and sound effects are scarce, with the soft humming of the forest in the background, hungry in anticipation for your next step. The controls are similarly simple: you can walk around, slide down slopes, jump, and use a button to interact with the environment. No on-screen indicators, no cut-scenes, all the fat is cut away to get to the core of the experience. The weakness of the boy is apparent; the jumping height is very low and dropping down from heights is often not an option. Especially the detailed animations convey how feeble your character really is. When knocked back, the boy lies there, dizzy, and it takes some time to compose himself again, crawling back up clumsily. Put the hostile environment in contrast with that: every location oozes with death or desolation, or has prepared a trap for you. When you die for the first time, falling out of a tree with a soft thump, impaled on a set of spikes, ... you decide to care for this boy. He does not shriek and after a fadeout he reappears, to give it another try.
The world where you end up knows no voluntary altruism and despite the simple appearance this certainly is not a game for young children. You don't want to be alone all the time and the game toys with that. When you meet the first other human after half an hour, it turns out to be a discomforting experience that crushes your hope. Similarly the only time you receive help is indirectly, when you use floating corpses to cross a small lake (the boy cannot swim). The boy certainly isn't a match for some large creatures that lurk in the forest and there are some very rewarding scenes where you are captured or have to use all your wit to outsmart them. Soon, not only the forest but some other boys gang up against you. It's like Lord of the Flies
- they already know the secrets of the forest but they have no interest in giving you a chance. You want to chase them and explain you mean no harm, but there is no opportunity. You're an intruder all the time. You look for human companionship, but they prepare traps for you and disappear quickly out of view when you arrive. If you look past it as a game, it's a painful experience.
So it's a platformer, but much more about puzzle solving and understanding the mechanics of the environment. Your options are few, but despite that it often takes a lot of trial and error to progress. There is however a steady pace because you don't need to backtrack or experiment with too many possibilities. You can swing from some vines, activate levers and switches, and push around objects to reach higher areas. In later levels you need to thwart gravity and sometimes a worm will attach itself to your head and take control of your mind, forcing you in a single direction. Some of the challenges are very innovative and extremely rewarding to solve.
There is no general story, even though a girl will appear a few times. All of the puzzles have their own background however and most of them make sense as a hurdle to overcome.
For all the moody wonder of the first part, the game takes a dive in the later levels set in a factory. Once you're accustomed to the controls the game prepares more elaborate situations for you, including escalators, giant cogs and complex mechanisms of doors and platforms that require impeccable timing. They are smart and make for a great challenge, but they lack the emotional attachment of the first part of the game. There is less focus on exploration, no more characters or creatures appear, and except for the scene where you arrive at an abandoned hotel the environment isn't that imaginative any more.
The focus starts to shift tremendously from exploring to complex puzzle sequences. After a while you forget about the boy and how many times he died, you just keep trying to nail the timing and progress. It's a logical step in difficulty to keep the game challenging, but it largely cuts away its own charm. The entire game can be completed in three hours by an experienced player and what you get out of that is fair for 1,200 Microsoft Points.
The Bottom Line
Especially for the first part, Limbo is a devastating emotional rollercoaster of sad melancholy by some madly talented individuals who know how to make a modern platformer with creative challenges. It is infused implicitly with so much convincing, intelligent charm, and toys with your emotions and insecurities. It resonates deeply. Play it at night, in the dark, and let it sweep you away.