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Friday, July 20, 2012


Limbo is a gem I missed out on until recently, and even though it came out in 2010 I thought it would be worth sharing my experience with it (particularly since I haven't had a chance to play anything recent since my last review).

Limbo, succinctly put, is a full-fledged nightmare shaped like a 2d platformer. It doesn't have the jumpy monsters of Doom (which I will probably never talk about here), or the sheer pants-ruining helplessness and panic of Amnesia (which I will probably talk about more later), but what it has instead is a dark dreaminess, a slow wade through a place you aren't supposed to be and from which there is no departure.

(Fullscreen the trailer - the details are too spectacular to miss)

The protagonist, a nameless boy, awakens in the woods with no explanation. You guide him along across a dangerous landscape, evading, dismantling, or destroying hazards in your way. And there's no shortage of hazards.

Spoiler alert: None of these people are your friends.

The world you're in - a spectacular, grayscale landscape that even in its alarming hostility is always disconcertingly beautiful -  isn't hell. It doesn't even feel especially alien; the creaking bear traps, oversized arthropods, sparking signs, and whirring buzz saws are all familiar objects carefully tuned to be especially lethal. And they will kill you. Over and over again. Graphically, violently, and suddenly. 

You might not clear the saw the first time. If you don't, the result will be entirely predictable, but that won't make it any less awful.
Most terrifying, perhaps, is how impersonal all of this feels. Nothing seems like it's trying to kill you, specifically, for any reason other than your happening to be there, and when you die they'll go back to trying to kill the next poor creepy kid with glowing eyes who comes along. They don't really care about that boy.

And neither, after awhile, will you. The player/character link in Limbo is a very odd one. At the beginning, it's easy to put yourself in the boy's head, feeling a wondrous but chilly awe at the increasingly dangerous landscapes you're traversing. But after watching him drown for the fourth time, or get impaled in a spike pit, or getting lopped into roughly equal portions by a rusty trap, you need a little more distance than that. This is a character you can feel sorry for, and can try to help, but there's too much missing between whatever he's trying to do, whatever he knows, and what you the player are aware of. It feels a little like watching an old black-and-white horror movie with the dialogue and music turned off (actually, I think that would improve a lot of those movies). The gameplay is sculpted to match: you proceed linearly until you can't anymore, and then you solve a puzzle or find the proper way to evade an obstacle (after it dismembers you a few times first), and then you proceed linearly again. The amount of space you have to play around in is very limited; there's a correct solution to every puzzle, it's always very nearby, and you can't backtrack very far anyway. You'll never get lost, you usually won't get stuck on a puzzle too long, and often you'll see the answer and die a few times before you can properly execute it. This isn't to say the puzzles aren't tricky - some are incredibly devious, and none are at all repetitive, which is a significant accomplishment when the actions you can take are limited to "move," "jump," and "grab."  The joy is in seeing the boy triumph over little obstacles (and pride in figuring out how), and then anticipation, and some anxiety, for what the next freakish-but-beautiful scene will have for you. 

The atmosphere you end up with is a low, quickly-vibrating hum of trepidation and sadness, spiced with the occasional disgusting moment of horror - the things you have to do to survive this place are not always pleasant, and I solved more than one puzzle while repeating "Ew! Ew! Ew! Ew! Ew!" to myself for about thirty seconds. But you'll do what you have to; you may not put yourself in the boy's shoes after watching him die so many times, but you'll want to protect him, and you'll want to see him through safely to the end of his journey. It's hard to explain how successful the game's atmosphere is, and to pinpoint exactly which elements mix up that smooth and slightly bitter blend of sadness, anxiety, determination, fear, and wonder you'll be tasting until the very end. It might be best to say that while the game certainly has everything it needs, it accomplishes the much more difficult task of omitting everything it doesn't need. I found the achievements a little distracting, but since all of them are attained by stomp on luminous white grubs to death, I can at least say that they don't break the mood.

Limbo isn't like the classic platformers of the 80's and early 90's, where your thumb would be swollen and bleeding after hours of trying to time the perfect jump, and it isn't like a pure-puzzle game with the kind of mind benders that make you want to do something regrettable to your computer. Like Dear Esther, Limbo's great success is in its atmosphere, and in the very real and sometimes painful emotions that atmosphere evokes. Unlike Dear Esther, whose story includes a multitude of clues and feels like it could be solved (with proper attention and maybe the help of a few illicit substances), Limbo doesn't really provide a lot of answers, which seems to fit its muted colors, entirely ambient soundtrack, and completely casual attitude towards horror and death. Limbo, like its name suggests, isn't about heaven or hell; it's a profile in liminal spaces, in the in-between spots that are bypassed unnoticed or forgotten as you wake up. It's warped, and its scary, and it's probably not for everyone, but if you can stomach the violence, you'll find it hard not to appreciate the beauty and artistry of this strange little blind spot. 

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