On the 20th of July Limbo finally become available for the PlayStation Network, the stylish downloadable title had already been available on Xbox Live for about a year, but due to some exclusivity rights too uninteresting to go into here, I’ve only just this week got my dirty little mittens on it.
Limbo is a side-scrolling platform game, kind of like Mario, but nothing like Mario. The controls are wonderfully simple, you can go left or right, jump, climb, pull and push, there’s no health bar, no heads-up display, no score system, no weapons and no inventory. You play as a small, bright-eyed boy, who wakes up in a bleak, lonely wood (with no prior backstory or cutscene) and all you know is that you have to keep moving forwards because, well, that’s what you do in games, right?
For perhaps the first time, I really felt like I was playing some kind of interactive cartoon, and the lack of any menus on the screen certainly fed this fanciful illusion. As you journey through this oddly beautiful landscape, you begin to encounter obstacles and puzzles that block your path, and it soon becomes apparent that this environment is not only unfriendly, but disturbingly violent. The boy is little more than a silhouette, but his big head and scout shorts gives him a Christopher Robin appearance, which would be twee if it weren’t for the endless horrifying deaths I put him through, as I stumbled blindly into bear traps, spike pits and buzz saws, ripping the child limb from limb too many times to remember.
There is a trial and error element to Limbo, as many of the traps are so fiendish, the only way of figuring out how to avoid them is to die and die again. And while the whole game takes place in an undefined, charcoal world of thick blacks and washed out greys, each death felt painful, even without a single splash of red. The use of sound here is incredibly important, it would have been easy to build a mournful soundtrack to cheat a feeling of anxiety, but for the most part the music is absent. Limbo is at it’s best when eerily quiet, with only the faint woodland ambient washing over you, soaking you in loneliness and dread, the buzzing of flies drawing all of your attention, right up until the horrible crunch of some unnoticed trap hammering into your skull.
Limbo really feels like a journey, as you venture through a powerful, primal forest into a wasteland of butchered trees, a forgotten city and, eventually, into the belly of some vast, industrial machine. The landscape is intense, totally monochrome but never fully defined, a grey mist lingers over you, and washes out the background, creating a mysterious world of eery light and dancing shadows.
Sadly, the game loses a lot of it’s personality during the later parts of the game, and the feeling of tension swiftly vanishes as soon as you leave the wood. It’s a real shame, because the intoxicating, archaic woodland has a ton of personality, it’s rich, immersive and very, very oppressive. Shadows play tricks on you, tangled branches look like grouping fingers, bloated corpses hang from trees or bob in pools of thick, murky water. You use the dead to ferry you across lakes, or drag their bodies onto tripwires to set off immense traps, and all the while the little silhouetted Christopher Robin says nothing, you just keep moving forward.
This forest section of the game is very evocative, a kind of dark fairy tale, teasing a mythology that is rightly never explored. Understanding the uncanny, and the underlying themes of fables, and death, the Danish game developer Playdead have constructed a game that is saturated in meaning, while remaining ambiguous and only vaguely hinting at a story. Playdead understands the significance of the gargantuan bugs that haunt your step, and the ethereal little girl who plays beneath a broken tree house, these are tied to nursery rhymes and the old wives tales of folklore.
There are many themes that are touched upon in Limbo, from the obvious tale of two lost spirits to the death of nature, the rise of the soulless machine and the uncanny worlds of dreams and death. While Limbo never fully explores these ideas, it is refreshing to see them as the subject of a video game, and the consistent art style creates a fantastical world that is strangely beautiful in spite of itself. Limbo is not a long game, and it is not a hard game to complete by any means, but it is an experience, and it masterfully creates a deep, rich, suffocating world that is a joy to inhabit.
Limbo was released on the PlayStation Network on the 20th July 2011, and is about £10. You can check out the trailer below, although if you’re unfamiliar with the game you may want to skip it, as it spoils some of the surprises. You can check out the official website by clicking on this link.