Artistic presentation in games has been called into doubt repeatedly since the medium began maturation almost three decades ago. While gamers are yet to receive their Schindler’s List or Citizen Kane, Limbo doubtlessly brings us all one step closer. A grotesque aesthetic cleverly wrapped up in what is essentially a puzzle game; it was a grippingly interesting experience throughout and never ceased compelling me to perpetually play for just five more minutes.
Starting the journey as a young boy dropped into a natural setting, the game seems very bare bones. Immediately noticeable is that despite graphics that can be rendered and colors that can dazzle the eye on the 360, Limbo is presented in black, white and some varying shades of gray. There is no dialogue and no prevalent music to overpower the aural senses. All the focus is on that little boy traversing the screen on his adventure.
Making your way across the bare landscape, you are presented with puzzles that seem fairly innocent initially. However, this is where Limbo begins to pull back the mask and reveal that underneath the puzzler there is some fantastic bleakness. Quandaries may be as easy as stacking boxes, traversing a lake or approaching a creature. Where other titles briefly punish players and move on, Limbo perpetuates the weight of a death.
For instance, upon approaching a large spider that appeared to be nested near a tree, I compelled the boy to proceed towards it, thinking I could climb over or run past. Three visible legs hovered over my character, which easily dwarfed him, responding slightly to his movements by gently swaying. Colliding with the creature knocked the boy backward, somewhat dazed. I tried to get up, but jumped as the pointed end of one of the legs slammed down, gruesomely impaling the child. Awestruck, I found this momentary crescendo impressive.
Where the world of Limbo had displayed relative impassiveness towards my character prior to this encounter, this puzzle utilized aggressive feedback to make a point. Failing meant death. It was an apropos lesson that gamers have been learning since taking control of Mario for the first time, but nonetheless impressively portrayed. I couldn’t remember the last time a 2D game had been able to make me jump and it was more refreshing than falling through the ice of a winter-weathered lake.
While perplexing at first, solving the problem proved to be equally intriguing. Approaching the spider would cause it to respond as if preparing to deliver a choreographed response. When the action was performed, it would allow players to acquire the means that would allow them to best the creature and move on.
Progressing through the game, gradual visual alterations become apparent as the boy pushes deeper into the inner sanctums of Limbo. Natural settings give way to cityscapes, which eventually draw the player into an industrialized region, complete with gears and electrified rails. Nevertheless, the motivating tempo of problem solving combined with the macabre atmosphere maintains a world of hazardous exploration.
Embracing the atmosphere of mutual unawareness between the player and the on-screen character is perhaps on of Limbo’s finest tenets. Having no idea where the path will lead or what is waiting along the way encapsulates the same emotional perpetuations as cinematic counterparts such as Labyrinth. However, in this case, the interactivity proffered garners Limbo a bit more laudability, despite the absence of David Bowie. The game never stops feeling like a journey.
Along the way, players can be rewarded by investigating off the beaten path to seize an achievement, but this merely connotes a quid pro quo agreement between game and gamer. There really is no need to go looking unless the Gamerscore is more important than the already prevalently solid presentation, but if that’s the case from the get go, Limbo probably isn’t for you in the first place. That being said however, I find it difficult to articulate how absolutely necessary it is for the gaming community to venture through Limbo at least once.
Pithily, Limbo pushes the artistic standard of video games forward. The only remotely comparable title, outside of the Indie community, would be Flower on the PlayStation 3. Where other games focus on headshots, touchdowns and any other manner of mechanics to convince players they’re having fun, Limbo presents a morbidly chilling experience that just happens to include exceptionally clever puzzles. And presently, it would be difficult to find a true contemporary equal for the game.
While gamers may initially be hesitant given the price tag of 1200 Microsoft Points ($15), there are few other titles that will offer the same concise experience as Limbo without coming off as blithe and contrived. Nevertheless, there are few other ways to so strongly encourage adoption of this title into the fabric of the gaming culture. Limbo sets out to do what countless games attempt to and fall short of: emphasizing the journey over the destination. Limbo not only accomplishes this in an exceptional way, but does so such that it will be resoundingly memorable for a long while to come.
Limbo arrives exclusively on Xbox Live July 21st for 1200 MS Points.