A spyglass into a dark, nightmarish world
Limbo is a monochromatic puzzle-platform game developed by independent Danish studio, Playdead. The game sees you guide a nameless boy through a dark and dangerous world of puzzles and fiendish traps. After waking up in the middle of a deserted forest with no idea how you got there you set off on a journey to find your sister.
Limbo is presented to the player through purely black and white tones analogous to the low-key black and white visual style of the film noir genre. Atmospherically this sets the tone of the game more towards what would be considered horror. In the midst of these dark undertones, the player has to negotiate through the shadowy landscape haunted by the sound of their own footsteps. To achieve this, Limbo applies a clever use of lighting, film grain effects and minimal ambient sounds to create a nightmarish world devoid of life.
The game-world exhibits a dystopian aesthetic prominently featuring signs of urban and industrial decay. Metaphorically this could represent the rise and subsequent decline of the industrial revolution, applied here to reflect a state of oblivion to which persons or things are regarded as being relegated, forgotten, or out of date. This also happens to be one of the definitions for the word Limbo, although the developers could have also been referencing the Latin word Limbus, which means ‘edge’ or ‘edge of hell’.
In a graphical sense, Limbo is minimalist in nature, a theme that runs throughout the game’s entire design. Featuring no dialogue Limbo’s silent narrative could be compared to the German Expressionism Movement, with its story being related to the player through a symbolic and stylised process. The animation is of particular note here, as it’s clear an extensive amount of work went into the characters movements and expressions. It is the combination of these developmental techniques that create Limbo’s distinctive style and haunting atmosphere.
One important aspect of Limbo’s aesthetic is the game’s audio. The music was created by Martin Stig Andersen, a specialist in acousmatic music, which is a non-traditional form of music created from generated sounds that have no apparent visual source. The ambient design of the soundtrack is unique as it uses distorted, abstract sounds that require a level of interpretation by the player. There’s also a remarkable amount of silence in Limbo, notably in the beginning areas of the game. This lack of sound adds to the feeling of emptiness, with only your own footsteps being audible at certain points. This creates an eerie sense of aloneness for the player who surrounded by this dark, lifeless world has no choice but to face their deepest fears.
Mechanically the game is a simple affair with Playdead opting for a minimalist layout in keeping with the game’s design. You control the unknown boy through directional movements along the 2D plane, as well as having a button for jump and grab. The real depth here comes from the increasing difficulty curve of the game’s puzzles. This ramps up particularly in the game’s second half with the introduction of new dynamics involving the manipulation of gravity, mind control worms and electromagnets.
Limbo’s gameplay style is what could be described as trial and error. Many of the game’s puzzles and challenges are failed on the first attempt until exclusive knowledge of environmental traps is known by the player. There is, of course, a fine balance between feeling accomplished and feeling frustrated. Limbo successfully strikes that balance through excellent puzzle design giving the player a satisfying feeling of achievement upon completion of the games more challenging areas. Fall into Limbo’s numerous traps though and you’ll be greeted by the game’s disturbing and visceral death animations. You’ll watch the boy torn limb from limb in gruesome scenes of violence. The multiple ways in which you watch this child met his end belies the dark, fairytale innocence this game could easily be mistaken to represent. This game is about fear, as evidenced by its use of primal phobias, such as darkness. Arachnophobia is also a common tool applied throughout the early sections of Limbo in an effort to leverage another common symbol of horror.
Limbo only really suffers from one downfall and that is its lack of narrative. Although seemingly intended, this could leave players with a lack of connection to the story and the characters motivations. The only pretext offered in terms of the narrative is the statement ‘Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo’ a statement which is heavily open to interpretation. So it seems the player is under a certain pressure to understand the implied meanings woven into the game’s essence. It can’t be argued though that the game successfully carries a lot of weight on its shoulders. Limbo is very much carrying the torch in terms of the genre it represents. It builds off a legacy of atmospheric, minimalist platform games, such as Another World, Flashback, Heart of Darkness and Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. It takes the classic formula present in this style of video-game and innovates it through the use of modern techniques. Games such as Limbo are progressing a genre long thought dead in the eyes of the mainstream industry and delivering it to a new generation.
Overall Limbo’s greatest strength is its atmosphere, which is born from a creative vision that combined art style, gameplay and music into one unified whole. It is the complementary combination of these attributes that makes Limbo such a convincing piece of art. Its beauty is its simplicity, its gift is its hidden depth and unapologetic room for player interpretation.
*Transparency: The opinions in this review were formed off the basis of a paid for copy played on Xbox One.