I recently had the joy of playing through the surreal, dread-filled, puzzle-platformer, Limbo. Potential players should note that the game might be more accurately described as some sort of experimental art piece that happens to be playable. The puzzles in Limbo, while varied and interesting, seem more about creating the atmosphere of the game than making you feel clever and accomplished – though they certainly do that too.
To create its atmospheric presence, Limbo relies on making you feel alone and melancholic, rather than merely showing you scary or depressing things. Still, the imagery in this game is forceful. You will come across people that have commit suicide, drowned, or simply rotted away, never finding their way out of limbo.
You’ll find rampant symbolism in Limbo, and there is quite a lot of theorizing about what it all means. Some of Limbo’s recurring themes include: tires, corpses, machinery, cogs, a gigantic spider, water, and an eerie hotel sign. In the beginning of the game your character crosses a lagoon on a boat, conjuring up imagery of crossing the River Styx. The hotel sign that your character must jump across seems to signify transience – staying for a while and then moving on – i.e., being in limbo. I’m not sure what the spider meant, but it was pretty fucking scary.
Of course, Limbo isn’t without its flaws, and I wouldn’t call it a “masterpiece”. If Limbo aims to be a game that is about aesthetics and experience, then I shouldn’t be worrying about controls and timing issues – and I found myself doing that quite often. The game gives you no instructions on how to play, presumably because overt instructions would ruin the look and feel of the game. This would be understandable if the player was only using the arrow keys, but the “control” key is used to interact with the world. As you may have guessed, I just pressed buttons at random until I figured this out. Turns out, random button mashing ruins the immersive nature of a game much more than a “press control to interact”, message would have.
On a related note, it’s often unclear what you can interact with. For some items, (e.g., boxes and levers), its obvious, but for other items, (e.g., random logs on the ground), it is very difficult to tell. Just about everything in Limbo is a simple silhouette, making it sometimes hard to distinguish between what’s the background environment, and what is an object you can grab, move, pull, or push.
There were a few points I got stuck – not because I couldn’t figure out a puzzle – But, simply because I didn’t know what I was supposed to be interacting with. There were also many points where I knew what I was supposed to do, but I just couldn’t do it. The most frustrating example that I can recall has to do with striking a lever just at the right moment, climbing a particular cog, and then jumping from the cog to a ladder. I struggled with this – embarrassingly, I might add – for a good ten to twenty minutes. I’ve heard many players complain about issues like this as well, which makes me think there is something wrong with Limbo, rather than something wrong with me. In short, games shouldn’t sacrifice functionality and playability for aesthetics, and Limbo is guilty of this quite frequently.
And yet, even with its flaws in functionality, Limbo is still an amazing adventure. There are so many moments where you find yourself just staring at the screen – not because you are confused by a particular puzzle – but because you are in awe of a particular moment. I found myself asking, “How is it that a game with no color, simple silhouettes, and no dialogue, be so impactful”? I’m still not sure, to be completely honest. Perhaps it has something to do with the sound effects of Limbo. At first, I was disappointed with Limbo’s lack of consistent music, (especially since I recently finished Braid). I thought, “…They are just being pretentious and lazy.” After about thirty-minutes in, it was clear that I was wrong. The music of Limbo is the snapping of traps, the fascistic clanking of cogs, and the dull buzz of insects, humming tirelessly about corpses. When music is used, it is refined and ambient. The scarcity of music makes many instances of the game much more memorable than they would have been, had there been a continuous soundtrack. I imagine that I’ll enjoy the sound effects and art direction even more on my next play through.
Limbo is a short game, but a fulfilling journey. The surrealism and calm of the forests fall victim to mechanical puzzles and machinery, which finally give way to alien gravity-mechanics, making you feel ephemeral, and almost angelic. Just when you feel like you are beginning to understand the world of Limbo – both functionally and philosophically – you are violently thrown out of it, and the game “starts over”. You’ll have to play it to see what I mean, but you won’t regret it if you do. Just remember, hit “control”.