Limbo is a puzzle-platform game that was released for the Xbox 360 in July 2010. It has only recently made its way to the Mac. I have been excited to play Limbo since I first saw the concept art over two years ago. Once you see a screenshot of Limbo you will know why it is unlike any platform puzzle game you ever have played before. Limbo was created by Danish game developer Playdead. The name of their company is fitting for their creation. Limbo is presented primarily in monochromatic black-and-white tones, using lighting, film grain effects and minimal ambient sounds to create an eerie atmosphere often associated with the horror genre. Journalists praised the dark presentation, describing the work as comparable to film noir and German Expressionism. Based on its aesthetics, reviewers classified Limbo as an example of “video game as art“.
If you like challenging platform-puzzle games with a dark and lonesome atmosphere similar to Myst, Limbo might be for you. Just don’t be surprised that when you die, (and you will die often) your character will meet his end in the most violent and cruel ways imaginable.
Limbo follows the story of a nameless boy who awakens in the middle of a dark forest. While seeking his missing sister he encounters various puzzles and traps as he makes his way in between the menacing trees and into an industrial ruin.
As is typical of most two-dimensional platform games, the boy can run left or right, jump, climb onto short ledges or up and down ladders and ropes, and push or pull objects. He must manipulate his environment to stay alive, often pushing boxes, floating logs, flipping switches, and enacting perfect timing to avoid chasms, spikes, saw blades, and the weight of oncoming objects.
The game’s second half features mechanical puzzles and traps using machinery, electromagnets, and gravity. Many of these traps are not apparent until triggered, often with deadly consequences.
The boy is able to continue at the start of the current obstacle with an unlimited number of retries. As the player will likely encounter numerous deaths before they solve each puzzle and complete the game, the developers therefore call Limbo a ‘trial and death’ game.
Limbo is much more of a puzzle game than an action platformer. The few human characters the boy encounters either attack him, run away, or are dead. Other enemies include a giant spider, and white worms that latch onto the boy’s head and control his direction until removed.
When playing Limbo you get the feeling you are very much alone, and since you have no means of attack the best defense when you come across an enemy is to run away and rethink your strategy. It might surprise you that Limbo with all of its eerie atmosphere has very few sound effects and no musical score. Much of your time playing the game is spent in near silence. You might be tempted to turn on some music or listen to a podcast while playing, but you will miss out the on the emotional suspense and subtle clues the developers have infused into the gameplay.
The game’s story and its ending have been open to much interpretation; the ending was purposely left vague and unanswered by Playdead. It was compared to other open-ended books, films and video games, where the viewer is left to interpret what they have read or seen. Some reviews suggested that the game is a representation of the religious nature of Limbo or purgatory, as the boy character completes the journey only to end at the same place he started, repeating the same journey when the player starts a new game. Another interpretation suggested the game is the boy’s journey through Hell to reach Heaven, or to find closure for his sister’s death.
Your interpretation of Limbo only comes from playing it. Limbo might appear predictable to the casual observer, but each challenge is different than the last. You can rarely depend on skills learned earlier in the game to complete your latest objective. It is because of Limbo’s dark dreamlike tableaus and intriguing challenges that I recommend this game both as a fun puzzle and a work of art. At $9.99 from the Mac App Store, Limbo is sure to keep you busy for at least three to six hours, while its silent film effects and unnerving mood will have you coming back for reruns.