Master of the dark arts.
Somehow, among the heaviest of heavy hitters released in 2010, indie game developers were building on the mainstream gaming media attention that Jonathan Blow’s Braid had started two years previously. smaller, more intimate projects from individuals and very small teams became more and more recognized creatively and commercially, peaking with Phil Fish’s mind bending pixel art passion project FEZ and Thatgamecompany’s glorious Journey in 2012. in 2016, indie games are now as ubiquitous to the video game consumer as first person shooters or the latest sports franchise iteration, but it has taken time, patience and genuine artistry to get there.
The vibrant colours and exclamations of a Mario title, or the gritty realism of scenes from a Call of Duty have a sense of predictability, for better or worse.
Playdead are a group of Danes, founded in 2006 who have created two games that are as revered as anything a AAA developer has produced in the last decade, and Limbo is their complete antithesis to 2010’s sprawling open world adventures such as Red Dead Redemption, and it’s all the better for it.
While some companies in the industry strive for technical realism and spectacle, the explosion of the indie game scene with million selling hits on Valve’s Steam store and XBOX live like Super Meat boy prove that regardless of manpower or resources, imagination and creativity gain traction amongst players in a constantly changing industry. Digital distribution, social media and engines such as Unity have put tools into hands the same way Apple did for film makers (iMovie in 1999) and musicians (GarageBand 2004).
Limbo is, strictly speaking, a 2d, side scrolling puzzle-platformer. As innocuous as it is ominous, the player controls an innocent shadow figure, traversing through various desolate and dangerous landscapes. To say the objective and narrative are minimalist is an understatement, but every new environment- whether it be natural or industrial, has a compelling blend of hazards and puzzles. A distinctive monochrome style with a combination of blurred parallax and bloom lighting create a brooding and hostile atmosphere, and while environmental puzzles can be an ingenious balance of timing and manipulation, it is the traps and beasties that are the true, eerie and brutal core of limbo’s dark heart. To explain any specific puzzles in detail would spoil any shocks, let alone surprises- suffice to say that the utilization of anything at your disposal highlights the grim satisfaction in both solving a problem and witnessing it’s grizzly consequences in this bleak yet beautiful world.
Proclaimed as a ‘trial and death’ game by its developers, the absence of any explanation, tutorial or exposition unnerves, confuses and may even frustrate. Occasionally the player does get the comfort of time to assess, as gigantic buzz saws, skull gripping worms and chillingly metallic sounding bear traps maim and mutilate in any manner possible. For a game that’s in black and white, it’s as violent as any title liberally splashing around the red stuff. The range of death animations and sound effects are as wince inducing as they are sadistically satisfying as you edge ever closer to escaping. After all the brutality and hardship of getting one little boy to the end of this ambiguous and melancholy tale, the games ending might border on self indulgent. Limbo is a technically beautiful and marvelously executed experience presenting a level of mystery and understated sophistication that could be easy to overlook.
To get hung up on the length is doing the game a huge disservice. Despite the fact that a straight, non death run through can take under an hour, you’ll be best to savor every second you can. You will get out of Limbo exactly what you put in regarding comprehension and interpretation of the narrative, which may annoy some, but should not be considered detrimental to a mechanically tight and aesthetically glorious experience.
+beautiful minimalistic monochrome style
+fluid, varied and gloriously brutal animations
+clever environmental puzzles.
-lack of narrative or exposition may frustrate some
– some deaths may seem cheap