Black and white and dead all over.
"Bubble, bubble, boy in trouble—a presentational broth of Out of This World, seasoned with the low-key strangeness of Braid, and a perfectly-reasonable portion of nychtophobia; tear a page from the Blair Witch‘s "Guide to the Woods" and swallow it; liberally stir in Essence of Gashlycrumb Tinies to taste = OMFG." Limbo is a downloadable cauldron-recipe for a jaw-dropping, indie-games stunner. It’s also one of the relatively few games about which one can honestly say this: “It’s almost as fun to watch others playing as it is to play it yourself.”
[image1]Limbo wastes no time, and arrests the attention from literally its first second of atmospheric, evocative gameplay. Presented entirely in black, white, and various foreground-and-background shades of ominous gray, it presents players with the silhouetted form of a little boy, opening his eyes as if from a deep sleep—little orbs of innocent white, expressionless windows to the soul of his tiny-shadow-boy body—slowly sitting upright, and getting to his feet amid the knee-high grass of a foreboding, wind-whispering forest. No back-story text, no intro-movie, no nuthin; in fact, the only concession to ‘setup’ in the entire game is a one-line description blurb when you purchase the game—and not only do you not ‘need’ to read it, it’s probably just that much better if you don’t.
In other words, Boy wakes alone in the Big, Dark, Scary Woods, no idea why, check. Go.
Controls are as minimal (yet effective) as the game’s ominous, funereal presentation—move your nameless, silhouette of a boy protagonist with the analog stick, jump by pressing one button, and interact with various equally-silhouetted objects with the other button. This can mean grabbing and pushing items such as logs or wooden crates. Or throwing switches on various mechanical devices (wait—exactly when did these natural, swaying-grass woods segue to having ‘devices’?). Or clutching/dragging other helpful objects, like ropes or hanging vines. Or the silhouetted, twitching, revolting-bristly limbs of oversized abominations. Or the bodies of other little kids who didn’t fare so well. Wait, what?!
Unfortunately, there’s no way to really, properly review this game without ‘pre-vealing’ at least a bit of its wonderfully-gruesome surprises. Your little-boy protagonist is going to die in this game, a lot, and in some of the goriest, grisliest, most pitiless—and in many cases quite creative!—ways imaginable. True, it’s all a black-and-white shadow play—but between the fluidly-presented gore-gibs, the nightmarishly crunching, wet audio and the eventual, surreal transitions between environments and reality-sets, the little-boy-lost woods of Limbo might as well be right next door to Silent Hill.
[image2]Let’s all say it again, together, so there are no misunderstandings: This is a game in which a little boy dies gruesomely and repeatedly. And the best (and worst) part? You’ll laugh when it happens—when it happens to you and, later, when it happens to the next person you watch play the game. You’ll laugh because they died in a different horrible way than you did on your playthrough. Some of the game’s traps and pitfalls are brilliantly and redundantly set up, so the ‘clever’ player who narrowly avoids one unpleasant fate and then ‘relaxes’ immediately gets butchered by Phase Two of the same puzzle/trap. You can almost hear the designers giggling under the ambient whisper of the forest wind.
Yes, there is, if you feel the need, a ‘gore filter’ which simply fades the screen to black at each of your boy-protagonist’s fatal mistakes… but it totally misses the point. Far be it from us to try to order our readers around, but DON’T use it.
Without giving away too much, the environs don’t remain a mere, banal Threatening Forest for long, however. As the ‘theme’ of the environment begins to change, the entire game throws entirely new challenges at you—before long, your list of potential enemies grows from always-dangerous water and simple hard-to-spot traps, and begins to include various unpleasant flora and fauna, mechanical/industrial settings, gravity itself, and even—you knew this was coming, huh?—other children.
Limbo is such a mesmerizing experience that you may feel a little like a rudely-awakened child yourself when you roll up on the game’s conclusion—it seems to be upon you almost before you’re aware of it, and the game can be completed in a handful of hours. Also, due to the grim, grinning nature of the game’s black-humor hazards, there is a substantial amount of ‘try-and-die’ here. But oh, it’s an eerie, beautiful, and compelling dream/ride while it lasts.
[image3]Sheer mechanical and presentational excellence aside, here’s how we knew we had something special here. After hitting the game’s end, we found ourselves arguing over What It Meant—having a spirited, invested debate over the story (or outcome, or Symbolism, or something) of this fifteen-dollar downloadable game. Limbo represents a confident step for indie games firmly into the realm of Art, just in case there were any doubters remaining out there.
Yes, little snowflakes—the world can be a scary place, and bad things can happen to a little kid alone in the woods and the dark. But with a little bravery, ingenuity and tenacity, he can triumph against all odds; and then we can all sit around and argue about what we think it means.