Monday, July 26, 2010
If you download and begin to play Limbo without reading the tagline ‘Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo’ you might be as lost as someone in, well, Limbo. The game opens in a gorgeously rendered forest. Awash in layers of watercolor grayscale, the foreground is fuzzy with vague shapes and the background alludes to a grandiose and unending world of shadows and light. A silhouette of a young boy with glowing white eyes awakens amongst the sharp blades of grass and waits for you to lead him on his journey.
Unlike other games, this one gives you almost no information, only allusion and action. You assume from the tagline that there is a little sister at the end of this journey, but that remains uncertain and almost irrelevant throughout the game, only nudging you here and there with an emotional reason to continue playing. The real game is winding through the gauntlet of Limbo, which aims to tear you apart at every turn. At its heart, Limbo is a puzzle platformer-you solve mechanical riddles by pushing crates or pulling pieces of the environment in place before you are allowed to progress. And the setting is a study in contrasts, which makes it all the more terrifying to navigate. Limbo is beautiful and understated, with glowing fireflies and butterflies occasionally fluttering about. But it is also horrifying. There are many living creatures in Limbo, but the game does not want you to connect with them at all, they are merely tools to advance. One of the first puzzles you encounter asks you to use a bear trap to trick a large spider into splicing off it’s own feet. Later in the game you surprise a mosquito nibbling on corpse by jumping on its legs to elevate you onto a higher platform. As you land you pull off one of its legs and it lies on the ground, twitching, while the mosquito tries to fly away haltingly. There is no mercy or compassion in Limbo, only action and progression.
Midway through Limbo you encounter other silhouettes who are assumedly the residents of this bleak world. They lack the same glowing eyes as you, only blank, dark faces that aim to kill. I got the sense that their existence had deteriorated into a kind of ‘Lord of the Flies’ tribe, where outsiders are untrustworthy and deemed instant enemies who must be eliminated. I concluded that their lack of glowing eyes meant they had no goal-maybe they were once like our little protagonist, with a mission to save someone or escape, but they left that behind long ago, lost their focus and the light faded away. Just like the other living creatures in Limbo, these shadow figures become tools, corpse platforms to use in water to prevent drowning or something to toss onto a switch to keep it activated. No remorse, only action.
And Limbo is so quiet. The game contains the sounds that one would expect if the ‘music’ was removed and only the environmental noises remained. Walking through the forest elicits nothing but a slight shuffle of grass or the buzz of a swarm of flies. Most of the time you are straining to hear if anything is coming from the speakers. Which makes it all the more terrifying when suddenly there is so much noise it almost overwhelms you-a saw blade spins menacingly above your head, and the growl is overpowering-many times I was so engrossed in the game that I didn’t even realize the noise had reached a blaring crescendo and would need to turn the volume down because it added so much to the intensity it was almost too much to bear. Noise = Death.
I think Limbo is one of the most fascinating games I have played in awhile. Its simplicity allowed me to create lavish ideas about what was going on even if the game gave no indication that it was even thinking about itself in any sort of imaginative way. Limbo contains everything, yet nothing. There are trees and glowing signs, houses and smoking chimneys, yet there is also the absence of color and life. You are only given the tools you need to use to progress, nothing more. It makes the game simple to the point of poignancy, where you desperately want just one glimpse of this absent little sister in order to make you believe that it can’t just be nothing-there has to be something or else the journey is meaningless. And the road is so hard-I can’t even tell you how many times I led this poor little boy to his untimely death. Probably in the hundreds. Platforming is not really my forte, so I dropped him onto spikes, drowned him, electrocuted him, fed him to spiders, crushed him underneath doors and threw him into sawblades over and over again. But it wasn’t sad-this is Limbo, after all. He was merely a tool-I made it to the end, so it must have been his fate.