Within a dismal, dreary forest, a large pond, one amongst many, blocks the path. My character cannot swim; he stands hesitantly at the water’s edge hoping to spot a way across. Bodies, children’s bodies, float in the water. It’s a grotesque scene, but my character is quite the utilitarian. The bodies would serve as excellent floatation devices. Just as the boy makes the leap, he witnesses another child staggering towards the pond. Right before his very eyes, the other child stumbles into the murky water and drowns. For no apparent reason.
Scenarios such as the one above define the game, LIMBO. Set in a cruel, cold world abounding with monsters and death traps, LIMBO is the stuff of nightmares. Most other games present death as an innocuous hiccup, “Oh, you’ve run out of energy. Here’s a cutscene of your character fainting.” This game is different. Get caught in a trap, and you’ll witness a most pleasant scene of your little character getting stabbed, beheaded, dismembered, minced, electrocuted, crushed, drowned… whatever you can imagine. You cannot escape. And then, there’s the spider…
People will frequently allude to LIMBO when the topic of ”Videogames as Art” emerges. Certainly, the aesthetic design with its black and white color palette, muted grays, and misty whites warrants such commendation. There’s an almost dreamy, otherworldly quality to the game. The soundtrack too with its subtle monotone and striking notes at just the right moments creates a most eerie atmosphere. Sound effects certainly contribute. You can hear the boy’s every step as he navigates first the forest and then an industrial world. His desperate pants seem to echo in your ears. But I believe the gameplay itself designates LIMBO as a work of art.
In one particular level, I got caught in a trap where the first pressure plate is a safe zone but the second activates a trap. Not much farther along, I encountered a trio of young boys with poison darts. They pursued me as I backtracked all the way to the aforementioned pressure plates. I watched, gleefully, as my pursuers were crushed in the trap that I had succumbed to only seconds before. It was a sort of vindictive delight.
Then, I paused. Why would I be feeling such things? This emotion wasn’t the catharsis of completing a puzzle. It was more a smug acknowledgement that, yes, I had fallen for that very trap, but now I could wield that knowledge against those who would seek to hurt me. I had wondered about the boys that I had encountered. Who were they? What were they doing here? Why were they attacking me? They made it personal. And so they had to die. Not many games can bring at emotions like these.
This interaction with other beings in the first half of the game leads me to deem it a masterpiece. Unfortunately the second half didn’t impress me. Sure, the puzzles involving spinning rooms and gravity buttons were rather interesting, but something was lacking. They were just complicated puzzles, nothing more. (Time-based to boot, which I hate. There is nothing more frustrating than having to repeat a level because you jumped a fraction of a second too late.) The enemies reside only in the beginning; the second half subjects the character to inorganic obstacles. Rather disappointing. In addition, some elements of the puzzles didn’t seem that well integrated. For instance, in an early level you must retrieve a bear trap placed on the limb of a tree.
I did enjoy some of the extra elements after completing the game. Hunting for the “Easter eggs,” in this case literal eggs, allowed me to explore this 2D world even deeper. I still have yet to find the last one, which only appears after completing the game with less than five deaths, but I’m getting there. After all, there’s no point in dying.
LIMBO by Playdead
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