There are few game categories that I enjoy exploring and playing more than indie games. There’s something about supporting indie games and their developers that feels like I’m “doing my part.” It’s sort of like the “buying local” of video gaming. But there’s also the feeling of awe and excitement I get when I play amazing games that were birthed into existence without the aid of a major developer or publisher. If you also enjoy indie games, then you probably know that the Mac App Store has, thus far, been a goldmine for such games.
Limbo is an independently developed side-scrolling puzzle game from Playdead that is available on a multitude of platforms. I first played it on the Xbox Live Arcade, but didn’t really get a chance to play all the way through it until I downloaded it on my Mac. Today I’m going to delve into the world of Limbo, and since the best part of playing the game is not knowing what comes next, I’m going to try to do it as spoiler-free as possible! Hit the jump to read on.
Aesthetic & Art Design
Limbo (n): 1 an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition. 2 a state of neglect or oblivion
The first and most striking thing about Limbo is the design aesthetic, which beckons a brief discussion prior to getting into the meat of the game, since it so heavily influences the gameplay and story. Limbo’s game world is a monochromatic one, with characters and world elements having a somewhat silhouette-like appearance. Despite the black-and-white, the world is still a beautiful environment with complex lighting and excellent physics, both of which are most noticeable during scripted game sequences that drive the story.
I will get into gameplay and story a bit more later, but in the case of Limbo, the way the game makes you feel while you play is really a product of aesthetic as well. From the very beginning, the game makes you feel like you need to keep moving, despite the uncertainty about where (or why) you are going. To this end, Limbo holds very true to it’s name. And the dark, industrial theme keeps you interested in pressing onward.
Gameplay & Story
When you first begin Limbo, you’ll assume the role of a nameless (as far as I can tell), and nondescript little boy. The game opens in a grass field, where our hero awakens (demonstrated by small glowing eyes appearing in his head) and rises to his feet. Then you run. In what I can only interpret as a design choice meant to perpetuate the feeling of uncertainty, Limbo provides absolute no fourth-wall-breaking instructions or hints on how to play the game. Fortunately, the controls are simple and intuitive: the left and right arrow keys to move, and the up arrow key to jump.
At it’s core, Limbo is essentially a puzzle game. As you run, that feeling of uncertainty and urgency remains, even during the sequences where you have to stop and solve puzzles in order to move forward. I’m no game designer, but I have to assume that this balance is an especially difficult one to strike. The puzzles are challenging and increasingly complex, but not so much so that you feel held up, or that you ever lose that sense of urgency.
As you run, you’ll likely begin to piece together a bit of implied story about the world and the character you play. The game is void of any dialog whatsoever, and I find this particular storytelling technique fascinating. Where it gets tricky is trying to reconcile the small bits of story you are able to pick up on with some of the very bizarre and brilliant puzzles. The level design goes so far beyond “block pushing” and challenges you to think differently to solve light, gravity, and timing based puzzles.
Here seems like as good of a place as any to note a small disclaimer about Limbo. The game world provides an eerie atmosphere on it’s own, with the blacks and grays and shadows. But beyond that, there are elements of the game which may be disturbing to some players. Your character’s death is nearly inevitable (you’ll almost certainly die during several sequences, simply because you haven’t determined certain pacing yet), and this death causes your character to revert to ragdoll physics. Because of some death-trap like puzzles, and some thoroughly terrifying enemies, some of these methods of death will result in dismemberment, or worse. My opinion is that it is a perfect accent to an already ghostly and sinister gameplay atmosphere, but it most certainly caught me off guard the first time it happened.
As I mentioned above, I’m doing my best to preserve the uncertainty and avoid spoilers, because I feel that it is an essential part of enjoying the game. That being said, I simply can’t leave you today without mentioning the ending. I have a tendency to worry, during games (and books and TV shows and movies…) that the ending of a particularly cerebral story could end up being lame, or at the very least, disappointingly unsatisfying. Without revealing the ending, let it be known that all of these worries were quashed, and even though I didn’t know it beforehand, Limbo left me feeling exactly the way I now feel it should have.
The more I think about the game, the way you play it, the feelings it instills, and the way it ends, the more I realize how brilliantly titled it is. It wasn’t a terribly long game (though, you’ll almost certainly wish it was), but for $9.99, it is well worth the fun. With a low barrier of entry, simple-to-master controls, and a game world that isn’t overly complex or difficult to navigate, Limbo really focuses on absorbing you into the gorgeous landscape and story, creating a most enjoyable gameplay experience.