IO Interactive, a game development company headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, made their impact on the medium in 2000 with their debut title, Hitman: Codename 47. In this game, players assumed the role of Agent 47, a highly skilled contract killer, and they were encouraged to go about their missions in a clandestine fashion. It was its own unique take on the then-budding stealth genre first popularized by Metal Gear Solid and Thief. Although some critics felt as though it didn’t live up to expectations, it was nonetheless a hit, inspiring sequels and even a few big-budget Hollywood films.
During this time, a concept artist from IO Interactive by the name of Arnt Jensen grew dissatisfied with the increasingly corporate nature of his company. In 2004, while coming up with new ideas, he sketched a “mood image” of a “secret place.” From these sketches, he was ultimately inspired to expand on them by making a game of his own. He initially tried to program his game in Visual Basic, but soon realized he would need help if he were to make his dream into a reality. Two years later, he created an art style trailer. Although he only intended for this trailer to attract the attention of a skilled programmer, to his surprise, it garnered substantial interest across the internet, leading him to meet Dino Patti, who found himself similarly disillusioned with his job. Through their collaborations, they founded the company Playdead, and development of Mr. Jensen’s personal project began in earnest.
Development of this game was funded personally by Mr. Jensen and grants from the Danish government, including from the Nordic Game Program. Throughout the process, they had to drown out advice from critics and investors who insisted on including features such as variable difficulty settings and multiplayer. They even went as far as not committing to any major publishers to retain total control of the project. Finally, in 2010, the project was completed, becoming available for the Xbox Live Arcade before making its way onto various other platforms. This game, named Limbo, proceeded to amass nearly universal critical acclaim, with many publications awarding it the distinction of “Game of the Year,” and was at least nominated for the title in several more. Many use this game as evidence of the medium’s artistic merits alongside Braid, which was released two years earlier. Considering that 2010 was a decidedly strong year for the AAA industry, Limbo managing to stand out was certainly no mean feat. The question is: how did it manage to make such an impression in the face of such tough competition?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: Limbo is best experienced completely blind, so if you are at all interested in playing it, feel free to skip this review.
The premise of Limbo is a simple one. The protagonist, a nameless boy, awakens in the middle of a dark, foreboding forest ostensibly on the edge of hell. He has but a single goal: to find his younger sister. Players are left to discover the rest on their own.
Limbo can best be described as a 2D platforming game. The boy has a rather limited repertoire when it comes to mobility or defending himself. He cannot jump high nor can he leap far, and his abilities don’t get any more advanced than moving objects or flipping the occasional switch. It’s not advisable to charge forward with reckless abandon, as one touch from anything dangerous – be it a hostile creature or an environmental hazard – is enough to fell him. Thankfully, the consequence for dying isn’t particularly harsh; you’re just sent back to the last checkpoint. Although Limbo has far more of an emphasis on puzzle solving than a typical example of the genre, the classic platforming solution of “go right” still applies.
It’s a game which relies on the environment to tell its story. The backgrounds are presented in grayscale. Combined with an ambient soundscape, it successfully creates a haunting environment where the player feels as though they should tread lightly – a fear which is well-founded considering the many traps masked by the dark visuals.
What struck me as remarkable about the environment was how the oppression seemed to go both ways, giving the game a sink-or-swim feel. One particularly memorable moment involves getting past a giant spider. In order to accomplish this, you set up a situation which eventually culminates in ripping off every single one of its legs and rolling its body onto a bed of spikes so you can reach the other side. It’s nothing more than a mindless monster that could kill you in a moment’s notice, yet the circumstances surrounding its death carry a surprising amount of pathos.
Unfortunately, as unique as these ideas are, there’s no getting around that Limbo is a weak platforming game. As was the case with many mediocre works from the genre’s heyday, the controls in this game lack polish. They’re not the worst I’ve experienced by any stretch of the imagination, but there were several points when I repeatedly failed a jump I don’t think would have posed a challenge in the average Mario installment. This is partly because the black-and-white presentation made it somewhat difficult to gauge exactly where the edge of the platform resided. The more obvious flaw would be the strange physics engine this game runs on. I always dreaded having to swing on ropes and having to negotiate narrow platforms because there is almost no room for error. Death may be of little consequence, but in hindsight, this design decision felt like a hasty fix for a serious problem.
That isn’t to say Limbo is without its upsides. I will admit that the puzzles are pretty creative. The first half of the game is set in a dark forest while the latter portions take place in a desolate industrialized zone. The change of scenery is reflected in the puzzles themselves. The forested areas usually have organic obstacles such as giant spiders, trap holes, or people shooting poison darts at the protagonist. Meanwhile, the urban areas see him avoiding giant circular saws and machine gun turrets while interacting with devices capable of reversing gravity or drawing metallic objects in with a strong magnetic pull.
However, the switch to the industrial motif is something of a double-edged sword, for what the puzzles have in variety, they lack in synergy. Good puzzle games build on themselves; everything you learn on level one will continue to have relevance for the duration of the experience. It’s surprisingly common for players to learn of an important game mechanic early on only to forget about it later, causing them to mentally chastise themselves when they remember and solve a problem they’ve been pondering for twenty minutes in a matter of seconds. Limbo doesn’t really build on itself; many elements get abandoned with the scenery change. While the forest has lively atmosphere which makes it feel as though someone or something dangerous is just around the corner, the city is practically dead. This might be what the developers were going for, but it has the unintended side effect of making the second half of Limbo come across as a series of poorly designed video game levels with the mechanical obstacles present.
Arguably the game’s most glaring weakness lies with its trail-and-error nature. In the above screenshot, the boy is facing a trap that will crush him to death should he fail to tread carefully. A reasonable assumption to make would be that the rectangular partition is the button which will activate the trap. This turns out to be false, as the platform is actually a safe spot while stepping in the divot on either side will cause the block to come crashing down. Just past this trap is an identical one with the sole difference being that the initial supposition turns out to be correct in this instance – the rectangle is a pressure plate. The problem with puzzles like this is that it boils the experience down to a guessing game with the penalty of sending the player back should they fail to read the creator’s mind. It’s like being on a new game show where the host refuses to explain the rules, yet nonetheless hands out severe penalties every time you break them.
It’s true that situations like these were abundant in classic adventure games from the eighties, but they were the result of developers simply not knowing any better. After all, pioneers, having not grown up with the medium, were less likely to realize that certain aspects such as unwinnable situations and obtuse puzzle solutions are indicative of a bad game, and while history has rightly proven this to be true beyond any reasonable doubt, it’s understandable why it wouldn’t be obvious from their perspective when one applies the appropriate context. Limbo doesn’t have an excuse for this, for it was released in 2010 – long after the golden age of adventure games had run its course, taking with it these discredited design choices.
What’s worse is that after getting past both traps, you encounter a group of hostile figures who will kill you unless you make a hasty retreat whereupon they’ll fall victim to the giant blocks in your stead. Although this may sound easy once you know what to do, the aforementioned controls coupled with the unclear edges of the traps’ activation zones make this task much more difficult than it should have been. I yield that the crusher trap was the most blatant example of this phenomenon, but there were shades of it throughout the rest of the game.
No review of this game is complete without discussing the merits of Limbo as a storytelling experience. Mr. Jensen appears to have taken cues from Team Ico, the creators of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, two highly celebrated works known for their minimalistic storytelling. Though Mr. Jensen goes a step further in that Limbo completely forgoes any and all notions of dialogue; the only semblance of storytelling to be found lies within the boy’s interaction with the environment.
Because of the ambiguity surrounding this game’s narrative, fans of this game have taken it upon themselves to come up with theories explaining what they just witnessed. Perhaps the boy and his sister were dead all along and the game repeating itself at the end means they’re in purgatory. Maybe it was all a dream. Nearly every work of fiction has fans who formulate theories about matters which the author decided to remain deliberately vague on. With its brand of storytelling, it would certainly appear that Limbo would prove a fertile breeding ground for these kinds of speculations. However, in this case, I don’t think it’s indicative of Limbo being particularly deep. It’s entirely possible to complete the game and still be unaware of its basic premise – only going right because that’s what is expected in a platforming game.
To put it another way, Limbo is a work where most discussions about its story depend heavily on fan theories because the game provides very little substance to go on. As a counterexample, the reason Shadow of the Colossus works is because there is a solid foundation on which these theories can be formed. You are told everything you need to know within the game itself. It’s from there that people begin speculating about the morality of the cast and who, if anyone, is in the right. This doesn’t work with Limbo; it’s as though the creators threw random elements together in the hope that meaning would somehow result from it or fans would make up their own story to compensate for the game’s weak structure.
Drawing a Conclusion
I remember watching gameplay footage of Limbo and openly wondering how a platformer that would have been considered behind the times had it seen its original release in the early nineties could amass the critical acclaim it did. After playing it for myself, I’m still not completely sure. I believe critics latched onto it because it was a rejection of the more tiring trends that were beginning to manifest within the AAA industry at the time such as their overreliance on certain genres and propensity to write unambitious stories. If this was the creators’ intent, then where Limbo fails is that the creators applied a binary solution to what was perceived to be a multifaceted problem. Specifically, rather than examining the AAA approach closely and weeding out the ideas holding it back, Playdead opted to reverse every single aspect of it, treating amusement as though it’s an anathema poised to ruin artistic credibility with its mere presence.
Consequently, I don’t think I could recommend playing Limbo when several games from 2010 alone outclass it by a wide margin. For example, if you’re looking for a beautiful platformer with minimalistic storytelling and engaging gameplay, one need not look further than Super Mario Galaxy 2. In some gaming circles, it’s wrongly dismissed as a transparent money grab on Nintendo’s part. Even if that assertion were true, by remembering to be fun, it manages to be a much more fulfilling experience than Limbo or any other game attempting in vain to pursue some nebulous high art standard. Even the indie scene eventually realized this, as the coming years provided us with many titles capable of making insightful statements without sacrificing their entertainment value. In other words, these creators realized something their peers forgot somewhere down the line – that video games have been art all along, and those who embrace the oddities of the medium have more long-term success than those determined to push them away.
Final Score: 3/10