Playdead’s Limbo

I recently found out about the upcoming release of Inside, the next instalment from Danish game developer Playdead, creators of 2010’s award-winning Limbo. In anticipation of the new title, set to be released in the first part of this year, I’m taking a look back at Limbo to see if it still stands up as the seminal video game masterpiece it was lauded as at the time.

What’s it about?

A small boy wakes in a forest, lost. We know from the game’s description that he needs to look for his sister.

Our established knowledge of the title gives us hints to the possible location of the forest and eventual industrial landscape, whilst the ending provides a raised eyebrow of a suggestion to the events that lead to the boy lying on the forest floor. But that’s all we’re ever given – hints and implications, all open to interpretation.

It’s this uncertainty that is so absorbing about the experience. The narrative is as dark as your imagination makes it, and you’re encouraged to think the unthinkable as you navigate this child through the hellish setting.

Gameplay

Originally released on Xbox 360, I downloaded the game on my PS Vita. Playing on a hand-held device suited the atmosphere, immersing me into the surroundings. There were moments I wished I was playing on a more traditional controller, especially when the puzzle required very tight accuracy, but 90% of the time it suited the Vita’s layout to a tee.

Some players have criticised the gameplay for forcing you through a ‘trial through death’ scenario, as there are repeated instances when you simply cannot progress without dying first. Whilst some of the game’s critics have said this negatively affects the impact of death, I personally enjoyed the trial and error approach. The first death you experience is shocking, but as the game progresses and you die an increasing number of times, you can’t help but catch yourself questioning your own reaction to the graphic scenes. As players, we grow harder to the surroundings and challenges, taking a personal moral and emotional journey as we join the boy on his own nightmare trek.

The puzzles are truly challenging, and while you may become frustrated through play, it’s rarely due to the design. You crave to defeat the puzzle first time, and on the odd occasion you complete a one without dying, it feels like a real achievement. There’s a great range of challenges, and it’s very easy to become sucked into trying to defeat ‘just one more’.

Atmosphere and design

It was the film noir style of the game that set this puzzle-platformer apart from the rest. The varying shades of grey and black are jarring to begin with, but you soon adapt to the dank, dark scenery. Despite the monochrome colour-scheme, the game feels textured and rich, with a depth to the background I certainly didn’t expect based on the screenshots I’d seen prior to play. The scenery flickers like an old film, creating a dream-like experience from the opening sequence.

The delicacy of the boy is unnerving, as his fragile limbs float around and his torso is thrown about by monstrous arachnids, and torn apart by lethal blades. For a character that never spoke, I felt an almost overwhelming amount of sympathy, pity and occasional awe for this tiny figure attempting to navigate a horrifying landscape.

I don’t know how to refer to the score of the game, as rather than music, you’re submitted to atmospheric noise throughout play. It serves to add to the depth of the scenery, leaving you immersed in the experience.

I’d also add that, often, I felt genuinely on edge whilst playing. You easily become hyperaware to the surroundings, anticipating the next puzzle, wondering what nightmare the land has in store next. The design, gameplay and atmosphere conspire to raise your heartbeat and put you on awares, which is something I’d never experienced in a puzzle-platformer before.

The verdict

In the five years that have passed, does Limbo still stand up to its awards and plaudits today? In a word – yes.

Visually, the game looks as fresh as ever, and the ending never fails to leave my heart rushing to my throat. Few games have hooked me quite like Limbo, and I imagine even fewer ever will. Despite its open interpretation, the nuanced narrative of Limbo serves to proof that story is absolutely essential in the creation of a truly great gaming experience, rather than flashy graphics and fantastic settings.

Limbo is available across a whole range of platforms, including iOS, so there’s no excuse not to pick it up. Give it a play and discover the talents of Playdead, and join the rest of us as we eagerly anticipate their next release, Inside.

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