After a heartwarming and tears-dropping adventure/RPG-lite experience with To The Moon the second day of the indie games week continues with a bleaker and more violent approach to game design and presentation.
Jump ‘n’ Runs are usually of the happy-feelings-when-traversing-a-colorful-world variety as in Nintendo’s plumber series or Rayman. But Playdead’s Limbo shows that a darker tone with an emphasis on puzzle solving is just as enjoyable or even more. Find out what makes this title unique…
(Denmark 2010, developer: Playdead, publisher: Headup Games, platforms: PC/Mac, Xbox 360, PS3)
A small boy wakes up in a world of darkness and light, going through different stages to get out or find something or someone he’s looking for.
No help in this dark and forsaken place
The player starts without any video intro and no tutorial in a world of black and white which is for him to pass through and to survive. No intruding button prompts or other explanatory text helps him to understand this strange and dangerous place. Only by taking a look at his surroundings, by learning how it reacts to his actions can he progress. And by trial, error and dying does he learn how not to do it.
Learn or die
The game plays as much with the player as he plays with the game. There are scenes when it tests the player’s conception of what he knows about platformers and questions it. Without taking too much away, but sometimes the game mechanics leave the boy helpless as controls are taken away from him or he performs an action he thought worked the last time, now only resulting in death.
The player learns just like the boy about the intricacies of the world, learns to observe its pits and falls, its traps and machinations. With each new environment something new is introduced, like levers which turn on and off electricity or even turn the world upside down. Quick reactions and an even more cerebral approach are the only ways to get the boy through til the end.
This boy is dead and surviving
And what’s at the end? What is he looking for? Only waking up in this world and finding a way out or is there something or someone else? Is the princess in another castle? The game doesn’t rely on storytelling devices like expository text or cutscenes, no character interaction, no level structure. Everything is seemlessly interwoven. It is a journey through dark industrial places, creepy woods, only at certain points broken with light, hope. It is a scary world, a depressing world, a fascinating world which sucks the player into its weird logic. As the title suggests, limbo is a state in which the soul is suspended in a waiting room before it can go to heaven. It’s also very much a pilgrimage. This might sound all very religious, but it’s not easy to describe the feelings when playing the game.
This world is dead or alive
With so much emphasis on puzzle solving and less on storytelling, how does the game convey an atmosphere like no other? Both sound and graphics are what makes it a unique experience again. The absence of color (black) and the totality of colors (white) with shades of grey serve for a feeling of isolation and even depression. Character animations are fluent and it all looks as if watching a puppet theater, but a bloody and brutal one.
Death occurs frequently, and the game shows in explicit detail what happens to the young boy when he fails. Decapitation, arms and legs cut off, blood spurting out of his severed limbs and torso, a broken neck and more cruel ways to fail. Only with the option to have a black letterbox put over the violence can the game become a bit more friendly for people abhorring this sort of presentation.
A dying world
But it doesn’t take away the overall grim tone of the game world. Faceless and nameless characters hung on ropes in the background, a big disgusting spider-like thing chasing the player, industrial machines turned into murdering devices. This is no place for Mario and his happy fellows. It’s a place of death and sadness, highlighted even more by the absence of music. Only sounds, often very creepy ones, disturb the oppressing silence, and it’s more powerful than what most games try to do in the horror genre.
A personal nightmare and dream of a game
What remains when one takes away all the colors, happy coins-collecting and level structure of a Mario game? Nothing. And this is why Limbo can’t really be compared to traditional platformers. The closest it comes to would be Abe’s Exoddus or Abe’s Oddysee, but even these would not the right ones to compare it to, as there’s no humor, no social criticism. The game mechanics are similar in that a false step is usually the last step and certain death for the young boy, and being put in a strange world he doesn’t understand is more akin to games like Another World or Flashback, but it doesn’t tell an elaborated story. It doesn’t need to. By playing it the player creates his own story in his mind and this is something few if any Jump & Run games or games in general can offer.
Retail for collectors
Special mention has to go to the Collector’s Edition (published in Germany by Headup Games). Limbo has been available on Steam for the PC, via XBLA for Xbox 360 or with the PSN version on the PS3, but this edition shows probably one of the best and most beautiful packages (except for the Bioshock 2 Limited Edition) I’ve seen for a while. Not only is the game DRM-free on a disc (including the minimalistic soundtrack as well), but the digipack is of high quality material and includes many goodies.
Inside there are collector’s cards with the artful designs of the game (even showing some of the brutal death scenes), a sticker and red/cyan 3D-glasses.
3D for the minority
Yes, it’s even possible to play the game in anaglyphic 3D. I played through the game and it does give a certain depth to the proceedings. But don’t expect a mind-blowing new experience. Still it’s a nice touch. The only thing Headup Games could have handled better would be to have mentioned how the effect is turned on as there’s no handbook. It’s actually a combination of different button presses, but at the same time: CTRL+Shift+3+D to turn it on, CTRL+Shift+2+D to turn it off.
All in all this is an edition which does the game more than justice and should be in everyone’s collection. So heads up to Headup Games and other publishers for making it available to the retail market.
Collector’s Edition packaging rating: 10/10
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