Guide a small boy through a gloomy world as he searches for his sister.
PC Release: July 21, 2010
By Ian Coppock
Summer is traditionally a time for lots of sunshine and time spent outdoors, which also makes it the best time for a plethora of horror games. Sure, the autumn season will bring its share of terror, but barring an AC unit, horror games are a great way to stay cool in the summer. For the economically minded consumer, there’s nothing better for saving some AC money than getting thrills and chills from one of the games reviewed here. With only the best intentions in mind, let’s now examine Limbo, a creepy horror platformer.
Limbo is one of the most iconic platformers ever developed, legendary in the gaming community for its gloomy aesthetic and hair-raising creatures. The game was released in 2010 by Playdead, a small Danish studio whose most recent product, Inside, released week before last. Inside will get its own review soon, but in order to fully appreciate that game, it’s necessary to understand Limbo and the motifs that it gave rise to.
Limbo is a side-scrolling platformer set in a morbid, monochromatic world. The player character is a nameless little boy who wakes up one evening in the world’s spookiest forest. Although it’s never stated in-game, the boy’s goal is to locate his sister, who’s somewhere out there in the big gloomy beyond. He gets up, dusts himself off, and sets out to find his sibling.
The bulk of Limbo‘s gameplay comprises simple environmental puzzles, usually requiring the boy to move things around or activate machinery. One of the earliest puzzles entails breaking down an old growth tree, and using the snag as a bridge to safely cross a deep pond. Some of these conundrums can get quite intricate, especially as the game goes on, but all of them generally deal with using a combination of items in the environment to create a path forward.
The other half of the game’s mechanics all deal with the environment, and the creepy denizens it hides. Though it feels quite the opposite, the boy is not alone in this big, dark world. There are a multitude of creatures, some friendly, some not so much, secreted throughout the landscape. The boy encounters everything from a giant spider to a savage tribe of children on his quest to find his sister, and both their mechanics and presentation leave a lasting impression.
As can be surmised from these screenshots, Limbo is a very dark game indeed. Not just in terms of its enemies or its motifs, but its aesthetic, which is arguably its most identifiable asset. The entire game, from start to finish, consists only of black, white, and gray, with admittedly lots of shades between the three but absolutely no other colors. These visuals are further enhanced with a grim film grain and brilliantly designed interplay between light and shadow. It makes the entire world look like something out of a morose silent film.
Though the game is monochromatic, it remains packed with detail and lots to look at. As the boy travels, he traverses environments ranging from the aforementioned nightmare forest to an abandoned city and locales beyond. All of them are rife with objects, which lets the scenery slowly soak in instead of being over as quickly as monochrome might imply. The city environments in particular are amazingly detailed, with hundreds of discarded artifacts to create a true sense of postapocalypse.
The final component that has given Limbo so much staying power in an over-saturated field of indie platformers is its sound design. Throughout the entire game, there are perhaps half a dozen pieces of music, and all of them are ambient, swelling horns and synths that are not at all reassuring. The music is darkly beautiful, with the occasional sad melody, and it’s all timed to the environments the boy visits remarkably well.
Aside from these very scant instances, Limbo features no music. Instead, the game relies purely on environmental sounds to convey its atmosphere. The only sounds to be heard in the forest are a dry wind and the distant cries of wildlife, while the city contains the patter of rain on tin roofs. It is against this backdrop that the boy is expected to move, furtively, as a tiny insect might race through a decrepit tree.
The reason why the visuals and the music are being listed off like this is because they create Limbo‘s atmosphere, which even more than its aesthetic might be the novelty for which it’s remembered. Even though Limbo is not explicitly a horror game, it contains an atmosphere whose claustrophobic, existential dread is matched only by Amnesia, Outlast, and Soma. A remarkable feat, to say the least, especially for a game that doesn’t try to be a hardcore survival horror adventure like those three titles.
Limbo accomplishes this atmosphere through the perfectly synchronized blend of the aforementioned monochrome and its ghastly lack of music. It makes the journey through the game suspenseful from start to finish, as the player always strains to listen for what might be around the next corner. Even if a monster isn’t chasing the boy, the creepiness implied by the larger environment around him is just as unsettling.
Of course, it’s worth revisiting the gameplay for a moment to figure out why this game is so unsettling. The boy has no means of self-defense if trouble shows up, as it often does. The first half or so of the game is where these ghoulish threats are to be found. The boy spends most of his time in the forest being chased by the aforementioned giant spider, but the beast is slow and methodical, almost inevitable, in contrast to a fast-chasing maniac in Outlast. Indeed, Limbo‘s horror stems from apprehension more than outright violence, as the solutions for outwitting the game’s hostile creatures are usually not apparent until the last second. The game makes use of gruesome death animations to dissuade players from killing the boy on the next round, a very effective, very clever design tactic.
The scenery within Limbo rounds off its horror vibe. The game’s world is rife with objects whose origins are shrouded in mystery, but that are no less terrifying for it. The boy will encounter savage machinery, piles of corpses, and bizarrely methodical death traps along his route. Their origins and purpose are never explained, but the boy gets up close and personal with most of them as he tries to rescue his sister. That sense of sick mystery has further deepened Limbo‘s impact over the years.
The machinery and obstacles the boy encounters are far more than an aesthetic; they form the basis of the game’s puzzles and environmental obstacles. None of these puzzles are all that taxing, even toward the end, but they are cleverly designed. It helps that the controls are tight and responsive, and the options menu is competently designed. Players are given maximum control over the boy’s movements, and they’ll need it; the world of Limbo is a dangerous place.
Although Limbo is both a masterfully designed platformer and an exemplar of horror atmosphere done right, its narrative does leave something to be desired. The narrative’s main plot point is only made known to the player because of Limbo‘s marketing material, and there’s no kind of character development to be had in this very nonverbal game. A few critics also pointed out that the game ends on a very abrupt note, which won’t be spoiled here, but an abrupt ending that leaves questions unanswered has more lasting power than an ending that satisfies all questions.
The final word on Limbo‘s success as a video game is that it proves that games don’t need narratives to be emotionally exhausting. Even though the boy never speaks and has no goals beyond finding his sister, he’s a character that the player becomes attached to. He becomes an endearing part of the game, a beacon against the horrors of this depressingly dark world, and his journey is still emotionally exhausting without the help of dialogue.
Because of this, and because of its finely tuned atmosphere, Limbo is an outstanding platformer that everyone, not just horror gamers, will appreciate. Its morose aesthetic may not be pleasant, but it’s surprisingly deep, and it sets the backdrop for one of indie gaming’s most perilous adventures. Get this game, and get it immediately. It’s one of the best platformers this decade has produced.
You can buy Limbo here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.