“Uncertain of his Sister’s Fate, a Boy enters LIMBO.”
That’s all the plot you need, and that’s all you’re going to get. Limbo’s story is told through the experience of playing. Its quietly ambiguous ending at once brings the game to a satisfying conclusion, while leaving a little wiggle room for personal interpretation. But beyond that? Nothing. A boy enters Limbo. And so do you.
Perhaps PlayDead’s greatest achievement here is in crafting a world that has elements of the familiar yet still feels utterly alien. Eric Chahi’s Another World is the obvious reference point, but if anything, Limbo’s atmosphere is thicker, more intoxicating. Its monochromatic imagery is stark, bleak, and beautiful; inky shadows cast against a backdrop of faded black-and-white photos. Dissonant notes periodically punctuate the sparse soundscape, as unnerving as the needle-sharp legs of the oversized arachnid entering menacingly from stage left.
Our hero’s journey takes him from more organic obstacles to man-made hazards, each a puzzle to solve, often requiring swift reflexes as well as a keen mind. Rolling boulders and tumbling branches later give way to humming magnets and whirring buzzsaws, but the tools for the job essentially remain the same: the protagonist’s hands and feet and the player’s brain.
Solutions to the game’s most intricate puzzles can be slowly teased out, though others are solved via simple trial-and-error, the latter part of the equation usually leading to a grisly death, as the hero is decapitated, impaled, skewered or crushed. Though often disturbingly brutal, rare moments of pitch-black humour emerge: a sequence featuring two gigantic weights will see all but the most clairvoyant of players flattened at least once, while another sees the player dodge one trap only to hurtle headlong into the next. It’s only afterwards that you spot the subtle visual clues that give the game away.
Even the best-laid plans can be awkward to execute; Limbo is, at times, a little too exacting, while its impressively realistic physics occasionally conspire against the player. Happily, it’s also extremely forgiving, with regular checkpoints cutting backtracking to the bare minimum.
Most players’ time in Limbo will be short, but this is not a place that’s soon forgotten. Distinctive and unique, Playdead’s purgatory amplifies the thrill of every new discovery and the sense of wonder at what comes next, creating a tangible sense of place that few other games can match.