Limbo: a lesson in mortality

protagonist looking at a hung corpse

There is only one certainty in life and that unfortunately is death. The Reaper stalks us every day of our lives waiting for the moment that he gets to swing his scythe and claim us for his own. Luckily for us the Reaper is patient and waits for us to come to him in our own time, rather than giving pursuit. In Limbo the Reaper is a different beast, death is an ever present possibility and the Reaper collects aggressively, mercilessly and repeatedly.

I started playing Limbo on a grey rainy Saturday afternoon. Lying back on the couch in front of the heater I was pleasantly surprised to find that the mood of Limbo matched my own; quiet and relaxed. Presented entirely in black and white and with just ambient sounds to fill the silence Limbo gave an impression of safety and tranquillity. Moving through the initial part of the game involved running through quiet fields, sliding down grassy slopes and even going for a short sail in a boat, with some basic problem solving elements thrown in to keep things interesting. Cresting a rise I was struck by how cinematic the flowing black and white scenery looked and I allowed my attention to drift as I waited for the next obstacle to come into view. KERSCHHLICCK!! and I was suddenly and brutally disembowelled by the piece of ground I was running over. Sitting there in shock and disbelief was when I realised that Limbo was not your regular 'happy go lucky' platformer.

protagonist in a boat

going for a sail

In your regular platform game dying is not a particularly daunting experience. Usually your character falls down and there's a fade to black or something similarly inoffensive. Not so in Limbo, in Limbo death is visceral, often sudden and always final. Whether it be electrocution, drowning, dismemberment, getting impaled or being absolutely pulverised by a 50 ton block of stone the death feels real. So much so that I found myself cringing at the especially nasty ones (like getting impaled through the face by a spike when moving at speed). Limbo manages to achieve this effect by virtue of it's comprehensive physics engine. In Limbo objects obey the laws of physics i.e. have mass, can be pushed with force and this includes your in game player allowing him to brutally maimed in disturbingly realistic ways.

In addition to allowing the player to be realistically killed, the physics simulation also forms as the foundation for Limbo's core gameplay. This is the area where Limbo really innovates and brings something new and interesting to the table. The majority of the puzzles involve manipulating objects in the world and I have to say it is quite engaging to be see everything work as it would in the real world rather than by some strictly regimented artificial approximation. Like letting a tire roll from the top of a hill will see it gather speed on the way down and see it gradually lose speed as it climbs the other side. Standing on the end of a see saw platform will see the end that you stand on dip down slowly, running from end to end will get an oscillating motion going as you would expect. Jumping on a moving platform from the opposite direction to it's motion will see it slow and jerk as it absorbs your momentum. Now this may all seem just like a cool sideshow but these physical effects are an integral part of solving the puzzles, they are intertwined with the core gameplay in a fundamental and interesting way and in my opinion that is very cool.

protagonist confronts some enemies

a wordless threat

Now this is where I get to tell you about the not so good parts of Limbo. I think the most fundamental problem is this: death is your constant companion and your worst enemy, but at the same time it is also your teacher and guide. To learn how to progress past an obstacle you are required to die at least a couple of times in order to figure out how it works. I think this wouldn't be much of an issue (and isn't in other games) but when Limbo kills you, and you know when it does, it feels contemptuous and somehow shaming. Dying once isn't so bad, but dying multiple times in the same spot starts to grind your tolerance away and this situation is a common occurrence. In addition to this you can tell the world is cunningly designed to murder you in many and varied ways, as if it thirsts for the virtual blood of it's protagonist. Every time you die it feels like the game is beating you, and enjoying it while it does so.

Limbo's puzzles can be difficult to figure out too, when you don't get something there are no clues to help you out. In places this can be really annoying, for example; near the end of the game I found I was repeatedly throwing myself into a chasm following a sign that indicated that I should go that way, or so I thought. It turns out that the sign was actually a switch that I had to hit, despite that fact that it didn't look remotely switch like and looked instead like a stereotypical direction sign. What compounded the issue is that you could only see the screen for a second before you died leaving you little room to figure anything out.

Now despite these problems Limbo is a good game, perhaps even a great one. You can literally feel the quality oozing from the level design and the physics based gameplay is masterfully executed. It is an experience that you should definitely have, but be aware that it is not a gentle one. You must pit yourself against a world filled with diabolical traps and a stony unforgiving temperament. A world that will try to crush, impale, eloctrocute, drown, shoot and generally terrorise you. The game is your enemy in truth and you must be prepared for a conflict with a merciless adversary that will give you no quarter when you make a mistake. Get it and play it, but make sure you bring your steely eyed resolve with you.

A well constructed game; challenging and brutal but perhaps a little too vindictive for its own good.

3 Responses to “Limbo: a lesson in mortality”

  1. Xbox only… what is this!?

    December 24th, 2010
    • Yeh kinda sucks it’s only for 360, but it’s possible that it’ll gain enough popularity to be ported to other platforms.

      January 20th, 2011
    • Well, its now on PC and PS3. WOOHOO. Has been in the top 5 steam games for a good fortnight… Any news on differences between the platforms?

      August 13th, 2011

Leave a Comment