I’m currently hooked on an Xbox Live Arcade game called Limbo. When I saw a teaser trailer for this game, my first thought was “I must buy this.” Developed by Playdead Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark, and released exclusively for the Xbox 360, Limbo has garnered almost universal praise for its striking design aesthetic and unusual approach to gameplay. No other game looks like this. It bears a strong resemblance to silent cinema of the early 20th century, especially the German expressionist style, with its shadowy forbidding landscapes and eerily luminous skies. Picture the films of F.W. Murnau — Nosferatu, Faust, The Haunted Castle — and you’re in the right neighborhood. Limbo takes place in a flickering, grainy, black-and-white world. It’s a world that I’ve been drawn into, again and again, for the past several weeks.
The game is deceptively simple — at first. You awaken in a forest. The character you control is a little boy, depicted in silhouette, with a pair of glowing white eyes. None of the familiar tokens of video games are visible: no health bar, no weapons or ammo, no onscreen text to tell you what to do. Using three basic controls — the thumbstick to move, a button for jump and climb, and a button for grabbing and interacting with objects — you’re left to explore the environment, which will quickly prove to be just as weird and threatening as it looks.
Your objective is to move forward, avoiding or removing obstacles that lie in your path. Doing so requires manipulating the environment and the objects in it. Some obstacles are simple and easy to overcome; others are complex and call for experimentation, creativity, and lateral thinking. Limbo is, at its foundation, a platform/puzzle game, but its approach to the genre is unconventional. There is nothing cute here. There is nothing sexy here. One of the first things you’ll encounter is a corpse, swarmed by flies. And soon after that, you’ll encounter your death. Yes, the little boy will die, over and over, and in the most gruesome ways imaginable. He — which is to say, you — will be decapitated, drowned, crushed, torn to pieces, and run through with spikes. In fact, there are many puzzles that will be practically impossible to solve without trial and error, which in Limboland means “doing something crazy, just to see what will happen.” Most times, what will happen is that you’ll plunge headlong into the arms of the Grim Reaper. But unlike most games, you won’t be punished for doing so. There’s no “game over” screen. You’re not sent back to the beginning of the level or some distant save point. Death is but a learning experience here. In the blink of an eye, you’ll be reincarnated at the same puzzle where you met a grisly fate, so you can give it another go. If a puzzle proves to be particularly difficult, it helps to take a moment to remind yourself that all of the tools to allow you to progress are present in the environment. You just have to figure out how to use them.
I won’t mention anything more about the encounters you’ll have and the obstacles you’ll face. That would spoil the sense of discovery that is one of the rewards of the game. I’ll just conclude by saying that Limbo is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It haunts my thoughts. Check out the game trailer and see if it doesn’t hook you in, too: