What you Don't Know Will Kill you… Twice
HIGH Every moment a spider is on the screen.
LOW A puzzle near the end that relies on a blind jump.
WTF The danger-free puzzles feel like they belong in another game.
Children do not have a permanent understanding of the world. They know so little, and must learn so much, that their whole view of reality gets rewritten daily, and sometimes hourly. Adults romanticize this experience with phrase such as "childlike wonder," but in their hearts most of them find the prospect of returning to that state horrifying. They engage in a perpetual quest for easy certainty, from holy books and ancient wisdom and whatever expert confirms their biases. Limbo exists to return them to that time of childlike terror.
Limbo possesses very few constant rules. The only actions the player can perform, at least initially, are running, jumping, and grabbing. Getting the little boy who stars in the game to progress relies on using the environment, which has an ever-shifting set of dangers. The rules that govern these threats change constantly, sometimes within a single screen, and demand a full understanding before you can move forward.
The game upends almost every rule imaginable, including the laws of physics. Gears slide together and start rotating the world, and gravity gets reset to point upwards or sideways. The game occasionally even seizes control of the boy's movement, stripping away what few powers the player has.
Can we criticize Limbo for making the player die over and over, for failing to instruct the player about its own rules so he can make it through unharmed? In short, does Limbo make cheap kills? Surely it does, and for the same sin we can also criticize pleasantly textured choking hazards and fun-to-touch electrical sockets and cleaning fluid that looks just like blue raspberry Gatorade. But there is a rule to all these things: the world is full of danger. That's Limbo's rule, too.
The experience of childhood terror encoded in the game's mechanics is complemented by the game's fantastically creepy atmosphere, about which Brad wrote eloquently in his review. The dark and mysterious visuals are at their best early in the game, however. As the player progresses, the symbols onscreen become less powerful, reaching their nadir when the game introduces laser-activated gun turrets. The danger here feels too literal, less fantastic and childlike than the giant spiders and weird tribesmen that inhabited the early game.
The late game commits another sin too, in that the player is granted too much power. Giant switches give the player control over the world's gravity, and while this makes for some reasonably interesting puzzles, they're often missing the element of danger that made the earlier segments cerebral and visceral experiences. Many of the puzzles in the last half of the game are too dry and frustrating, given how little they serve Limbo's central ideas. The very end of the game rescues itself by taking back its control of gravity and making sure that every puzzle has its perils, but in a sense this is too little, too late. The spell has been broken; the player has been reminded of his potential for mastery.
Although it goes astray when it empowers the player, in its best segments Limbo successfully conveys the disorienting and threatening qualities of childhood. Its world is a perilous place, full of hidden dangers, and governed by rules that seem impossible to understand. Do you remember what that feeling was like?
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail download and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 10 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains animated blood and mild violence. The main character, a child, suffers many gruesome deaths, but they're all rendered in silhouette.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Some puzzles have audio cues that are essential or extremely helpful, so the difficulty will be increased for players who have trouble hearing. There is no dialogue.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.