A young boy wakes up in a strange, dreary forest, alone. He doesn’t know where he is or how he got there, but he knows he cannot stay. With this simple premise, Limbo manages to spin one of the most gripping interactive stories ever told. Unencumbered by color, dialogue, or even traditional ‘characters’, it cuts straight to each and every players’ core interest: discovery.
Without any discernable characteristics, the boy is rendered as nothing more than a silhouette with eyes, a shadow self. Devoid of the features we often look for in our protagonists it’s easy to label the boy absent of personality, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure he’s small, with tiny legs and arms, but what you don’t see initially is his heart, nor his fragility. Not long into the journey you’ll see how delicate our hero is, as small gaps become death defying leaps and the seemingly ordinary can often prove fatal; what you’ll learn is this is the bravest kid you’ve ever met.
And you will care about him.
A large portion of your time within Limbo will be spent dying. Death in this case serves as an invaluable narrative mechanic and a necessary sign of caution. For nearly the entire course of the game the boy’s deaths are almost unbearable to watch: buzz saws will cut, spears will skewer and traps will decapitate. Each and every death reinforces the fragile nature of the child while strengthening our bond to him, and our desire to persevere, to see him survive. They also teach us to tread lightly and be aware of the environment; in Limbo, death isn’t so much a penalty as an actual consequence.
Along the way the boy will run into his share of tormentors, but it’s his surroundings themselves that consistently pose the most dire threats. Chapters in Limbo are populated with dozens of puzzles that don’t quite feel like puzzles. At one point you’re platforming and at another you’re pulling a crate, but these traditional concepts of gaming meld seamlessly into one; every jump requires as much thought as it does skill. Throughout the first two thirds of the game it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself stumped, as progress is often naturally discovered and solutions are always easier than they might appear to be.
While the forest provides the backdrop for the beginning of the boy’s accursed adventure, the journey will follow him through several equally bleak locales. Presented in black and white, Limbo creates an excursion into the unknown without any real chance of reprieve. Tall trees and buildings make the boy feel even smaller than he is while rain pours down to drown out any glimmer of hope. The atmosphere is tangible and almost tactile, at any moment everything could devolve from bad to much, much worse. This feeling, or mood, is punctuated by the sparse and haunting audio design. More often than not the muted sound effects of the boy will be the only real sound of note, but it paints this horrible, dreadful feeling of isolation; you and the boy are on your own. With little in the way of actual music, the few times Limbo injects some of its ambient drones into play really grab a hold of your attention.
The strangely beautiful effect of Limbo’s atmosphere is its ability to create empathy where it isn’t due; anyone or thing you encounter has to suffer this world as well. You will find yourself at ends with several ‘characters’ but you’ll never feel happiness or triumph when a victory has been obtained. Instead you’ll feel a sort of pity, a sadness that this dark, horrible place will have been their last.
Given the tragic nature of Limbo, the truly sad fact is some of its grim allure begins to waver by the final act. Inevitably the consequences of the boy’s deaths will begin to wander, which leads to a decreased need to be careful. Once that point is hit the appeal of the boy isn’t nearly as poignant, and if he dies just as horrifically in the beginning of the game as he does at the end of the game there’s no increased sense of regret. The puzzles also hit a wall where they begin to feel ‘puzzley.’ Where you once were arranging platforms intuitively, you’ll find yourself playing with water levels, and although it still won’t stump, it no longer feels quite like Limbo. The disappointment of the final act is punctuated by the games’ conclusion. With as sparse a narrative as there is an ambiguous ending seems fitting, but the final question posed feels like it undercuts the journey, along with that sense of discovery.
Limbo is a haunting, tragic experience that no one should miss. Some of its dark luster is soured by a few of its bold design choices, but neither of which ruin its resounding accomplishment. It is an emotionally gripping tale like no other, and is a defining example of interactive storytelling, a true showcase that couldn’t be replicated in any other medium.