In 1991, Eric Chahi, working by himself as programmer, artist, and designer, developed Out of This World - a haunting, moody, and cinematic game of nuanced environments - and told a story of unlikely friendship without a single line of dialog. Its sparse soundtrack, muted, bluish palette, and complex puzzles wrapped around simple controls made it one of the most artistically ambitious games of its time. Although many games in the genre followed, none shared its distinctive style.
Limbo arrives many years later as a spiritual heir to Chahi's masterpiece in the best possible way. Danish developer Playdead's freshman effort does not imitate Out of This World, but it successfully combines all of its best elements with a haunting style all its own, taking us through a strange and terrible world and telling a story without uttering a word.
From its opening moments, Limbo is immediately arresting.
From its opening moments, Limbo is immediately arresting. Its stark landscape of silhouettes shrouded in fog and film grain is evocative of the works of iconoclastic European animators like Lotte Reiniger and Yuri Norstein, and miles from any reference within the gaming medium. Its soundtrack is sparse, ambient, and barely there, providing little comfort
In contrast to the young boy that serves as its protagonist, Limbo's style is eerie, uneasy, and oppressively dark, as is its subject matter. At points in the game, the corpses of children not only litter the scenery, but are used in puzzles as flotation devices or platforms. Death will come frequently in solving the trial-and-error puzzles, and although there is no blood or gore, watching the boy be crushed, impaled, and decapitated is no less disturbing.
The designers have done an awful lot with a very limited gameplay concept. The boy can run, jump, climb, and push and pull objects. There are no weapons, nor indeed any means of attacking, nor any inventory or useable items. Using only the barest of gameplay mechanics, Playdead have created a dense game of unique puzzles that stay consistently interesting to the end, thanks to dynamic environments that continue to respond in surprising ways.
That end comes very soon, however. Like its spiritual ancestor Out of This World, Limbo can be easily conquered in less than three hours, and with its challenge mostly derived from trial-and-error puzzles, there is little incentive for immediate replay. With a $10 asking price, this is certainly no crime, but it is still an undeniably brief adventure. The new PC port adds nothing of note to the original, even lacking the basic control and video configuration options one would expect on the platform, but it hasn't lost anything in the translation either.
Limbo is a year old now, but for any who missed it on Xbox Live Arcade, it is simply a must-play. Although brief, it's a haunting, memorable, and fully realized adventure. As much of an art project as a game, it's the kind of title that will capture the attention of anyone in the room.