Limbo Analysis: Death is the Road to Awe.

Limbo has been out over a year now so there’s little reason to review it for its entertainment value. Besides, there are plenty of websites that’ll give you a score or grade for you to evaluate if that’s what you’re looking for. Instead, I’m going to try and explore what Limbo seems to say from a creative standpoint. You’ll never see a number or letter judging a game here so if that’s all you’re interested in you best try elsewhere. This is the exploration of gaming as an art form, so if that interests you read on. However, in order to be able to fully explore Limbo, I need to be able to discuss portions of it uncensored. So consider this your spoiler warning.

Right from the start Limbo has an amazing ambiance to it. It takes the art of minimalism and runs with it. No music, no color, no talking, no tutorial (the controls aren’t even explained unless you search the main menu), and a storyline you only discover via a Google search (he’s looking for his sister), the sheer breadth of interpretation the designers leave to the player is ocean-like.

This scene is simply 20 silent seconds of floating across water, punctuating the ambiance and layers of design that really shine through.

This is in such stark opposition to the typical game formula that it immediately pulls the gamer in simply out of curiosity to figure out what the fuck is going on. What you find, like I did, is that this game is brutally and disturbingly deceiving.

Within a single minute of playing I attempt to jump across a spiked pit and miss. There is no life counter, no cute Mario jingle, no, this nameless young boy impales himself on these spikes, his black silhouette goes limp, and his glowing white eyes, his only sense of character, go dark. I’m caught speechless.

The impact of his death hits me stronger then I’ve ever felt for a string of personable heroes. I soon find that dying in this game is the one true constant. You die horribly and unfairly, with trick levers, bear traps, buzz saws, and a spider all maiming this poor boy in horribly disturbing ways. The game always restarts itself with you not far from where you died, so this brutality clearly was an intentional move. With this in mind the games name, “Limbo,” starts to make sense.

The giant spider deserves special mention. The shaky, preditorial movement of its limbs, the reverb sound effect indicating its presence, and the swift kills that emit a shockingly loud sound when successful, create a horrifying monster whose only drawback is that it dies far too early. I happily say it made me jump in broad daylight more then once.

Death is undoubtedly the central theme to this entire game. Its ability to achieve this without the need for storyline is a testament to the thought put into the games design. The black and white layout not only create an already haunting look, but promote projection of our own perceptions onto both the scenery and the central character. This is what makes the deaths so disturbing. When the boy is stabbed while wrapped in the giant spider’s webbing at one point in the game, the webbing slowly starts to darken in blotches. The effect is not scary because of what we see, but what we imagine. Because the entire foreground is displayed in silhouette, not only do we project a sense of innocence onto the boy by his figure, but we also project the brutality of his demise when it occurs. Honestly, the more disturbing our minds imagine the death, the more disturbing it feels. This game promotes this kind of reflection throughout and its only hindrance is the dulling of the effect as you become accustomed to dying so many times. A remedy the designers use to counteract this is, create different ways to die.

Within death, there seems to be an echo of another theme; failure. Though we don’t really know what the kid is trying to do, we can assume he is trying to accomplish something. The number of times I died, the variety of ways it happened, and the cheep tricks sometimes implemented that will kill you unless you are ungodly perceptive only reinforced in me the idea that this boy’s quest, had this not been just a game, was not just unfair but horribly, horribly futile.

I cannot help but parallel this with tragedies that occur to striving individuals every day. The idea that life is unfair, that you don’t really get second chances, and when you fail it can be painfully brutal, all seem to be echoed in this game as I played through. One trophy in this game is to complete it in one sitting, dying no more then 5 times over the entire game. I say good fucking luck to someone shooting for this in the first, or even second playthrough. The only grace Limbo bestows upon the player is an infinite number of lives, which just reinforces the mirror that this game holds up to reality. It uses the writers creed of telling lies to reveal a truth.

While the first half of the game takes place in a forest, the second half takes place in an industrial city. The transition occurs smoothly and is never explained. The "HOTEL" sign is one of the most iconic pieces from this second half of the game. What the transition or pieces like this sign means is up to you, the player, to interpret.

Limbo’s strength really comes from its silence. By saying nothing, it allows the message of the gameplay itself to shine through. The symbolism of the spider, the tribesmen, and the progress from natural environments to industrial, and then back to nature, all resonate with players at their own personal levels. The ending is bizarre and strangely emotional, and for a moment scared me into thinking the boy was literally trapped in an otherworldly limbo that he could never escape. If Tim Burton ever made a video game, this would be it. The wonderfully designed puzzles and elegantly presented environment create a game you don’t so much play as experience.


Posted on July 23, 2011, in News, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This is game is amazing

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