Between heaven and hell
by Jack Kentala
My ex-Catholic dad once explained the concept of purgatory to me. He summarized it as “a grey waiting room to get into heaven.” The idea stuck with me. I embellished upon it, especially when my grandmother was convinced my grandpa was stuck there after he died. I imagined him sitting in a very uncomfortable chair, next to a loudly-crying baby, with some white noise piped in through some speakers at an absurd volume. And as my grandmother put it, he had to wait there until the Rapture which, according to her, wasn’t going to happen for a while.
Danish game developer studio Playdead has a very different idea of purgatory. In their debut title, LIMBO, a young boy travels through a wasteland in search of his sister. The title alone suggests that the game occurs “in limbo,” which is often considered the same as purgatory. But while my version was simply very, very annoying, the proto-afterlife of LIMBO is a deadly place.
The game’s look is instantly iconic. The visuals are either black, white, or a shade of grey, and in the foreground and background are hazy, out-of-focus scenery, flickering like an old German silent film. This establishes an immediate immersion, as does the simplicity of the game’s mechanics. LIMBO is a 2D puzzle-platformer, and the only actions are walk, run, jump, and grab. There is no heads-up display. There are no superimposed markers to denote new areas. It’s one seamless experience in one seamless world.
The puzzle elements of LIMBO are integrated in the world depending on the location. At the game’s start you find yourself in an overgrown forest, and the first obstacles are bear traps you have to drag apart to jump safely over. One false step results in triggering the jaw’s deadly clamp, leaving you impaled and decapitated. Fortunately, the game generously grants checkpoints very close to the spot of death, allowing a penalty-free do-over. This is how the lion’s share proceeds in a game. I’ll rip off another review and say it’s less trial-and-error and more like trial-and-death.
The game is divided roughly into two parts for its fairly-short runtime. (It took me, a self-described supergamer, about four hours to complete on my first try without consulting any walkthroughs. I’ve played it six times in less than a week, and my average completion time is around 55 minutes.) The beginning takes place in the aforementioned forest, as well as some hilly terrain, and in some damp caves. What marks this half are distant human figures in the background who try to kill you at every encounter.
This is actually a point of contention among reviewers. While playing the game yields no story, and Playdead only offers that you’re in search of your sister (who appears twice as a silhouette most have claimed is tending a garden, but who I think is mourning over a grave), many wish there was an explanation of these murderous natives. Since they deftly navigate the terrain, I see them as the inhabitants of purgatory, and your presence is quite simply a matter of trespassing. And that, naturally, warrants death.
The puzzles in this section of the game seem much more organic than what occurs in the second half. After your last encounter with the natives, you go on to explore a derelict factory and a sort of ghost town. These seem quite out-of-place in the otherwise all-natural world, and the puzzles share this man-made quality. While the early game involved dodging traps set by the natives, platforming across dangerous terrain, and (the game’s highlight) an epic, multi-stage encounter with a giant spider, the latter game resorts to game-design tropes involves switches, crates, moving crates onto switches, and a few inexplicable total reversals of gravity. After such a fluid intro, the uniqueness of LIMBO seems to fade and lean on old standards of the platforming genre.
It’s unavoidable to compare LIMBO to fellow 2D puzzle-platformer Braid, which came out two years ago on Xbox Live Arcade. Braid dealt with the manipulation of time, and upon your first death, the screen froze and highlighted the button that reversed time. Upon pressing it, your actions reversed, and you could navigate to any point before your death. It made sense for the story, and it was an unique take on death in videogames, which often makes no narrative sense. LIMBO doesn’t have as elegant a solution. When you die, it’s either from player error or ignorance of unforeseen traps. The deaths are violent – you can get crushed by something heavy, ripped to shreds by a sawblade, electrocuted, or simply fall too far – but the lack of connection with the main character and the instant respawn gives them no consequence. The playable young man is simply a black outline and two white orbs for eyes, and when I see him get maimed or killed, I don’t find it as emotionally disturbing as it is visually gruesome.
The second half of the game also provides no narrative, whereas the first, at least, had you running from a spider and outwitting the natives. In the factory and town, you’re up against inanimate objects, and they hold no personal grudge against you. The puzzles, at worst, are dull, whereas a game like Braid sometimes got to a point of frustration that made it feel you were playing an interactive IQ test instead of an entertaining platformer. And while both games are equally stylized – LIMBO as a monochrome haze, Braid as an impressionistic painting – LIMBO fails to use the environment to tell the story, whereas Braid’s landscapes became more and more hellish as the game progressed. To its fault, Braid’s end was mired in empty symbolism, high concepts that didn’t work, and sheer pretentiousness. On the other end of the spectrum is LIMBO, which is totally open-ended for meaning.
Overall, there are few games available like LIMBO (I’ll give the obvious nod toward Ico and Shadow of the Colossus), and despite its shortcomings, it’s one of the truly original contemporary games worth playing. And, in my case, playing it over and over and over again.
(LIMBO is available through the Xbox Live Marketplace for about $15.)