How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
The first sign of life is when his eyes light up. The little boy wakes up all alone in the midst of a dark, omnious forest. The only other light in this monochrome, nightmarish world comes from somewhere beyond the forest. A background glow, a contrast to the ever-present darkness, will be our companion until the end. You see the same light in his shining eyes, and it’s clear he’s not from this shadowy realm. Throughout the entire journey, I wanted to take the boy to that light. I wanted to bring him home.
It’s a puzzle platformer, but that description doesn’t come near to capture the feeling of playing Limbo. The levers and gears and traps are at the core of the game, but the atmosphere is just as important.
The game has a two sentence story, communicated through the Xbox Live description, but we do best in forgetting all about it and allowing the game experience to tell it’s own tale. A tale of waking up in a nightmare, a strange and fearful place, with the only goal of getting the hell out. A goal communicated by the traditional mechanic of going left-to-right, where going forward is the only measure of progress.
The progress is rewarded by a childlike sense of discovery. Although I would have liked to have longer stretches of it without interruptions by puzzles, the discovery feels somewhat like a twisted take on Hayao Miyazaki’s wondrous movies.
After a while the gloomy trees are replaced with other environments, but the forest is well above the others in mood and in how well integrated the puzzles are. That’s not to say that the early puzzles are the best (they get increasingly interesting the further you get), but unlike the later puzzles they’re not abstract and appears as natural parts of the environments.
The boy seems so fragile among towering trees and enormous spiders. But the slow pace, minimalistic audio and the sheer beauty of it all gives a strange sense of peace. Among all this darkness, all these harrowing situations, there’s a calm and perhaps even a sense of serenity.
When crushed, pierced, decapitated, squashed, the little boy does not scream or struggle. He just dies, illustrated by the light of his eyes fading to black. So while there’s tension, and fear, there’s no panic. The peace remains even as our avatar gets torn apart by a beartrap.
The many different deaths, drenched in a dark sense of humour, are funny – and they’re designed to be. You die often, time and time again. This could be frustrating, if it weren’t for the fact that the deaths themselves are entertaining, and because there’s hardly any death penalty. If you die, you will start again at an invisible checkpoint just a few moments away.
There’s a reason why they’ve approached death this way. You explore the boundaries of most puzzles by trying and dying. But it’s not tedious trial-and-error, as some has critized it to be. The deaths merely communicate the rules, and then it is up to you to solve the puzzle with the newfound rules as your tools.
We’re all different, but I experienced the puzzles as perfectly balanced. Once you’ve gone passed the early part of the game, each puzzle is a real challenge. It’s never too easy, and never too hard. Most puzzles were just about to become frustrating, when I saw the solution. Time and again, I found the solution in the right moment.
I have never seen that level of balance in a puzzle game, and neither have I encountered a similar atmosphere. If you haven’t played Limbo, you are missing out.