Child VS. Spider

Limbo and Its Elegant Pace

For as much as I love a game that challenges and intrigues me, there are a lot of great ones I haven’t played.  One of them was Limbo, which I played in one sitting with a friend late at night.  It was a real shock to the system, because although Limbo is considered an indie smash hit, I’d seen very little about it.  Everything I encountered was essentially new to me.  All the puzzles, environments, and mechanics flowed together into a tight little package with a ribbon on top, waiting for me to open.

I found myself lost in it all very quickly.  And that’s a good thing.

Hanging cages and a crow
A crow and cages. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

As games get more complex, realistic, and creative, we both gain and lose a lot.  One thing we often lose is a sense of pacing.  Sometimes we’re introduced to a new tool in the middle of a game, and it gives us a controller cue to teach us how to use it.  Other times it takes a slow hour or two for a game to get really good.  There are plenty of moments in games where they do something…inconsistent.  And by this I don’t mean they do something different, or fresh, but something that takes us out of the experience.

To be fair, making a game that doesn’t run into these problems at some point is extremely hard.  They don’t necessarily make a game bad.  The reason I mention them is, Limbo is the closest I’ve seen a game come to having a perfect pace.

Limbo's dark landscape
Art of Limbo’s eerie dark landscape. (Photo: Angel Barreiros via Flickr)

There’s a lot of debate surrounding Limbo‘s meaning and message.  It has no dialogue, no clear-cut cast of characters.  Some suggest that it’s the story of a murderer, of the afterlife, of the struggle between light and darkness.  The very name of Limbo suggests the theme of purgatory, a merging of all things into one silent world.  In this world, conflict has no clear meaning; characters have no faces, and death is only temporary (a truth you learn over and over again).  As I wandered through the grayscale landscape solving one brilliant puzzle after another, there was no obvious transition between places.  I remember being in the forest, in a mine, and in a factory, but not the order in which I found them.  It’s as though Limbo doesn’t have a beginning, middle, or end, and that feels appropriate.

Hangman
The nameless child stands surrounded by countless dead. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

The endless stream of symbols, solving puzzle after puzzle to reach an unknown goal, almost put me in the mind of the little silhouetted child I was controlling.  The only difference was the immense satisfaction I felt, conquering increasingly tougher, more mind-bending challenges.  When it all finally ended, it took me a while to come back into the real world.  It felt like I’d ended where I’d started, and even in the moments when I was stuck on a puzzle, I never felt fully conscious of everything outside the game.

The rain machine puzzle
The great rain machine. (Photo: mr. hasgaha via Flickr)

Instead, my full attention was on how to get a floating box in exactly the right place for me to reach a high ledge, or how to time my rope swing to get away from a giant saw blade.  Limbo is a master class in doing a whole lot with a clever approach and a creative vision.  It’s so simple, it doesn’t need to follow traditional rules.  It challenges not only the structure of puzzle games, but also our preconceptions of what games can say narratively, using the themes of death, darkness, and the afterlife as its tools.  To whoever reads this, go experience this game for yourself, and make sure it’s late at night.

Its creators, Playdead, repeated their brilliance with their latest game Inside, and I’d say check it out.