Version tested: Xbox 360
Limbo, the moody, monochromatic game that kicks off Xbox Live Arcade's Summer of Arcade this Wednesday, looks gorgeous. Any screenshot will tell you that, and playing the game drives it home. The developers, Playdead, execute their aesthetic - like a gloomy Eastern European animated short seen through misted glass - with beauty and consistency. The game's real success, however, is in refusing to be satisfied with looks alone.
Creativity thrives in limitations, and Limbo is rigorous in its self-imposed limits. It has no colour, no dialogue, minimal music, no cut-scenes, no on-screen health meters or other clutter. Yet you can't expect limitations alone to make your masterpiece for you. After cutting away the fat, the obligation is to use what remains as convincingly as possible. That's what Limbo accomplishes. The game steps back from audio-visual sensory overload so it has room to make inroads to other senses: a sense of wonder, say, or of compassion and vulnerability.
Microsoft's marketing materials say that Limbo is about a boy who's trying to find his sister, because marketers are paid to think in blurbs and back-of-box copy. The game itself is more ambiguous. I can at least confirm that you play as a boy, one who journeys across a 2D world, cutting through a forest, an abandoned city, and a malfunctioning factory.
There are few enemies to contend with (few that you can see, at least) so the challenge comes from solving spatial puzzles to advance farther down the path. You can jump, push crates, and pull levers from time to time. The puzzles do a marvellous job of magnifying those meagre abilities into grand feats like thwarting a giant spider or changing the flow of gravity.
As for finding your sister, well, that's the company line, but Limbo leaves your quest open to a broader interpretation. This is the story of a search for companionship. Limbo is about going by yourself to a strange place - a new country or a new job, maybe - with the hope and quiet panic of finding a kindred spirit. A girl makes a couple of appearances in the game; she doesn't strike me as someone you already know, but rather someone you ought to know.
Rare, brief encounters with other humans serve as emotional touchstones. Limbo pivots between joy and despair with devastating efficiency, such as when the silhouette of another boy lounging in a tree offers the promise of a new friend - and then you notice a little hand, dangling limp from what you realise is his slouched, long-dead body.
During one stretch, you come across a secretive gang of children (think Lord of the Flies) who lay out a series of booby traps as they retreat into their hideouts. I scrambled over these hazards in the naive hope that if I could just catch up with those kids, maybe we'd end up being pals. Listen, guys, we've all jumped past the rotting animal carcasses and battled the brain-control slugs, so can't we sit down and talk about it? No dice, which is no surprise. Living in a shadowy sorrow-scape has the tendency to give fear the upper hand over hospitality.
So all you can do is say goodbye and move on, and while this is a victory in terms of the game's rules, it's a painful one. Maybe your companion is out there, though, so you keep going.
Nowhere is this drive forward more stark than at a point where you must use another child's corpse as a footbridge over a pond. The other boy was just like you, except that he didn't make it, and you've still got a fighting chance. There's no "moral choice" that allows you to take a more easily digestible route. Nor does your character wring his hands in sorrow so that everybody watching knows what a sweet kid he is - there's not a single overwrought moment in this game. You simply drag the corpse to the spot where your feet need to go, and thus "win" this section.
Most of the puzzle-solving epiphanies are more delightful than that one. And while the challenges vary in difficulty, none of them are especially obtuse, thanks to Limbo's clear and concise visual language. Generous checkpoints are there to catch your every failure, so dying is relatively inconsequential. Which is not to say it's meaningless. Each death is framed with a two-second moment of silence. Yes, you're going to get up and keep moving ahead, but that one little version of the boy deserves his moment of mourning.
Because they weren't placed by a single all-important antagonist, each puzzle has a bit of implied back-story to it. Some of the obstacles are clearly set up with intent, like the gang's traps and a spider's sticky snare. Others are just part of the wasting world, like a hotel sign whose huge neon "H" buzzes with deadly electricity. Taken together, these pieces of history don't add up to anything specific; they haunt you with the outlines of a world that went down a gradual, inexorable path of decay.
The game only disappoints in its third act, which twists through a factory replete with buzzsaws and laser-triggered machine guns. Limbo feels like it's above those familiar genre gadgets, and for most of its three-hour playing time, it avoids them. The factory is a dissonant exception. To be sure, the game is engrossing to the finish, and it builds to a beautifully understated ending. In that last hour or so, it's just somewhat more standard.
The trouble is that Limbo strays from the personal touch at its soul. One of its sweetest surprises came in the first couple seconds of play. I hit the jump button, and when my character landed, the controller vibrated. It's mild, yet it says a lot. It says that this is just a boy, not a futuristic robot or a genetic-freak hedgehog, so when he hits the ground with both feet, he feels it. And you do, too, by way of a lopsided motor in the Xbox 360 controller. With one touch (literally), the black silhouette on screen struck me as a full-bodied person.
That's Limbo: a game that has very few humans, but a surplus of humanity.
9 / 10
Limbo is released this Wednesday, 21st July on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20 / €14.40).