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.