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Emmett Reviews Limbo

June 9, 2012

I have a bit of a hate-on (like a hard-on, but with razors attached) for the ‘dark is artistic’ school of thought. By which I mean, making something shocking, depressing or otherwise unhappy does NOT (in my not-at-all-humble opinion) make it better. That’s not to say I dislike darkness in my media. The Wire is so good mainly BECAUSE of its depiction of human misery, the pointlessly cruel ending of The Mist was the most memorable thing about that movie, and I love murdering hitchhikers in my basement as much as the next man.

But for something to be truly good, there has to be a thematic point to all the tears. Otherwise you’re just crudely wringing an emotional reaction out of the audience, like a poorly-paid immigrant in a haunted house going ‘ooga booga booga!’

This plagues video games particularly badly – Dead Space, Gears of War and Call of Duty are all guilty of making awful things happen, not because it enhances the atmosphere or the plot of the games, but because it makes the player wince instinctively. I’ve had handjobs from industrial milking machines that are more sensitive.

So, by all rights, I should actively dislike Limbo. Mechanically, it’s a simple side-scrolling platformer without much of a story at all. It distinguishes itself only by featuring a cute, 10-year-old boy as the protagonist, and then killing him as often, as graphically and shockingly as possible.

But,”‘look before you leap, prudence before prejudice and don’t judge noir indie platformers before you give them a few hours of your time”, my mother used to say (rarely). So I booted up Limbo and gave it a shot. And if you have any sense of narrative flow, you see where this is going.

Yes, Limbo is very good.

Don’t misunderstand me – it’s still a 2D platformer without dialogue, text or even much of a soundtrack. You’ll finish it in around 4 hours if you can use a keyboard without accidentally choking on the keys, or longer if you’re me. This isn’t Half-Life or Skyrim. Like its protagonist, Limbo is a quiet achiever.

First, the actual game. Cut away everything else, and Limbo is about moving from the left side of the screen to the right without dying. It does that very well – I never felt cheated by the controls or the interface. There’s very little N-style challenge here. The game doesn’t call on you to time your button-presses too precisely, and the checkpoints are fairly merciful. Instead, like Portal, you have to think out the various puzzles of the environment, and position the various crates, bear traps and corpses (dark, remember) in a way that will let you progress, and won’t viciously remove your spine.

Because Limbo will kill you. Not because it’s ‘hard’, but because it’s sneaky. It baits you, convinces you to just step a few paces further forward, to stand underneath that machine gun. I remember one moment very vividly – there’s an industrial stomping press over your head, and a raised section of floor underneath it. If you try and avoid the raised section of floor, BAM! It stomps you. If you avoid the ‘ordinary’ floor underneath the trap, you’re safe. I got a chuckle out of that.

Then five seconds later, there was another industrial stomping press. And the pattern was reversed.

You’ll die, a lot. Which leads me nicely into my next segment: the atmosphere, the story, the emotions. The ‘dark’ I mentioned above. If you couldn’t tell from the name, Limbo takes place in a bleak, oppressive world. The game is black-and-white, with most objects being solid black silhouettes, and a gentle grain filter laid over it all. You pass from a surreal, haunted forest through a soot-slicked Victorian factory to some twisted combination of the two. It’s all very beautiful, in a minimalist way.

‘Minimalist’ – another usually-reviled word that Limbo turns to its advantage. There isn’t much of a soundtrack, but the subtle aural cues tell you all that you need to know, and give you that little emotional tweak to make you a little bit afraid of the dark. There isn’t a story in the conventional sense – no dialogue, no text, only one cutscene at the very end. Like Valve’s oeuvre, Limbo tells its tale through the environment, with –

Wait, for a moment there I almost sounded like a credible reviewer. Let me back up a bit:

Limbo’s soundtrack is the musical equivalent of a broken radio playing in a cancer ward.

Limbo makes water as scary as spiders, and spiders as scary as murderous clowns, with knives, without pants.

There, I feel better.

In all seriousness, this game is a triumph of jigsaw-piece storytelling. The developer spends five hours tweaking the music, adjusting the grain filter and carefully drawing the silhouettes of dead children, and by the end of it you’re intensely, emotionally involved in what is pretty much Saw: Shadow Puppet Edition.

The ending is also subtly clever. There are a lot of potential interpretations, a lot of things to get you thinking, and most of them will make you need a hug.

So, yeah. Buy Limbo. It won’t rock your world or change your life (I’m here for that, ladies), but it will make you use your brain, and your heart.

Oh, wait – cancel that. You don’t need to buy it.

That’s right, until the 14th of June 2012, Limbo is available in the Humble Indie Bundle. You pay what you want, from $1 to $50, and you get Limbo, Bastion, Amnesia: Dark Descent, and Sword &Sorcery. And your money goes to charity.

Yes, that was all true. Apparently game designers are lovely people, who missed the whole ‘greed’ course we all got at Business U. If you love games, if you love capitalism, if you love watching small boys get skewered by the spiky hammers of an unfeeling universe… go to humblebundle.com and pick it up.

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