DEVELOPER/PUBLISHER/PLATFORMS: Playdead Studios/Microsoft Game Studios/Xbox 360
FUN FACT: Playdead partner Dino Patti claimed that during the development process, the team threw out 70% of the content they had developed for the title.
WHY WE'RE CO-SIGNING:
Video games, like sports, traditionally suffers from a late-summer dead zone. Between the spring's high-profile rollout (Red Dead Redemption, Super Mario Galaxy 2, etc.) and the early-holiday blockbusters of fall (Halo: Reach, Medal of Honor, etc.) there's a serious dearth of new shit. Sure, the very end of August sees Mafia II and Metroid Other M, but there's a long, hazy stretch of nothing between now and then. Filling that void for the third year, though, is Xbox's annual Summer of Arcade event, that quintet of downloadable $15 Xbox Live Arcade titles that's proven itself a breeding ground for cult classics. 2008 gave us Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 and Soulja Boy's favorite game, Braid, and last year included Shadow Complex and Trials HD—all of which were more genuinely enjoyable than the vast majority of $60 disc releases in a given year. This year, the Summer of Arcade kicked off with Limbo, and...well, wow. To be clinical about it, it's an intensely atmospheric puzzle-platformer, but there's so much more to it that we wish we could just say "play it, and thank us later." That's not much of a review, though, so let's try take a look at one of the most beautifully engrossing games we've played in a very long time.
If you've read the official description, then here's what you know: "Uncertain of his Sister's Fate, a Boy enters the unknown." If, like us, you just jumped right in, then all you know is you're a boy. That's it. You wake up—or possibly come to—on the ground in a meadow in a monochromatic world, blink, and stand up. From there on out, there are no answers. As you run (and jump and climb and float) through the game's many levels, things will happen, but you're not always even sure what. Everything is shrouded; the visuals are all gloom and haze and glare, and no one speaks. You're alone for vast stretches, and anyone or anything is either running from you or trying to kill you. There's not even music until a good half-hour into the game. The only noises are atmospheric: your own footsteps, the rustling of grass, the soft splash of a log floating on water, the thunk of a weight dropping to the ground, or the squishing organic noises of your own demise. Which, we have to say, are many and varied; you will die, and you will die many times. Playdead designed the game as a "trial-and-death" system, so it's rare to encounter a puzzle and survive/pass it the first time through. You'll be impaled, dropped, crushed, chainsawed, and otherwise punished until you can make it to the end, and the answers that may or may not await you there.
Check out the "Controls" section of the pause menu. Two buttons! One to jump, one to grab an object. Done and done. No triggers, no bumpers, no craziness. And by stripping away superfluous maneuvering, the game really allows the puzzle element to shine. Other puzzle games have been doomed by over-intricate solutions; there were points during last year's otherwise enjoyable The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom when so many steps needed to be linked together with such perfect timing that carrying out the solution overwhelmed the joy of figuring it out. In contrast, Limbo's minimalism means that that invaluable "eureka!" moment is is highlighted above everything. Once you've figured out what you need to do, the how doesn't get in the way. Sure, it may take a couple of tries, but you won't be throwing your controller because of it.
Beyond that, the game's narrative is cipher; much like the game's physical realm, the developers refuse to illuminate you beyond a certain point. Contextual clues will pop up here and there, and you'll develop a sense of what might be going on, but there's no way to know for sure. Nor does the ending necessarily bring resolution: much like the end of Inception, there's more than one way to read the game. Which leads to plenty of conversations, sober and otherwise.
Black and white can be sterile, or it can be emotionally resonant. Thankfully, this game lands squarely on the emotionally resonant side. The lighting (or lack thereof) is perfectly disorienting; when you stand still, the entire environment seems to pulse with darkness. Though it's not a horror or survival game in the conventional sense, this is a game meant to be played at night, in a dark room, with no sounds but the game to keep you company. It's an experience that hinges on total enshroudment: if you give yourself over to it, it'll reward you in ways you simply don't expect from a downloadable title.
Honestly, there's not a lot here that we had a problem with. The game clocks in around three hours, which for the $15 price may seem fairly steep, but everything is so well-crafted and compelling (and spooky), not to mention replayable—for the oh-wow experience if nothing else—that it seems like a bargain. No, it doesn't have the nine-digit budgets so many games are rumored to have, nor does it have crackishly addicting multiplayer. It's a small single-player experience, but what it does do is stay with you, actually raising questions about, y'know, life: Who we are, what happens to us, and what we have within us to keep us going through the uncertainty: There's tension, and sometimes terror, but always tenacity. This is a game, above all, that Roger Ebert needs to play. Yeah, we said it: Limbo is a work of art. And it reaches that status not through its gameplay or its graphics, but through the humanity that suffuses the entire experience.
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This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.