Limbo: Big-headed children, scary worlds and theory of the indie darling
Updated: Jul 21
Limbo is what many call an Indie darling. Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw famously created the theory of guaranteed success on the indie market. He described the formula as thus: A big headed small child in a scary world with an overarching theme of loss of innocence (optional). Limbo is indeed the former but not much of the latter (the lack of story is somewhat of a hindrance for me).
It was included in many end of year game rewards (including the now defunct Spike games awards) and is loved by many a critic including Yahtzee Crowshaw. He would place it 5th in his 2010’s best games video. I can respect Limbo as it is a great game (make no mistake) but it’s not one of my favourites. I hope to explain why, but please don’t think that I criticising Limbo because it is so beloved. All I am doing is simply being honest.
I would like to quote from Limbo’s premise (Taken from the steam store page) “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo..” That does sound like an interesting premise, full of possibilities for themes, analysis. Obvious inspirations to Dante Alighieri’s The Devine Comedy aside, Playdead could have used that premise to examine the edge of hell though the perceptive of a child. The problem is that Playdead have not really...done that.
There is a significant lack of context in the game from start to finish. We just wake up in the dark forest and start walking, neither motive nor character established. You just keep walking until the game ends. The boy has no personality or reaction to any of the horrible things that want to kill him. He just runs though a gauntlet of traps worthy of a Saw film until it all ends with an ambiguous ending. The lack of context makes the ambiguous ending rather mute as there is so little in terms of character, story and motivation. The result is a game that does not offer much in compelling narrative.
However that is not Limbo does not have themes within its (story?) The theme of insignificance is a powerful theme within the game. You are a child trapped in a towering forest/industrial complex that is trying to kill you all the time. An insect at the lowest rung of the food, where even other insects are trying to eat you. Insects are a perfect motif for insignificance, chiefly designed to be used then discarded. Such examples of this would be (after the spider is defeated) you have to pull off its legs and roll its body onto spikes to pass. A giant spider is just as insignificant as the child that outwitted it. A means to an end in the endless fight for survival in the industrial nightmare.
All this and dying
You will die a lot in Limbo. Drowning, crushed to death in gears, shot by machine guns are one of many ways the boy can and will die. The world does not care about you; those who do care about you only do so in order to eat you. This theme creates a highly effective atmosphere of oppressive hopelessness for a while. However eventually the atmosphere stops being effective (at least for me), once the spider has gone.
The game turns into a sequence of overly gruesome physics puzzles. There is no overarching threat or reason to care about the boy as there is no personality to be had. I was just controlling a puppet, a human sized ball with no motivation to keep walking apart from the game telling me to. Unlike other games with a strong continual atmosphere (System Shock 2, Outlast or Soulsborne games) Limbo is too abstract to give me a reason to care for the child or his supposed quest to find a sister that is never introduced, mentioned or hinted at in game.
As games go Limbo is rather simple in gameplay. There is the jump, run, and interact mechanic, that is all. However (as I have said in articles past) a basic control scheme allows for some finely polished gameplay. Limbo uses these three base mechanics as the basis to build new scenarios. The Boy goes from pushing boxes to jump on ledges to manipulating gravity. Limbo does not remain static with its puzzles and is all the more compelling as a result.
Limbo’s difficulty curve is rather interesting; there is a curve indeed by the aforementioned escalation of puzzles design. But the solutions themselves rarely go past easy to moderately difficult. I breezed past large sections of the game. Before getting stuck due to some rather tricky steps or platforming challenges that have to be performed under pressing (sinking rooms etc). The puzzles are only ever deceptively hard. Gameplay is smooth and well polished. But has something of a confusing difficulty curve.
Limbo as 2d side scroller is stereotypical linear. Once one puzzle has been sold there is no reason to stay or go back. This is good as pacing is maintained. Insuring that (considering how short the game is) that it never outstays its welcome or pads itself out. I enjoy a game that does not waste my time and Limbo is very respectful of time. There are some eggs (?) things that are scattered in some moderately hard to reach places. There is no reason to collect them asides from 100% completion’s sake. Its fine for what it is but not really outstanding.
Graphics and art style:
Limbo’s visual style is strong, haunting and memorable. The monochrome colour pallet presents an oppressive world that is wonderful in its utter hostility. As a result of a clear consistent art style it is very easy to know where to go and what looks like what. Character and monster design is striking as well, the boy is an instantly recognisable figure, the spider as well as superb in its design. Horrific in its simplicity, you feel its presence from the very moment it is introduced. It is imposing and disgusting in ways those only good giant spiders can do well.
Limbo runs smoothly with a consistent frame rate. There are no glitches to be found. The only flaw that occurred was a momentarily freeze. The audio sometimes freezes in a repetitive beat for some reason.
Limbo is a good game; I most certainly do not regret my time with it. But it sadly does not inspire much more than an enjoyable time. I wish I could love it as much as some people have done so. Truly I would love to adore this game. But all I can muster is a shrug. It’s a good game but little more than that for me.