This installment of Mood Pieces is about LIMBO, originally an Xbox Live Arcade puzzle-platformer from Playdead Games that is now out on PlayStation 3 and Steam – and which manages to be the scariest game I’ve played in ages.
I used to be a big horror movie fan, right up to the point of oversaturation when they stopped being scary, and I started just admiring the elements of the story. Games have had even harder time really frightening me, since mostly horror games are just about the gore. Aliens vs. Predator caused some truly epic jolts and startles, Silent Hill 2 had great atmosphere (although the gameplay mechanics killed it for me), Siren: Blood Curse had an awesome atmosphere in the beginning, and then there are a couple of more exceptions, which are a matter of future Mood Pieces.
But a platformer which many people called the scariest and most anxiety inducing game in years? What’s going on in here?
I generally hate platformers (since I suck at them), and especially puzzle platformers (since I suck at them even more), but LIMBO managed to hook me from the minute one. The backstory isn’t brought up in the game itself at all, which is sort of a shame, and a mistake in my opinion. I read the story somewhere before playing the game, I think it was some of the early marketing materials. In any case, LIMBO is about a young boy waking up on the edge of hell and going to rescue his sister. In the beginning of the game the player character wakes up in a field of grass, gets up and off he goes without further explanations.
What struck me like a brick on the forehead was the art design of the game. LIMBO is done exclusively in grainy, flickery black and white that fades with the distance and towards the edges of the screen. All the active elements are black or dark gray silhouettes, with bright white spots for eyes, and the world is filled with dark and threatening shapes – be it trees, a ruined city or an insane factory. There are giant insects that manage to be disturbing in very non-obvious ways in a game context, and sparingly used human characters who mostly just run away or attack the player. The overall mood brings to mind both film noir and German expressionism, and it ends up being extremely bleak, threatening and dismal.The feeling of skirting the edges of hell – and not a cartoony place of fire, horns and hooves but something truly dismal – is palpable.
The game has no background music, except for some noiseish ambient sounds now and then, which makes the functional sound effects, which consist of footsteps, thumps, clanks and so on, stand out from the oppressive silence in a threatening way.
Gameplay-wise LIMBO works really well. Apparently the developers called LIMBO a “trial and death” game, which is horribly true. The player ends up seeing that little Calvin-like boy getting decapitated, speared by the sharp limbs of a giant spider, electrocuted, crushed and what have you dozens of times during a playthrough.
The player character can jump and push and pull items, and that’s about it. The puzzles don’t repeat themselves and the selection of elements is pleasantly wide: ropes, gravity, electricity, stacking things, moving platforms, etc. I mentioned in the beginning that I suck at games like these, but in spite of that I made good time with LIMBO – not because it is easy, but because the puzzles were… well, just kind of functional, and didn’t generally require split second actions done perfectly correctly. Nevertheless I had to play the game in three goes because of getting frustrated at a puzzle, and not wanting to spoil the mood. In the very end I resorted to a walkthrough.
Some critics have complained that the ending of the game was abrupt and hence bad, but… well. They are just simply wrong. When you pay attention to stuff, this was the perfect ending for this game.
LIMBO is another example of a game where the art design was a far more important point for me than the actual gameplay. With the same admittedly excellent mechanics, a different backstory and candy coloured graphics I couldn’t have been arsed to even try it. Now, with the dark, grainy and downright terrifying art style, it’s one of the most atmospheric games I’ve encountered in years, and scary to boot – in that certain oppressive, ominous and totally bleak style of an anxiety dream, which makes you wake up into a new day feeling glad of all the light and colour in the waking world.
For those of you who are interested in the game but don’t want to actually play it, check out Orcidea‘s playthrough in eight parts, starting here: