Thursday 12 August 2010

Video Game Review: Limbo

It's not easy to stay friends with Microsoft.

Sure, on occasion, they publish kick-ass games, though their first- and second-party efforts are on the whole much less impressive than the competition's respective line-up. Microsoft has the FPS market cornered with Halo and Gears of War, but sadly, that's the extent of their dominance. And credit where it's due: from time to time they'll plow good money after bad into worthwhile projects that wouldn't otherwise see the light of day - see The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, erstwhile episodes from Liberty City that broadened the scope and honed the tone of Grand Theft Auto IV. And then there's Xbox Live Arcade. It mightn't be so relentlessly indie as PSN, yet XBLA has had its share of games-as-art essays - most notably Jonathan Blow's Braid; as well as a host of fantastic arcade experiences - Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2, Pacman Championship Edition, Trials HD, 'Splosion Man - and a litany of board game adaptations including Catan, Carcassonne and recent champion Risk: Factions, all of which I've spent longer playing than I'd care to admit.

For all that, though, Microsoft and the little guys just don't get on. It's been reported that they take such a sizeable cut on XBLA profits that they'd give Apple a run for their money. Smaller developers have repeatedly complained that Microsoft's certification process is simply too expensive for them to muddle through. There's the Indie Games space, granted, but as with fellow failed ventures Game Room and Games for Windows Live, it has so little momentum on its side it might as well be a tick on a spreadsheet of Groups We Should Be Seen To Care About in some fluorescent-lit corner of Microsoft's Redmond HQ. In short, Microsoft seems to be of the opinion that money can buy them anything: consumers, approval, third parties, exclusives... us.

But for three years, now, the Big Bad of the console war (as opposed to the Wii's red herring and the PS3's stalwart soldier) has put aside its usual moneyhat shenanigans to give five of the most promising XBLA games in development the full weight of their maniac marketing muscle. The annual Summer of Arcade has come to be something to look forward to, something to hoard away your MS points in anticipation of. Enter this summer's first contestant: 1200 of the best spacebucks I've ever spent. Enter Limbo.

The winner of not one but two consecutive awards at the Independent Games Festival, not to mention the associated funding and visibility, you'd think Limbo's journey to the digital marketplace would have been a simple thing. But in the indie gamespace, is it ever? It's been in full-on development for more than two years, though its initial concept dates back to 2004, to debut studio Playdead's game director Arnt Jensen. Add to that: they put Limbo together without a publisher in place. When the time finally came to get the game out the door, it could have been all for nothing.

Thankfully, Microsoft saw the potential in this noirish puzzle/platformer, and the canny tack Playdead took during development has paid off in spades. Limbo is thus a lean experience, a taut sirloin to the T-bone steaks of so many other XBLA and PSN games, whose publishers have insisted on such extraneous features as multiplayer, cut-scenes and hint systems. Playdead were having none of that nonsense. Nor did they dally with the likes of colour - Limbo is starkly black and white for the duration - or any notion of a narrative beyond the following, ripped from the game description on "Unsure of his sister's fate, a boy enters the unknown."

That's it.

You boot up the game and hit start. You wake up in the forest. How did you get there? It doesn't matter. Where are you going? Well... forwards - we've all played video games before, haven't we? Limbo gives you the world, nothing more, nothing less; make of it what you will. With a narrative so unspecific and a landscape so open to interpretation, it's a case of bring your own meaning. Is the boy dead? Is his sister his lover? (Perhaps that's just me.) Who are the silhouettes intent on impaling you on a pit full of spikes? And why is a terrifying spider with limbs like knives chasing you through the shadowy forest?

At around three hours from beginning to end, it won't take you long to find out. Treat Limbo like you would a movie: an evening's entertainment, undisturbed, with the lights down low and the volume on your amp pumped up as far as your neighbours will let you get away with. Play it in a single sitting, as I did. Some of Limbo's set-piece puzzles will baffle you, but persevere, for however lightweight the setup, an unexpectedly poignant denouement awaits you on the other side; a momentous moment, resonant with emotion, which serves to enrich the experience entire.

Now I could point to this thing or that - the spare and isolating sound design, the relentlessly monochromatic visuals, the atmospheric unknowableness of it all - but short of setting you down in front of Limbo to see (and feel) for yourself, it's difficult to quantify just how effective (and affecting) Playdead's haunting debut is. Limbo's lack of colour, narrative and so many of the other things we've come to expect from our video games gives it a deceptively unadorned appearance, yet Playdead's remarkable creation positively bleeds artistic intent. Everything, you feel, is in its right place: each sound effect and art asset serves a purpose, every mind-bending puzzle, play-tested to perfection, has a point. Limbo is one of those rare games that should come with a reset-brain toggle in the options. Would that I could experience it again, afresh...

Failing that, you must. Take my word for it: you owe it to yourself. If I can turn just a few players on to a downloadable game that they wouldn't think twice about otherwise, my work here is done. Sadly, it seems I'm working at cross-purposes with the world, because Limbo's potential has been tragically short-stopped by a single consideration. I'm referring, of course, to its unfortunate pricing. 1200 spacebucks (roughly £10 or $15 in mere mortal currency) is a lot to ask for a short game that rather lacks replayability; there's no question.

In quantitative terms, it's a rip-off most egregious - I paid less for Risk: Factions only a few weeks ago, and I must have sunk 30 hours into that one already. Qualitatively, though... let's just say I'd trade every moment I've spent invading Australia for another hour of Limbo. In fact, in retrospect, forget about a tenner or a day's worth of play - I'd gladly pay full retail price for it. If we're ever to get to a point where games can be considered as art in the same breath as books or movies, we need more games like this, and for that, we need the few such games which speak to the medium's tremendous potential to succeed. A vote for Limbo is a show of support for video games as a whole. You have to ask yourself: are you content with interminable annualised shooters and open-world offal or do you in fact give a shit? Take the hit and have your say or else we'll all end up paying for your mistake. Limbo is sublime, and all the argument one needs to win over a jury of your peers to the great gaming cause.

Simple. As. That.


  1. Sounds interesting - I do like this kind of gaming, much more compelling than Generic Shooter 3.

    Do we know if it's likely to reamin on XBLA only, or is a PC port in the offing?



  2. It's an XBLA exclusive for now, Richard - anything to fall under Microsoft's Summer of Arcade banner is at the very least a timed exclusive. Add to that the developers saying they've given a PC port the cold shoulder so as not to leave themselves open to piracy and it's starting to look rather like you either play Limbo on the 360... or you don't, at all. Damn shame.

  3. Oh... This makes me sad. On the other hand, may be further ammunition in my attempts to convince myself (and the wife) that an XBox is worth buying...