The video game Limbo is an incredible place to explore. No, not because you get to snuggle all the unbaptized babies…I’m not talking about that limbo, but the new puzzle-platformer from neophyte designers Playdead, coming to the Xbox 360 as part of the Summer of Arcade, Microsoft’s annual showcasing of downloadable titles. Summer of Arcade is one of the best arguments there is for owning a 360—previous years have brought us classics like Braid, Castle Crashers, and ’Splosion Man—and Limbo firmly secures its place among the system’s best.
We often talk about games in terms of challenges, as things to beat. But there are lots of games that are enjoyable as much for the world you inhabit as for what you do there. Limbo drops you down with no indication of story (even the fragment of narrative suggested by the game’s catalogue description is nearly invisible in the game itself). But it offers something better than a story: an experience. There’s plenty of bits that are engaging as challenges, but what stays with you is the game’s uncanny world, full of mysterious machinery, glowing earwigs, and silhouetted inhabitants who flee from eye contact.
In every aspect, Limbo is characterized by elegant, suggestive minimalism. The visuals are presented in stark, eerie black and white, with subtle texturing, fog, and lighting. The sound is equally cunning in its understatement, as enemies don’t emit standard monster shrieks, but radiate David Lynch-like rumbles and thrums, with faint industrial noises and floating tones drifting in from the background. The dominant aesthetic principle is removal, both visually and aurally: The game frequently derives maximum shock value by taking sounds out, as when a swarm of flies make a penetrating buzz but a boulder crushes your head in chilling silence.
That same elegant minimalism defines the gameplay. You use one stick to move, and two buttons for jump and “action.” From that simple control scheme, the designers generate one clever puzzle after another. Most of them are standard “How do I get to that ledge?,” but the ways you’ll get up include gravity manipulation, insect dismemberment, and inviting a parasite to chew through your skull. A genre purist might argue that the game compromises its essential puzzle-ness by making some of the encounters depend on both lateral thinking and precision timing, but who likes genre purists anyway? For me, the puzzles were just hard enough to be challenging but never so hard as to be frustrating, which means that hardcore puzzle fans might find it all a little too easy. But even for those who breezed through brain-crushers like Klonoa, Limbo is still worth playing through just to see the creativity on display.
It’s true that the arty puzzle-platformer is starting to become a saturated market, what with games like Braid or Closure carrying out a lot of the same atmospherics-plus-pondering effect (indeed, Closure is arguably denser with original gameplay mechanics). But where Limbo excels is aesthetic polish; the folks at Playdead aren’t the first to cover this terrain, but they bring a sense of visual atmosphere and narrative rhythm that’s almost unequaled. Fifteen dollars for three-to-five hours of play might seem—might be!—a little steep, but for such a perfect gaming experience, it’s MS points well spent.