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Why Limbo is one of the greatest games ever made

We talk a lot about immersion and narrative in video games these days. We bolster our claims of gaming’s newfound artistic maturity by waving around our shiny high-def graphics with their millions of lifelike light beams. We point proudly at our lengthy cut-scenes written by that guy from that TV show that used to be hot.

But that misses the point. The truly important artistic steps for gaming don’t come from the works which backwardly ape cinema. They come from the ones which experiment with gaming’s uniqueness as a medium and strive to find a new creative language of their own.  And there have been few more successful games in that respect, in mainstream circles at least, than Limbo.

Limbo is a game which tells you nothing on a literal or intellectual level, but which in instinctive, emotional terms makes you understand more than you will ever be able to verbally communicate to another human being. It operates on the same level that vivid and uncomfortable dreams do; all shifting shapes, abstract moods, and primal visions which profoundly claw at your being before slipping away into the tangible nothingness of the world’s backdrop.

By the end of Limbo you won’t be able to tell anyone exactly what happened, but on a personal level you’ll understand exactly what you’ve just experienced. Limbo’s significance stays with you in the same way that a nightmare nags at your waking mind with an important, half-forgotten truth the morning after it lets you go.

How does it do this? By blending empathy, terror, and redemptive catharsis into one indivisible mass. Limbo expertly trades on the most core of human fears – of death and the unknown– from its tentative opening moments to the underplayed profundity of its final seconds. Limbo’s stark, desaturated color palette is no mere aesthetic gimmick. It’s fundamental to the nature of its emotional journey. Limbo, you see, is not a game about exploration, confrontation and domination, as the vast majority of the works we play through are. Limbo is about edging through the endless pitch darkness of the cellar with fingertips outstretched, reaching with equal likelihood for the salvation of a familiar shape or the damnation of an unknown set of jaws.

Most horror games lose their scare factor once the player has become familiar with the opposition and the game mechanics used to overcome it. At best they’ll maintain the adrenalin past that point with jump-scares and cheap difficulty increases. And that’s because most horror games deal with a known external threat. Instead, Limbo deals in internalized fear, by keeping the player in the same unknowing state of fearful exploration throughout.

Any of the ambiguous shapes in Limbo’s darkness could be anything at all. And thanks to the game’s reluctance to re-use any of its elements without meaningful evolution or subversion, there’s never any way to find out except to take that brave step forward, teeth gritted, and pray that your fingers feel a light switch instead of warm breath. Some have come to criticize the game for this, trying to make sense of it via the traditional rules of a standard platform game, but to do so is deeply misguided.

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26 comments

  • AlbVega - August 1, 2012 12:04 p.m.

    Braid is better
  • wingsdjy - August 1, 2012 2:16 p.m.

    I like Braid, but the creator annoys me.
  • taokaka - August 1, 2012 4:02 p.m.

    agreed.
  • ncurry2 - August 1, 2012 12:11 p.m.

    Beautifully written as always, Mr. Houghton. I had never even considered the scenery as showing the journey from child to adulthood but I really like that. Limbo is pretty great.
  • thewonderfulwick - August 4, 2012 7:16 a.m.

    Given limbo is where children/toddlers/babies/fetuses (perhaps) who had not been baptised went surely if the game shows the journey from childhood to adulthood then it is extremely badly named.
  • Darkhawk - August 1, 2012 12:51 p.m.

    I look forward to your take on "Journey".
  • Moondoggie1157 - August 1, 2012 12:52 p.m.

    I usually agree with you and your articles, Dave. But this time I'm gonna have to disagree... Mind you it's based on my personal perspective of Limbo, I couldn't get through an hour before getting bored... But hey, great articles nonetheless.
  • steve-randall - August 1, 2012 1:52 p.m.

    seriously? the game was over fast and had zero re-playability. sure it looked nice but best game ever made? dude, check your head.
  • BaraChat - August 1, 2012 2:40 p.m.

    It's undoubtedly one of the best experiences you'll ever get from a videogame, and it's easily one of the 5 best download-only (along with Outland, Journey and such) games of this generation. But one of the best games ever? I wouldn't go there, although it's pretty easy to see why someone would.
  • taokaka - August 1, 2012 4:14 p.m.

    I didn't really like Limbo as much as most others due to a few reasons. The actual gameplay itself can only be described as so-so in my opinion, the platforming aspect was dull and simple plus it had nothing unique or challenging and every death encountered could easily be avoided on a second time through. The puzzles were either uninspired or lacked any thought what so ever to solve them. Another reason is after reading reviews they all told me that it was the story of a boy traversing limbo to save his sister, when I played it through I wouldn't have found this out until the end so every interpretation or theories I was making I felt was irrelevant because I knew the answer already. But I did see the potential for others to love this game when I was playing it through so I enjoyed reading Dave's opinion to find out why he loved it.
  • duelmonkey - August 1, 2012 5:07 p.m.

    I'm not a big fan of this game, either. The gameplay and aesthetic are both highly reminiscent of your typical flash platformer you'd find for free online on sites like Kongregate. The game is also extremely easy - when people use words like "gripping" or "terror" to describe this game, I don't really understand what's causing that. The puzzles are pointedly simple; Dave sees it as a way to identify with The Boy, but it just feels like I'm playing "Level 1" from other puzzle games repeatedly to me. I can see where the appeal comes from, however. If you really commit to liking it, I can imagine it being a very immersive game. But everything about the gameplay just pulled me completely out of that state of mind.
  • Krazee - August 1, 2012 8:37 p.m.

    I didn't really think very highly of the game myself, but your article, its pretty deep.
  • larkan - August 1, 2012 9:40 p.m.

    I paid $15 for this highly anticipated game, only to be extremely disappointed in having beat it in 3 hours. I played with headphones on, lights off, but it really didn't do much for me. I think games like this need to go away before more people catch on that they can charge obscene prices for this crap.
  • ChaosEternal - August 2, 2012 11:17 a.m.

    To me, the game was a moving experience that lasted 6-8 hours. (Though it did seem very short on my second playthrough.) I'd have to agree with some of the other comments, you either love Limbo or you hate it. To me it is worth $15, to you it probably isn't worth $5. It is pretty subjective. Personally, I'd like stuff like Limbo to be around for variety and experiences you won't get elsewhere.
  • TomSJ3 - August 1, 2012 9:57 p.m.

    Great article Mr. Houghton. I can understand why this game would not be for everyone, and it seems that a lot of the people in the comments didn't love it, but Limbo is probably my favorite game I've ever downloaded from XBLA.
  • Reubenguy - August 1, 2012 10:47 p.m.

    It's definately a love/hate game. You either connect with this game or you don't, and miss the point. It all depends on tastes and I agree completely with Dave that this game belongs in the top 100, because I connected with this game on a very deep level...Something other games rarely do for me So for those who've experienced Limbo like me and Dave did it's one of the best gaming experiences out there, and is thus deserving of a place in the top 100 (because it has the ability to create the emotions Dave talked about. Note I said ability...and I completely agree it's not for everyone - but because it can and often does connect it deserves it's spot)
  • Shinn - August 2, 2012 1:08 a.m.

    I didn't really enjoy it, but I could see why people loved it so much.
  • Cyberhero18 - August 2, 2012 2:06 a.m.

    And, aaand it has a bloody huge spider thrown in there for good measure. Easily the most heart-pounding part of any game i've played in recent memory. I mean that thing was just horrifying.
  • Gamer_Geek - August 2, 2012 11:07 a.m.

    I had the trail edition of Limbo, and I liked the trail, but I don't understand where this deep emotional connection comes from? It's an interesting game, as the typical game play and engine of a flash game; Mass Effect 3 has to be a game of deep emotional connection between the user and the game though, not really Limbo. Guess is my opinion though, and many people may disagree with me over my points above.
  • Fuzunga - August 2, 2012 12:05 p.m.

    I could not disagree more with this. In fact, every time I hear someone call Limbo one of the greatest games ever, I dislike it a little bit more. As a GAME (the way all games should be judged) it is extremely average at best. Nothing I couldn't find on a flash game portal online. If you took out the atmosphere, Limbo would be nothing. In fact, I'm certain it would have been largely ignored without without the silhouette visuals and, uh, vague narrative. Well that's not enough for this guy. Game just wasn't fun. Didn't find it scary at all once I realized they were trying to disguise bear traps as grass. They got me once and then I was was cautiously on the lookout for the rest of the game. No innovation gameplay wise. The auto-walking sections were a pain, and I legitimately found the physics-based gameplay caused control issues. If Limbo is one thing, it's the most overrated game of all time. I bought it on sale for $10 and think I paid too much.

Showing 1-20 of 26 comments

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