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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.