I’ll state the most important thing, first and foremost:
Limbo is a game where you die a lot.
Yes, it also has a rather unique approach on style, non-intrusive narrative and actually handles the “horror” title (this is coming from someone who firmly believes the horror genre died decades ago). But I need you to keep this bit in mind: you die a lot. That bit shapes everything else in the game.
The visual style is the first thing you notice about Limbo (and was also the first thing Playdead planned): you only get to see silhouettes, and with everything painted in only black, white, and gray, things look like either shadows or like they are engulfed in them; even our protagonist (the Boy) looks ghostly with his big, faceless white eyes. There aren’t many light sources and the camera blurs on distant places, so you only clearly see what’s right in front of you.
The music and sound effects are in sync with this vision: the background music is the howl of wind and noise of flies. With nothing else going on, the sound effects when you interact with the world (and when you crush your bones or your blood flows) gain a lot of impact. This becomes vital when solving puzzles where you can’t see everything at once.
“Cool, and what do I have to do?”
Well, the game play is nothing new: you move, you jump, and you grab stuff. However, this minimalist approach lets you pay more attention to your surroundings, and keeping your focus is necessary since every puzzle in Limbo (of which there are tons) is unique, and requires you to use (or avoid) elements that go as far as being camouflaged on the background.
All puzzles are simple, but with so few recurrent things, most feel like a new experience, which in turn means new opportunities to die at every corner.
The good news? All the care put into the puzzles was also taken to confection death for the Boy in every one of them! If you are into squashing, impalement, beheading and other variety of final moments, you will have a field day with Limbo.
“Are the monsters actually the boy’s mother?/Are they dead?/Is he a serial killer?/etc.?”
You will find a lot of theories trying to get to the bottom of Limbo’s meaning. Such a simple game, and thankfully with no ham-fisted narrative, can lend itself to too many interpretations (there is, according to the authors, a “real” one though). I’m all up for analyzing games, but really, Limbo isn’t very cryptic about anything:
Leaving theological interpretations where they are due.
“Limbo” refers to a place of increasing suffering, even the Limbo dance is all about increasingly difficult steps. In Limbo, we see the Boy traveling through a hell that wants him gone: every other living being is set out to kill him; every movable thing is capable of the same if you don’t handle them well. And we see him repeating every step again and again as puzzles become harder and enemies more ferocious.
“So… it’s all in the presentation?”
You could say that. While video games should be judged by the value of the whole composition, Limbo still owns most, if not all of its charm, to its style. What you as a player do is no different from “hardcore” platforms like “Super Meat Boy” or even “I Wanna Be The Guy”, but with more emphasis on puzzles than in jumping. And that’s fine, Limbo doesn’t try to be special for its game play.
What makes Limbo special is the lingering feeling of controlling such a fragile character in an extremely hostile and dark world, one that has nothing to do with you and cares not about you. Things look way bigger they should be and you never get to see beyond shadows; things trying to kill you present themselves at point blank, and anything that’s not painted in the background is probably trying to kill you.
Limbo. it’s about being genuinely scared of anything that moves or emits a sound.
Limbo released way back in 2010, and since then it’s been adapted to multiple consoles; you can get the PC or Mac version on Playdead’s page.
Limbo (2010), and all featured imagery are property of Playdead.