Limbo is a puzzle-platform video game and the premiere title of independent Danish developer Playdead Studios. The game was released on 21 July 2010 on Xbox Live Arcade. Limbo is a 2D sidescroller, incorporating a physics system that governs environmental objects and the player character, challenging the player to guide an unnamed boy through dangerous environments and avoid traps while searching for the boy's sister. The developers built the game's puzzles expecting the player to fail several times before coming upon the correct solution; Playdead called the style of play "trial and death", and used visually gruesome imagery for the boy's deaths to steer the player from unworkable solutions.
The game is presented primarily in monochromatic black-and-white tones utilising lighting, film grain effects and minimal ambient sounds to create an eerie atmosphere similar to the horror genre. Journalists praised the dark presentation, calling the work comparable to film noir and German expressionism. Reviewers classified Limbo as an example of "video game as art" based on its aesthetics. Limbo received mixed reviews for its minimal story; some critics found the open-ended work to have deeper meaning that tied well with the game's mechanics, while others felt the lack of any significant plot and abrupt ending detracted from the game. A common point of criticism from many reviewers was that the high cost of the game relative to its short length might deter players from purchasing the title. However, some reviews proposed that Limbo had an ideal length. Prior to its release, the title won two Independent Games Festival awards, and following release, had strong sales compared to other Xbox Live titles.
The primary character in Limbo is a nameless boy who awakens in the middle of a forest on the "edge of hell" (the game's title is taken from the Latin limbus, meaning "edge") who then begins to seek out his missing sister. During the journey, the boy encounters only a few additional human characters that either attack or run away from him. Once during the journey, the boy catches a glimpse of a female character, but she vanishes before he can reach her. The forest eventually gives way to a dilapidated city environment. On completion of the final puzzle, the boy is thrown through a pane of glass, ending up in the forest again. The boy continues traveling further until he encounters a girl. Upon his approach, she stands up, startled; the game abruptly ends on this point.
The player controls the boy for the entirety of Limbo. Typical of most two-dimensional platform games, the player can make the boy run left or right on the screen, jump, climb up short ledges or up and down ladders and ropes, and push or pull objects. The game is presented through dark, greyscale graphics and with minimalist ambient sounds, creating an eerie, haunting environment. The dark visuals also hide numerous environmental and physical traps that await the player, such as bear traps hidden on the forest floor or monsters in the shadows that will attempt to kill the boy. Later parts of the game feature puzzles and traps involving more mechanical aspects, such as machinery, electromagnetism, and gravity. Many of these traps are not apparent until triggered, often killing the boy. Should this happen, the player restarts at the last checkpoint they passed; there is no limit on how many times this can occur. However, the player can often avoid these traps and then use them to their advantage later, such as using a bear trap to secure the base of a rope, allowing the boy to climb up to a ledge that was otherwise out of reach. Because these traps are not known until the player activates them, the developers called the game a "trial and death" game as the player will likely encounter numerous deaths before they solve each puzzle and complete the game. Many deaths are animated with images of dismemberment or beheading of the boy, but an optional gore filter can turned on in the game's settings, which blacks out the screen instead of showing these deaths. In addition to other achievements that require the player to find hidden eggs, one achievement challenges the player to complete a run-through of the game with five or fewer deaths.
Limbo was originally conceived around 2004 by Playdead's game director Arnt Jensen, according to Playdead partner Dino Patti and lead designer Jeppe Carlsen. From the game's inception, Jensen set out three goals for the final Limbo product. The first goal was to create a specific mood and art style. Jensen wanted to create an aesthetic for the game without resorting to highly-detailed three-dimensional models, and instead directed the art towards the minimalistic style as to allow the development to focus its attention on the gameplay. For the second goal, Jensen wanted the player to only need two additional controls, jumping and grabbing, outside of the normal left-and-right movement controls to keep the game easy to play. Finally, the final game was to present no tutorial text to the player, requiring players to learn the game's mechanics on their own. The game was purposely developed to avoid revealing too many details of its content; the only tagline the company provided for the product was "Unsure of his sister's fate, a boy enters the unknown". This was chosen so that players themselves would have to determine what the meaning of the game is.
Jensen started working on the art design of the game in 2004, and by 2006 had prepared an early trailer demonstrating the game's premise. Jensen used inspiration of several films, including works of film noir, to set the art style of the game, while the team's graphic artist Morten Bramsen is credited with digitally recreating that art style within it. Playdead used the art style trailer on a teaser site for the game and went on to secure development funding without having to commit to any major publishers, giving them full creative control in developing the title. They also chose to ignore outside advice from investors and critics during development, such as the addition of multiplayer play, adjustable difficulty levels, and extending the game's length. According to Patti, Playdead felt these changes would deter the game from the integrity of Jensen's original vision. The game underwent numerous iterations during a two-and-a-half year development cycle, including additional iterations that Jensen had demanded to polish the title. Patti stated that they "trashed 70%" of the content they had developed for the game due to it not fitting well in the context of the game; The core development team size was about eight programmers, expanding to sixteen at various stages through freelancers. Limbo used internally-developed tools built in Visual Studio; Patti commented they would likely seek third-party applications for their next project given the challenges to create their own technology.
Limbo was designed to avoid the pitfalls of major titles where the same game play mechanic is used repeatedly. Carlsen stated that the puzzles within Limbo were designed to "[keep] you guessing all the way through". The choice of providing little information to the player was an initial challenge in creating the game. Early playtesters would have no idea of how to solve certain puzzles. To improve this, they created scenarios prior to troublesome spots that highlighted the appropriate actions; for example, when they found players did not think about pulling a boat onto shore to use as a platform to reach a higher ledge, they presented the player with a box-pulling puzzle earlier to demonstrate the pulling mechanic. The team developed the game's puzzles by first assuming the player was their "worst enemy" and made puzzles as devious as possible, but then scaled back or added enough visual and audible elements to aid and gain the friendship of the player. One example given by Carlsen is a puzzle involving a spider early in the game; the solution requires pushing a bear trap to snare the spider's legs within it. Early designs of this puzzle had the bear trap on the same screen as the spider, and Playdead found playtesters focused too much on the trap. The developers altered the puzzle to put the trap in a tree in a prior off-screen section when facing the spider; the spider's actions would eventually cause this trap to drop to the ground and become a weapon against the spider. Carlsen stated that this arrangement created a situation where the player felt helpless when initially presented with the deadly spider, but then assisted the player through an audible cue when the trap had dropped, enabling the player to discover the solution. Playdead included gruesome death sequences to highlight when a player's attempted solution was far from the correct approach, discouraging players from repeating dead-end solutions. While they expected players to run the boy into numerous deaths while trying solutions, the team made sure that the death wasn't a penalty in the game, and made the deaths "entertaining" to keep the player interested, according to Carlsen. Carlsen noted several early puzzles were too complex for the game but they would end up using a portion of these larger puzzles within the final release.
Limbo was released on 21 July 2010 on the Xbox Live Arcade service as the first title in the yearly "Summer of Arcade" promotion. Though the ESRB had listed entries for Limbo for the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Windows platforms, Playdead has confirmed that this was a mistake on ESRB's part, and that they have no plans for the game on these systems. Part of their decision to not release for the Windows platform was to avoid issues with software piracy, something they could control on the Xbox 360, according to producer Mads Wibroe.
Limbo has received universal acclaim, comparing it favorably to previous minimalist platform games such as Another World, Flashback, Heart of Darkness, Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, Ico, Portal and Braid. Reviews universally noted Limbo's short length for its higher selling price, three to six hours of gameplay for 15 U.S. dollars or 15 euro. Reviewers asserted this length-to-price ratio was the largest drawback for the game and would be a deterrent for potential buyers. Some journalists contended that the length of the game was ideal; The Daily Telegraph's Tom Hoggins considered the short game to have a "perfectly formed running time", while Daemon Hatfield of IGN commented that "it's better for a game to leave us wanting more than to overstay its welcome". Numerous independent game developers, in an organised "Size Doesn't Matter" effort, commented on the critical response to Limbo's length-to-price ratio. The independent developers questioned the need to quantify that ratio, and noted that it only seems to be used as a factor in judging video games and not other forms of entertainment such as films.
Limbo was generally praised for its simplicity of controls and its puzzle design. Jake Gaskill of G4 TV was impressed by the complexity of the puzzles based on two simple actions of jumping and grabbing onto objects, similar to LittleBigPlanet, with a variety of elements to assure "you’re always facing something new and challenging" during the game. Game Informer's Matt Miller commented that part of the success of Limbo is that "every one of these [puzzles] stands alone", varying the elements throughout the game, and preventing the player from getting too accustomed to the game since "everything changes". Gamespy's Ryan Scott felt the game empowered the player to work through solutions themselves, and its puzzle design "with its elegant simplicity, offers up what feels like a world of meaningful possibilities". The frequency of death, through failure to solve the puzzles right the first time, was not considered a distraction from the game; not only were the deaths seen as necessary as part of learning and overcoming each obstacle, but reviewers found the checkpoints where the player would restart to be plentiful throughout the game. Though praising the game, Will Freeman of The Guardian noted that, beyond the "smoke and mirrors" of Limbo's artwork, the game is "undermined by the title's lack of innovative gameplay" he claims has been seen in earlier platform games.
Limbo's graphical and audio presentation were exceptionally regarded as unique and powerful elements of the game. The monochrome approach, coupled with a film grain filter, focusing techniques, and lighting was compared to both film noir and dreamlike tableaus of silent films, allowing the visual elements of the game to carry much of the weight of the game's story. Cian Hassett of PALGN likened the effect to watching the game through an old-fashioned film projector that creates "one of the most unsettling and eerily beautiful environments" in video gaming. Garrett Martin of the Boston Herald compared the art style and game design decisions to German Expressionism with "dreamlike levels that twist and spin in unexpected angles". The art style itself was praised as minimalistic, and reminiscent of the art of Lotte Reiniger, Edward Gorey, Fritz Lang, and Tim Burton. The use of misdirection in the visuals were also praised, such as by using silhouettes to avoid revealing the true nature of the characters or shadows, or by showing human figures across a chasm that disappears once the player has crossed it.
Reviewers found the sound effects within the game critical to the game's impact. Sam Machkovech, writing for The Atlantic, called the sound direction "far more colorful and organic than the fuzzed-out looks would lead you to believe". Edge Magazine's review noted that the few background noises "[do] little else than contribute towards Limbo’s tone", while the sound effects generated by moving the boy character "are given an eerie clarity without the presence of a conventional soundtrack to cover them".
IGN's Hatfield concluded his review of the game stating "Very few games are as original, atmospheric, and consistently brilliant as Limbo". Chad Sapeiha of The Globe and Mail summarised his opinion of the game's atmosphere as an "intensely scary, oddly beautiful, and immediately arresting aesthetic." Limbo is said to be the first game to attempt a mix of the horror fiction genre with platform games. The game has been considered an art game through its visual and audio elements.
The game's story and its ending have been open to much interpretation, purposely left vague and unanswered by Playdead. It has been compared to other open-ended books, films and video games where the viewer is left to interpret what they have just read or seen. Some reviews have suggested that the game is a representation of the religious nature of limbo or purgatory, as the boy character completes the journey only to end at the same place he started, repeating the same journey when the player starts a new game. Another spiritual interpretation suggests the game is the boy's journey through Hell to reach Heaven or to find closure for his sister's death. Others consider if both or either the boy and his sister are dead, the implications of change in setting as the boy travels through the game, and the similarities and differences between the final screen of the game and the main menu.
The game's lack of direct narrative (such as through cutscenes or in-game text) was a mixed point from reviewers. John Teti of Eurogamer considered the game's base story to be metaphorical for a "story of a search for companionship", and that the few encounters with human characters served as "emotional touchstones" that drove the story forward; ultimately, Teti stated that these elements make Limbo "a game that has very few humans, but a surplus of humanity". Hatfield praised the game's simplicity of story, commenting that "with no text, no dialogue, and no explanation, it manages to communicate circumstance and causality to the player more simply than most games". Both Teti and Hatfield noted that some of the story elements were weaker in the second half of the game when there are almost no human characters with whom the player comes into contact, but that the game ends on a profound revelation. Gamespot's Tom McShea found no issues with the game posing several questions on "death versus life and reality versus dream", but purposely providing no answers for them, allowing the player to contemplate these on their own. McShae also felt that the brief but gruesome death scenes for the boy helped to create an "emotional immediacy that is difficult to forget". The New York Daily News' Stu Horvath noted that Limbo "turns its lack of obvious narrative into one of the most compelling riddles in videogames".
Other reviews disliked the lack of story or its presentation within Limbo. Justin Haywald of 1UP.com was critical of the lacking narrative, feeling that the game failed to explain the purpose of the constructed traps or rationale for how the game's world worked, and that the final act left him "more confused than when [he] began". Haywald had contrasted Limbo to Braid, a similar platform game with minimalistic elements but that communicated its metaphorical story to the player through in-game text. Roger Hargreaves of the Metro felt that the game has "very little evidence that [Playdead] really knew where they were going with the game", citing the second half, when the player is traveling through a factory-type setting and where he felt the game became more like any typical two-dimensional platform game and led to an anticlimactic ending; Hargreaves contrasted this to more gruesome elements of the first half, such as encountering corpses of children and having to use those as part of the puzzle solving aspects.
Sales and accolades
Prior to its release, Limbo was awarded both the "Technical Excellence" and "Excellence in Visual Art" titles at the Independent Games Festival at the 2010 Game Developers Conference. At the 2010 Electronic Entertainment Expo, about a month before its release, Limbo won Gamespot's "Best Downloadable Game", and was nominated for several other "Best of Show" awards, including "Best Platformer" by IGN, "Most Original Game" by G4 TV, and "Best Puzzle Game" by Gamespot, The game was nominated as one of 32 finalists in the 2010 IndieCade festival for independent developers.
Game Informer named Limbo their Game of the Month for August 2010. Within two weeks of its release on Xbox Live Arcade, Limbo gained over 244,000 players to the global leaderboards—a rough measure of full sales of the game—which was considered a "incredibly impressive feat" compared to previously released Xbox Live Arcade titles, according to GamerBytes' Ryan Langley. Within a month of its release, over 300,000 copies of the game were sold. By the end of August 2010, the number of players on the global leaderboard grew to 371,000, exceeding the number of players of other Summer of Arcade games released in 2009 and approaching the number of lifetime players of Braid released two years prior; Langley, who had expected Limbo's sales to fall "due to the lack of repeatable content and being a strictly single player experience", considered that these figures have "beaten everyone’s expectations."
Limbo was named "Game of the Year", "Best Indie Game", and "Best Visual Art" at the 2010 European Milthon Awards during the Paris Game Show in September 2010. IGN named it the 3rd best Xbox Live Arcade title of all time in a September 2010 list.
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