Review: Limbo (** stars)

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Limbo appears a rather “artsy” indie game, but it’s really a puzzle game with a thin veneer of “platforming” (a.k.a., “action”) in the mix. People like this sort of thing, I gather, if not for the simplistic brain twisters on offer, than for the intentional layers of obfuscation and meaning around whatever it is that you’re supposed to do. Heralded as the “Braid” of 2010, I passed on it until receiving it within one of those indie bundles which you see so often – I couldn’t pass up the chance to own it for nearly free, and donate all the proceeds to charity.

Why the backlash from me? It’s not all bad. What’s great about Limbo? Well, the graphics look really neat; there’s some depth-of-field effects in the background that must have taken some time to develop and craft. They provide an illusion that fleshes out the world. Not that black and white graphics haven’t been done before (see: anything on the Vectrex, SpaceWar!, even Pong), but I’m pretty sure those early examples didn’t intentionally makes black and white games. I also enjoyed the linear focus of the game – no weird sidesteps, and no fundamental ‘breaking” of the game’s lessons. It teaches you a few different skills and ideas intuitively through the level design, and doesn’t force it down your throat in oppressive tutorials. There’s no “narrative” presented except through the exploration of the world itself – which, from what I can tell, is quite mysterious. If the meaning of the word refers to the Catholic doctrine of Limbo (which, just in case anyone was wondering, no Christian denomination believes at this point in time), then I’m not sure how much sense it makes. In the Catechism, it says thus:

632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection.477 This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.478

But it obviously doesn’t refer to Limbo directly. Rather, Limbo usually refers to a place where those in union with God, for whatever reason, cannot enter Heaven. Scriptural support for the concept comes from Lazarus lying in the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:22), and we call this the “limbo” of the patriarchs (i.e., the saints of Israel, give or take). The other one is the limbo of infants, the place to which the unborn go. In either sense, I’m not quite sure what the game’s name actually means; the main character enters Limbo to save his sister, but it’s obviously a dark and dreary place where people die horrible deaths and face many trials for reasons unknown. I am guessing we mean limbo in the common vernacular sense, which means a project, journey, or life held in stasis until one finishes a particular task. This makes perfect sense if we just think of Limbo as a puzzle game where, theoretically, you’ll find yourself stumped by the puzzles lying therein. Also, it would make me laugh a lot if that actually described the “meaning” of the title. Apologies for the sarcasm!

You’ll learn rather fast that you only need two functions total to proceed through the game – a jump and a grab button. And that’s it – literally, you’ll only need to use one or the other to solve the myriad puzzles strewn about Limbo’s world. This does not necessarily limit Limbo’s ability to stump the player, but it certainly hinders their ability to make puzzles that truly challenge your brain. Most of the design presents obvious solutions; the only time which I found myself stuck were in the gravity-utilizing segments (you get what I mean later), and most of the problem wasn’t from bad reflexes but bad design. Think of it this way: when, at all, has the game taught you how physics work when objects float to this point? Well, never, actually! Has it taught you about how you fall up and down in zero gravity, thus letting you figure this out? No, not really! This, I think, remains the primary problem with Limbo: it isn’t so much about actual puzzle solving at all. Rather, the game gives you a constant trial and error approach (similar to Super Meat Boy and Braid, come to think of it) to puzzle solving.

Oh, you failed? Get cut into pieces with this here buzzsaw. Didn’t know which way you were supposed to go? Ok, you should die now. I’m fine with this style of game, but it’s obvious the game isn’t here to test my platforming prowess but my brain. So why, then, are there so many sequences that require precisely timed inputs to succeed? It’s a weird mix, to be sure, and I don’t think it works well with the limited toolset on display. The greater problem comes from knowing the problem, yet due to the controls I cannot solve the puzzle due to a lack of responsiveness or not jumping at JUST the right time. I think a developer needs to decide exactly what skills they want to test in a “puzzle platformer” like this, and Limbo lacks focus to its own detriment.

The physics themselves take some time to understand as well; the nuances of the system never became apparent to me, as doing the exact same thing in two different cases led to two entirely different results. I’m guessing the Box 2D engine used here lends itself to such variety. Why the scientific methods shouldn’t work in a puzzle game boggles the mind; I know it makes the puzzles more interesting, but it doesn’t make them more intuitive.

The black and white doesn’t make it any easier; sometimes, it isn’t clear what kills and what doesn’t up until the point your character’s head gets impaled on a sharp object. In most cases, you just need to grin and bear the failure as the game respawns you a few feet away from where you died. Why design the game this way? Why not make it so the astute player, observant of his surroundings, can immediately respond to the changing circumstances surrounding him? It is a puzzle game, after all, and some of us can solve said puzzles better than others.

One reason I believe Limbo does this isn’t any actual game design-related purpose; rather, they intend to democratize the experience for the whole lot of us. Skill and speed won’t get you anywhere, the developers say, and we will restrict how well players can possibly play the game through making them die over and over again. Let me say, without a doubt, that I found this the most annoying iteration of the “die repeatedly” mascore subgenre that I’ve ever played. When you die, you’re treated to a violent end for your character, who gets cut into pieces, crushed, impaled, and all other manner of not-nice things. The problem isn’t these deaths (they are rather funny the first few times), but that you can’t skip them. Not only does this destroy the pacing in many respects, especially watching an uncontrollable death sequence, but it has absolutely no reason to exist. Why not just give me a retry button in the vein of Hotline Miami, or just instantly restart it like Super Meat Boy? At least the latter doesn’t force you to watch replays of your own death, but Limbo seems to think that I want to watch my own failures and lurid detail – no, I want to get back in the game and try it again.

Most of my complaints, then, stem from a lack of focus and a problem of genre. In a game focused on solving puzzles (and using platforming to solve said puzzles), you expect consistency in how everything works; Limbo does not provide this. Compared to other recent games in its genre (to name one, Offspring Fling), it fails to give the player meaningful feedback, and covers its own flaws with a trial-and-error system that doesn’t respect the player’s intelligence so much as their persistence to solve a puzzle by jumping in JUST the right way. The physics system, simply put, remains far too complex for anyone to get a handle on it in a single playthrough. Once said playthrough’s complete, I doubt there’s much replay value except in how much torture you’re willing to endure.

That one of God’s primary attributes is immutability should show us why games that use this particular conglomeration doesn’t work. A game of shifting shadows and ever-changing mechanics does not teach, but creates a stumbling block for the learner. Limbo’s a bad teacher who tells his/her students all the wrong information and then expects them to do well on a test anyway. Not only did the teacher fail in their primary motive, but they failed everyone learning from them as well – consistency remains important in any position of authority, for a constantly changing opinion destroys any degree of authority you might have. I am grateful then, that the greatest teacher of them all teaches us with utter consistency, as 1 Samuel 15 says:

29 Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.”

There’s plenty of other Scriptural evidence as such (e.g. Num. 23:19; Ps. 102:26; Mal. 3:6; 2 Tim. 2:13; Heb. 6:17–18; Jam. 1:17). What applies to God just as well applies to game design! You cannot shift and change the rules at a whim; otherwise, who could learn anything? The postmodern world tells us otherwise, but God rejects that narrative of reality. The God of Love also remains the God of the Unchanging – God’s love and grace never change, and His teachings remain the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow precisely for that reason! That is something Limbo misses in its quest to democratize the experience, inevitably wasting the player’s time.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • I think Limbo’s main goal was to be an adventure game without an inventory or menus. Tim Schafer went on a tangent about how much he loved that about this game. It’s something that got borrowed with Double Fine’s latest, The Cave. Though, I think The Cave is inferior based on what I played of the demo.

    As far as Limbo as a teacher? There’s a division of ambitions as a game designer: to teach and to subvert expectations. Limbo lengthens this gap by teaching you from the getgo that you’re in an unfair world and that you’re likely to get destroyed and treated unfairly. As a game with a base mechanic of problem-solving, this makes sense. But if there was any kind of combat system, it would fall apart immediately.

    When I picked it up again for the second time a year ago, I was surprised by how much I wanted to play it. I knew what happened. And I had other games I recently acquired and had not yet played (Braid, Bastion, Amnesia, Super Meat Boy). But for some reason, I felt compelled to play Limbo. I got over it, of course. But I still can’t help but feel like there was something about Limbo’s ‘gasping for air as life is being choked out of you’ quality that makes it strangely endearing to me.

    • It would be interesting if that were the main goal; it plays more like a person who thought they were discovering a new subgenre derived from adventure games, only to find out that people have been making games like that for a while (and pretty good ones at that). Maybe it dates me a little to say I like Bugs Bunny’s Crazy Castle, but I think that’s a version of this sort of game done right.

      There’s a pretty big difference between being fair and unfair, though. Even tough games offer concessions to the player by virtue of teaching them the right skills to surpass an obstacle. Even if that learning process takes time, it’s never “not fun” even when you fail. Limbo is “not fun” in many places because, due to the design, it forces you to die without any ways to avoid it. If it wants to provoke a specific feeling, it certainly succeeded, but as a game it obviously misses a mark or two.

      Again, an adventure game needs to be an adventure game, and a puzzle platformer should be a puzzle platformer. I just find Limbo insufficient in teaching you things well. I guess this is a clash of narrative, mood, and the game mechanics, all said.