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Reviews

Limbo

Andy Robertson

Playdead
Xbox, PS3, PC and Mac

RLimbo.jpg


Platform videogames concoct a mix of precision jumping, running, ladder climbing, puzzle solving and exploration. Mario, Sonic, Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy delivered entertainment over the last 30 years. Now a new breed of platform game is emerging that asks more of the player than a steady hand, quick reactions and a ready supply of adrenaline.

Limbo is one of these games. Originally available on Xbox 360 then on PS3 and PC, it's now available on the Mac as well. It's desperately bleak, but beautifully so. Black and white hues create the feel of a filmmaker's lens through which you view the world.

You control a small boy as he travels through a threatening forest landscape. Despite the darkness though it feels like a children's game, that is until the little boy meets a variety of shocking silhouetted ends -- impaled, decapitated, squashed or drowned.

The game emits sounds to match the sparse visuals. Breathless echoes and hums gnaw away at the back of your consciousness as you focus your attentions on survival. But as impressive and unusual as this unresolved physical and aural landscape is for a videogame, it's Limbo's commitment to an unresolved narrative that stays with you after finishing.

Like Hansel and Gretel, but with a trail of platforming elements to lead you on, Limbo draws you on with classic videogame puzzle solving. Pulling boxes, climbing trees and running from spiders you eventually emerge from the forest.

However the mood remains dark as the fear of dense trees is replaced by the threat of desperate inhabitants, booby trapped corpses, dilapidated architecture and wayward industrial machinery.

Limbo will be too bleak, too graphic and too indulgent for some. For others it will be simply too difficult to play - even a seasoned player can find themselves flummoxed. However, for those willing to dive in and pay these costs Limbo has much more to offer than entertainment.

Loss isn't something we easily spend time thinking about. Works that deal with the subject, from Job and Ecclesiastes to Cormac McCarthy's The Road can be a bleak, battering experience. Like those depths, Limbo keeps in mind a thread of hope, the idea of the morning after, of waking from the nightmare. Because it is a game playfulness, engagement and possibilities are never eclipsed.
Every other game would be unable to resist cashing in this tension, capitalising on the loss with a triumphal ending. Thankfully though, developers Playdead resist this juvenile habit.

The end, when it comes some four hours later, is tranquil and quiet and unexpected. As in The Road, and I'd say in Job too, there is no escape from the nightmare for our protagonist. Instead there is presence. We encounter a companion, a kin and are fleetingly renewed.

The moment of encounter that I won't spoil with detail here, is transformative. In many ways nothing is different, darkness continues but at the same time everything is different. The presence of 'another' changes the game world from a dangerous alien environment to a place that might unexpectedly become home.

The desire to flee this place is diminished as we ourselves are transformed into the hope for this place. We are transformed and asked what real hope is - escape or residence?

Andy Robertson

www.gamepeople.co.uk

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