What life awaits after death? Most forms of expression, from books and films to poetry and philosophy, have taken turns pondering on it, and the maturing world of video games is no exception.
LIMBO, in spite of all appearances, isn't one of those games. The brief, downloadable video game for Xbox 360 appears to dwell in the afterlife—and beautifully so—with creepy inhabitants, a black-and-white aesthetic, absence of conversation, and balance of darkness and light. Yet the Danish title is most compelling because it speaks to the struggles of living with loss, not fading away into death; and it does so not with text, nor with musical cues, nor any concrete storytelling. You simply drop into LIMBO, and it forces you to find your own meaning through exploration, puzzle solving, and inhaling its lonely world along the way.
The game opens with a child's silhouette waking in a shades-of-gray world, himself all black save his tiny, white eyes. With no story as impetus, players immediately encounter forests, ponds, and caves (and strange foes within each), all rendered in 2-D with shimmering particle effects, as if LIMBO's entirety had been drowned in fresh, falling ash. Other than occasional tones and background effects, the sounds are as simple as the boy's feet plodding along grass, dirt, and hard metal, and the sound direction turns out far more colorful and organic than the fuzzed-out looks would lead you to believe.
Players are limited to running, jumping, and grabbing certain objects, which makes the ingenuity of Playdead Studios' puzzles so striking. Every "a-ha!" moment is a spoiler in the making. Anyone who has played the puzzle game Braid will be tempted to compare the two games, but LIMBO skips such puzzle gimmicks, instead forcing players to consider every bit of the sparse environment as a means of progression. Dead bodies, turning cogs, hungry birds, gravity switches, and dangerous boulders each reveal themselves as greater figures in seemingly simple puzzles, and their respective moments will last in gaming's lexicon for a long time, ranking with the head-scratching likes of Metal Gear Solid, Shadow of the Colossus, and Portal.
LIMBO can run as short as four or five hours in the first go-round, which is tragic since its puzzles are brilliant, and the game doesn't wear out its welcome with, say, time-travel tweaks or a specific, limited item. LIMBO could probably have kept on going another hour or so without anybody getting bored. To be fair, as a concentrated experience, its every region is stark and memorable in spite of the black-and-white sheen, both in looks and in puzzles that prove familiar and exciting even on a second playthrough. (Those regions shine when you force a huge change in the world, like yanking a hidden switch to change the weather or power down a dilapidated hotel.)
That stark brevity fits the game's understood purpose: to present a boy in search of a lost sibling, a boy who's desperate, quiet, and willing to proceed left-to-right without any plot or outright provocation. As such, we too follow along without asking questions. We solve puzzles and brave confusing foes because we "have" to. The wordless inspiration, and the game's overt nod to it, rises above the game's astonishing qualities—its beauty, its economy of sound, its puzzles, its fluid control, even its never-too-hard difficulty—to make this 2010's best video game so far.
This is not a game about death, but about living, and unlike any other form of expression, we learn that in the game of LIMBO by living it.