By July of 2010, Xbox Live Arcade was a success. Microsoft’s online marketplace for the Xbox 360 had delivered a number of hits over a wide range of genres – including Geometry Wars, Braid, Trials HD, and Castle Crashers. Limbo, another unique title, was set to kick off the online marketplace’s Summer of Arcade. The first game developed by unknown Danish developers Playdead, Limbo would end up being one of the most acclaimed games of 2010 and of the generation.
The description of the game simply read, “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.” This text was as cryptic as the black and white art style, the atmospheric ambiance of sound, and the lack of any explicit player guidance. The story of Limbo did little to explain itself in concrete forms, offering up instead a series of ghostly figures and a collage of real world environments and the dreamscape.
Limbo was critically acclaimed as a platformer puzzle game that had all its separate parts tied up into one singular style. Player exploration, rather than explicit instruction, taught the world’s rules. Puzzle elements hardly, if ever, repeated themselves and many agreed that the game delivered a memorable experience despite being only a few hours long.
Ten years later and Playdead have released one single game since Limbo, the masterful Inside. Released in 2016, Inside polishes every element found in Limbo to a nearly deific shine. The way that Inside’s story, art style, gameplay, graphics, and sound tie together into one complete vision is very much like Limbo. The difference is that each element in Inside is an improvement on Limbo, an expected effect from lessons learned and six years of development.
So what’s it like to go back to Limbo, a decade after its release? Especially in contrast to its inarguably improved descendant, what is Limbo like in 2020? What remains now of one of the greatest games of its decade?
The first thing to say is that overall, Limbo remains an enjoyable experience. The moment you boot up the game, its lack of menu and on screen display bring you into the somber and unsettling world. Why are you here? And what is this place? Spiders and antagonist figures and gruesome deaths keep the edge on throughout the first half of the game. The puzzles aren’t particularly difficult, but there is variety. The spider is still terrifying.
Compared to Inside, Limbo’s art style does feel aged – drier and flatter in its visual impact. But little bits of quality are abound in Limbo: the sounds of the boy’s footsteps or a cracking branch; the dull hum of ambient music; the way the boy’s hand reaches out slightly in anticipation of grabbing a cart. Even as a ten year old game, Limbo’s small details still stand out and add richness to the world. On its own, Limbo’s art style is masterfully crafted.
The first half of Limbo is set in a forest and mostly has you facing off against a spider and silhouette figures, in turn. The spider creates suspense and the figures create mystery in narrative. As the game goes into its second half, it abandons the forest, the spider, and the figures. It starts to slide into an industrial dreamscape setting with giant gears, saws, machine guns, and gravity-flipping switches.
This transition from nature to industrial is a transition that adds tension and discomfort to the game, like a softly rising bass tone in a suspenseful movie scene. But with the change in setting comes an abandonment of the little story bread crumbs that were delivered in the forest. Puzzles begin to get just a bit repetitive. It isn’t a remarkable step down in quality, but it’s still noticeable.
By the end of Limbo, your character is back where they started and you’re wondering what exactly happened. Even a decade later, there’s a lovely sting that comes with ending the game, a noticeable feeling of appreciation for a game that is so well constructed. Does it match up to its successor? No, but it still matches up to every other puzzle platformer out there, and is worth playing today as much as it was ten years ago.