Our ongoing search for memorable puzzling challenges beyond the traditional adventure genre has unearthed some unique experiences so far. We've manipulated matter, time, and space and explored dream worlds, children's books, and pie-ravaged nightmares. This latest sojourn took us even farther outside our genre comfort zone, delving deep underground and into the grim realm beyond death, opening up a whole new vocabulary of imaginative possiblities in between. You want puzzles? We got puzzles! And a little bit of platforming to go with it – which is fitting, since the games themselve cross a variety of platforms, including the PC, handhelds, and home consoles. For those willing to try something different, follow us once again as we take you on a tour of Limbo, Super Scribblenauts, and The UnderGarden.
What happens when you die? Nothing? Do you go to heaven? Hell? In Limbo, a dark and fascinating Xbox 360 platformer by Playdead, you set out on a side-scrolling journey that will challenge your puzzle-solving skills as well as your dexterity as you attempt to make sense of that bleak but mysteriously compelling space between life and death.
You aren’t given any instructions as you start Limbo, but when you move your controller, you’ll see your character’s eyes open glowing white in the darkness. As a small boy waking up in the middle of an eerily quiet nowhere, all you know is that you can travel to the right and keep traveling that way, as you would with any old-school platformer. But that’s where the similarities end. Rather than a carnival atmosphere filled with bright-colored graphics and bubbly upbeat music, you’ll find yourself drenched in a black-and-white chiaroscuro world filled with very little music and only the sounds of forest animals... and the occasional buzzsaw. You’ll soon be met with scenes grim in content, but so wonderfully designed in their simplicity and use of shadows and contrasts that you can’t help but admire their beauty even as you gaze on in horror. Imagine seeing your black silhouette dangling from the tip of an ebony spider’s leg as it swirls; swathed in white gossamer webbing, you’re now a soft bundle glowing as you hop through the haze.
Other than using the left joystick to move, the only other controls needed are a jump button and an action button that allows you to do every task required, from pulling crates to calling elevators to turning on light switches. Early on, you mostly encounter physical obstacles such as walls that you’ll need to scale and ropes to climb up. But as you move along, the environment becomes peppered with more dangerous challenges, including steel traps that will rip you to pieces, terrifying spiders with fat bodies bristling with hair and thin legs tapering out to sharp points (the better to skewer you with), and electrified signs spitting deadly sparks.
To overcome these challenges, you'll have to constantly analyze your environment to determine how to keep going. You don’t have an inventory, but you will push, pull, roll, climb up, and drag items to place them where they’re needed. Often you’ll have to plan your moves far in advance. That apparently useless item that you left behind may be just the thing you’ll need to shield you from some menacing gunfire a few screens ahead. You will also have to throw any morals you have out the door in order to survive, as you’ll have to employ dead animals, pieces of enemies, and yikes, even dead bodies to achieve your goals. As you progress further in the game, the designers up the ante by adding timed elements to your puzzle-solving, forcing you to prepare an escape before floods threaten to overwhelm you, for example. You’ll even encounter a rotating field of play in case you get too complacent. The ground will literally move and revolve beneath your feet, requiring fast-thinking and dexterity to avoid falling to your death.
You will eventually see other people in the game. Many of these characters appear just out of clear sight, often quickly running out of view as if they didn't want you to see them or see what they were doing. Some are actively hostile, however, and serve as obstacles or actually want you dead, though you don’t really discover why they, or you, are here and why they may be trying to kill you. If you’re like me and have a bit of trouble figuring out the fatally punishing puzzles the first time around, you will be killed – many, many times in gruesome fashion. Unlike its minimalist visual design, Limbo’s sound effects and gore are ratcheted way up. Your timing is off on avoiding that spider? A sickening splat accompanies gushes of black blood as the spider skewers your body. Jump a little too soon off of that tree stump? You get to watch as your poor little body is impaled on the sharp spikes of broken tree limbs. You do have the ability to turn the gore factor off in the game’s settings, however. Fortunately, dying isn't so bad overall thanks to a generous checkpoint system, as you always pick up just a few seconds before your most recent obstacle.
As with any platformer, a certain amount of dexterity and timing is required, and there were a few segments I had to repeat several times just to get the timing and placement of items just right. But the bulk of the game’s difficulty comes from the puzzles themselves. These become increasingly difficult as you progress, so much so that I had to resort to a walkthrough for the latter portions. What do you do in a multi-level room with two crates, an anti-gravity button with a timer, and your exit far above you? If you’re a whiz at figuring these types of puzzles out, you could easily finish the game in a few hours. But if there are plenty of errors in your trial-and-error approach, or if you just want to see how many gruesome ways your character can die, your play time can stretch out hours longer, especially if you explore carefully to earn all of the achievements offered.
While there isn’t very much in the way of a direct story, the environment tells a visual kind of story: The game starts with the glowing white letters, LIMBO, and then nothing… darkness. Are you dead? If so, death is not a pleasant reality, as you’ll clearly discover by making your way through its increasingly hellish environments. You begin in a forest or jungle, go underground, come back up into a depressing industrialized area with neon hotel signs and pipes and ladders. The game description on Xbox LIVE Arcade tells you that you’re looking for your sister, but nothing in the game indicates that specifically. All you know is that you’re alone, and the few other people you do see are either dead, running away from you, or trying to attack you. You do catch a glimpse of what appears to be a girl late in the game, but before you can reach her, another obstacle pushes you in another direction entirely. As I played, my motivation was simply to escape the fiendish world I found myself in. It wasn’t the goal of trying to find my sister that propelled me forward, but the promise of finding a few minutes of peace and respite after a particularly tough challenge, those few quiet spots between mayhem and death.
The storyline, such as it is, is ultimately so obscure that it’s really not the point of the game, which is to experience this grim, fascinating world in all its emotionally-disturbing, mind-bending, and life-threatening glory. So what does happen when you die? You may not find out in Limbo, beyond doing a whole lot of it as you go along, but you’ll have a fun, challenging time exploring as you make your way through this bleak but beautiful landscape.
Next up: Super Scribblenauts...Continued on the next page...