The open ecosystem of 7th generation consoles gave indie developers the ability to thrive for the first time ever. Finally, even small teams could express their creativity and reach a loving audience. Even some of the bigger publishers, like EA and Ubisoft, embraced this relatively new type of game by supporting studios with limited resources. Working alone, however, in 2010, the Denmark-based studio Playdead released its first project: Limbo.
Many of these indie games provided something that big-budget titles couldn’t. Some of them catered to players nostalgic about retro games; others stood out by telling a story in an unusual manner. Playdead’s first foray into video game development belongs to the latter. Thanks to its immersive atmosphere and striking monochrome visuals, Limbo deservedly garnered a positive response from players and critics alike.
Four years following its launch, in 2014, Playdead released the game on Xbox One. And for a limited time, as a small gift to early supporters of the console, Microsoft even made it available for free. In commemoration of its release on Xbox One, we’re taking a look at Playdead’s Limbo and how it managed to tell a gripping story without any dialogue.
O Sister, Where art Thou?
A young boy wakes up on a secluded island, with his eyes gradually opening and glinting in the darkness. Seconds later, you take control of him and go on a search for his missing sister, and that’s it. Limbo doesn’t give any context as to who the boy is or how he ended up on the island. It’s very minimalistic in terms of narrative and visuals.
There’s hardly any colour aside from varying tones of grey and black. And this rather monochrome appearance matches the atmosphere of the island. Bear traps and other hazards are scattered throughout. Lifeless corpses hang from trees, indicating that visitors are not welcome. And a giant spider soon relentlessly pursues the boy.
Developers somehow managed to convey a lot of information without anyone saying anything. For instance, you can’t help but feel disgust when ripping a leg out of the dead spider. Or an overwhelming sense of unease when jumping on top of floating corpses to safely cross a small body of water. It’s clear that you could very well become one of them.
Throughout its short story spanning only several hours, Limbo leaves more questions than it provides answers. Why are there so many complex mechanisms built around the island? Who are the mysterious inhabitants trying to kill the boy? Is his sister actually alive or is it merely a wishful illusion? Its story tells just enough, but leaves much to interpretation.
Violators Will be Shot; Survivors Will be Shot Again
Limbo relies on its black and white visuals to further enhance every scene. Every corpse, every death and every construction stands out even more due to the heavily contrasting background. And there’s a somewhat secret path around halfway through which involves traversing sawblades and other hazards. In complete darkness! There’s nothing to rely on for guidance other than sound and a few sparks from the moving sawblades.
Even though there aren’t many actions to begin with, Limbo doesn’t teach you how to perform one thing or another. No tutorial to teach you the basics of how to traverse the environment or interact with its objects. It teaches you how to swim by throwing you straight into the water. Every lesson comes from personal experience, whether positive – pull a lever to provoke an action – or otherwise (i.e. bear trap + leg = bad).
It’s not clear right from the start, but Limbo features some gruesome scenes. And as a matter of fact, most unplanned actions lead to a quick death. Stepping on a bear trap dismembers the boy; triggering a pressure plate activates a trap that kills him; falling from a great height often leads to impalement on a set of spikes. And if environmental traps don’t suffice, then there are also dangerous locals to avoid.
Playdead went on to release another excellent title – Inside – in 2016. But that’s a story for another day. Some might prefer one or the other, but each of the studio’s games stands on its own. Limbo is a short yet impactful narrative-driven experience which piques the player’s interest from the very first minutes. It doesn’t explain much or hold your hand, but makes you feel the loneliness and fear that the boy experiences.
And if you’re yet to play Limbo for yourself, then be sure to get it on the Xbox Store for just £7.99. Or spend a little extra (£23.99 that is) and get the Inside & Limbo Bundle. No matter which option you choose, Playdead’s signature design will keep you engaged.