Where we go when we die is quite possibly the most often stupid question in the history of the human race. Given that the hypotheses vary between catholic labor camps in which you pay for your sins against an almighty, ageless (and conveniently Christian) entity and a respawn button through which you reappear in the same human form if you were in balance with nature or a fly if you spread hate and misery around you, I’ll appeal to the plain argument of „there are no consensual witnesses or non-empirical estimations” to treat any and all possibilities as mythology.
Well, Limbo appears to be a piece of such mythology, more exactly a piece of catholic mythology, which references the edge of Hell, a place you will get to, apparently, if you weren’t baptized, even if your sin sleight is empty. The theory fits, especially if the Pope’s archives contain the description of a two-dimensional monochrome universe in which you solve simple kinetic puzzles and have to overcome platforming challenges to no specific end.
“Life after death” seems to be more simple than running around paying bills, getting women, gaining spiritual evolution and a money/work quota of as high a standard as you can, the main issues of everyday reality. Truthfully, it all comes down to using the directional arrows on the keyboard and a single action button to navigate a side scrolling environment, in which your background alternates between a forest and a sort of mechanized city. Shadow play is the main environment-building tool, following up on the main principles of perspective projected reality: the close-up shots have a much higher contrast and darker tones, while the background elements are more diffused and fall under fog and atmospheric density effects.
Environmental details are mostly extremely minimalistic, with a few characters and animations whose symbolism was speculated on all forums from Hello Kitty to Kotaku. And even if the sound follows the same pattern, it would be unjust towards Limbo to say that it’s hollow or lacking in atmosphere. On the contrary – you pay much more attention to every silhouette, every character, whether they want to rip you apart or run away from you. The crickets, the mechanical clonking or the morbid sound effects in careful doses have an amplified effect when compared to a rich orchestra and a sum of generic sounds found in most video games.
Even the text comes down, basically, to a huge neon that says „HOTEL” in fat, bold letters or the respective letters occasionally just swaying in the breeze, or universal symbols for various elements – a lightning bolt warns you that there is an electrocution hazard nearby, a magnet on a button teaches us that you can toggle attraction forces on nearby metals, or arrows stuck to buttons that, once activated, alter gravity in the sense they indicate.
The character doesn’t say much by default either, aside from the obvious: he’s a frail boy, with a perpetual need to go right, a pathological condition similar to his precursors Mario, Luigi, or the unisex team from Metal Slug. He has the bad knack of dying extremely easily because, apparently, major earthly inconveniences don’t cut you a slack after death either: crates can crush you, gigantic spiders will want to serve you for dinner and sudden stops after a few tens of feet in free fall will turn your internal organs into pudding and pretty much deny you any hope of ever running for peace again. Just like real life. And the shockingly explicit aspect of the various ways in which you can hit the ground discourage failure altogether.
Every now and then, you’ll meet a sort of tribal kids who throw things at you or a girl (the hero’s presumed sister) who runs from you like you were candidly running with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief towards her. Aside from these characters, you will only meet a few insects, a small worm that forces your trajectory in a single direction until you run into a cone of light and a few mouths dangling, capable and willing to eat the aforementioned worm.
The succession of puzzles, a reasonable crescendo in complexity and variety, is the main motivational factor. After a while, you stop waiting for clues and information on the story and you just need to push on for no other reason than to discover what challenges the producers have in store for you. The difficulty begins and ends with the phrase „Well, you move by pressing the arrow keys, and Ctrl has you grabbing on stuff.”
And thus, the rest of the game just has you applying these pieces of knowledge in increasingly diverse contexts. Sure, some mechanics repeat themselves (pulling levers, positioning boxes, that worm I was telling you about), but how you apply simple physics principles that you first learned about in the sixth grade is a matter that gets tested one level up plenty of times across your adventure’s timeline.
Timeline that, to be honest, will be quite short. An hour, maybe two. That’s if you don’t want to get all 13 achievements, in which case you’ll most likely need more than one playthrough. This will inevitably bring up the prime directive of the contemporary consumer, also invoked in the case of Portal or Braid: „But oh, Zuluf, kind sir, is it worth it?”
The question of it „being worth it” is quite possibly the most often met stupid question when it comes to multimedia products. I honestly don’t know how to answer that without sounding as redundant as the question itself.
Economically, you calculate the workload necessary to obtain the 10 euros on Limbo’s price tag, and if you’re aiming for a life in which your rewards must equal your time spent getting them, time being the only factor here, then the formula is quite simple. If it takes you an hour, maybe two in order to get Limbo, then yeah, it’s worth it.
I, however, see Limbo as an experience. The work I’d have to put in, assuming of course it’s hard labor I have to endure, would disappear as a collateral cost under the weight of an emotion-rich, relaxation-triggering experience and will eventually make me grow through culture and symbolism. But well, maybe that’s just me and everything I write is nonsense.
In that case, and if we’re using a linear thinking pattern that relates to everything in terms of how many hours you punch in to get it, then you have bigger odds at the pot buying Call of Duty or an MMO. But if we use such a pattern, I don’t see why we would play Limbo in the first place.