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Wot I Think: Limbo

Shades of grey

Limbo came out for PC yesterday, available via Steam for £7. Having never played the 360 version (despite paying for it - I'm an idiot) I've played it through for the first time and am ready to tell you just exactly Wot it is that I Think.

Limbo, as it happens, falls into the space between many things. It is both a beautiful and horrifying game. It is at once immensely simple and intricately complex. It both plays wonderfully on the PC, and is a horrendously insufficient port.

Originally released for the 360 in July last year, its reputation is long sealed. Winning numerous awards, being recognised as one of the best Xbox Live Arcade games ever, and sold over half a million copies in 2010. Which isn't bad for a two-hour indie game. But what exactly is it?

What I think I love most about Limbo is its faux-simplicity. It's a side-scrolling platformer, but even that description sounds too busy and over-involved to capture the essence of the game. Painted in soft-focused silhouetted black and white, sitting squarely between the design of World Of Goo and those weird Eastern European cartoons you'd see on BBC 2 at 4am, its delicacy is breathtaking. Your goal? Run from left to right. The reason? Unknown. (There's some nonsense about finding your sister in descriptions, but the game certainly doesn't trouble you with this at the start.)

There are a great many wonderful indie platformers around at the moment, and each defines itself with its unique gimmick. Perhaps you reverse time, or invert dimensions, or gain new skills. In Limbo you're the same near-helpless boy throughout, with keys to move, and one button to use. Instead it's how you interact with the levels that changes. But it's always simply about progressing from left to right, never with a purpose, and increasingly that begins to feel like the purpose.

Its silent opening is unsettling. What looks like a completely empty scene, some grass in front of the sky, ghosts of trees in the distance, in fact contains a boy lying in the grass. But it's a surprisingly length of time before this is revealed, and it's something that works almost as well as it doesn't. In film and television it would be extremely evocative, as in those mediums I'm a willingly passive non-participant. So it's only to some extent that works here. Because which of us isn't used to staring at a frozen game wondering if it's crashed or just loading, before Alt-Tabbing and Ctrl-Alt-Deleting to try to get a working PC back? Perhaps this is more appropriate for the 360 where crashing is at least less usual.

But this past, it's hard to level a single criticism at the game. Which is remarkable. The difficulty curve, as you explore to solve each area's challenges, is so precise, so perfect, that it feels sentient. The timing of so many moments is exquisite, objects falling away just as you leap past them, the rare enemies appearing with fear-inducing precision. The checkpointing is almost always right, with just two occasions where repeating a more boring sequence requires repetition, and it's only at the very end that the puzzles become truly mystifying. Before then they are instead something much more important: they're interesting. Limbo is serenely beautiful, and simultaneously horrifically unsettling.

If you never played it through on 360, as indeed I did not, then I do not want to take away from the moments of horror that occur. Instead I'll talk around them. At first I found the character's nonchalance to the world or events to be disappointing. I made a note on my pad reading, "In Ico there's a sense of the boy's fear." (Ico feels like an appropriate comparison, and while Limbo is shorter, and I would argue not quite as brilliant, it owes an awful lot to the 2001 classic.) But as I progressed I began to realise that ambivalence is part of the ghastliness that begins to envelop the game. It's deeply chilling. It doesn't matter how gloomy or pessimistic the game feels from the very beginning - it won't prepare you for what barely happens.

More obviously gruesome are the deaths. A shadow falling on a spinning blade shouldn't be this terrible to see. It's incredible how horrible they've managed to make such scenes, down to the black shadows of entrails flinging out of your mutilated body. It's not exactly the sort of thing you expect from a platformer, is it? And that's not to mention that spider.

But the role death plays is more interesting. Commonly games rooted in solving puzzles are criticised for not being possible to solve without dying first. It's a failing that perturbs me. But Limbo does something strange with this. Just at the point where the accusation could be reasonably levelled, it presents you with a sequence that's nothing but pure defiance. Two blocks are suspended in the sky, and under each is what looks like might be a large button. If you proceed a certain way under the first block it falls on you and kills you. So you start the sequence over, do it correctly, and run to the second. Again you repeat the safe technique and it drops on you and kills you. The only way past this second block would be the method that kills you on the first. It's deliberately impossible to know without trial and error - the game is messing with you. It wants you to be dying. Such experiences are all part of the overall looming oppression that is Limbo.

This non-stop gush of praise does rather come to an end when it comes to the PC porting, however. While the game plays perfectly, sadly there appears to have been almost deliberately unhelpful effort put into the options for this version. It's not the sort of port where everything's left in 360-speak. While it works very well with the PC's 360 controller, new graphics have been created to show you the keyboard layout. It's just that... you can't change these. And they're assigned to the arrow keys and Ctrl to 'use'. First of all, that's back to front to how most people are used to operating games these days, and there's no option to switch to WASD. But worse, using Up for jump is a horrible control mechanism, and certainly not one implemented in the 360 version. Use a controller and of course jump is assigned to the A button. There's no option to reassign it to your other hand for the keyboard.

The display options are equally barren. There's not even the ability to change resolution, let alone run the game in a window. At least it task-switches smoothly and quickly, which is a small blessing I suppose. Quite why the game should be dumped on PC so flippantly is mysterious. The game's been out for a year - this isn't a rush job. But it's impossible not to be annoyed by how cursory the efforts have been.

Of course, you forget you were bothered by that once you start playing, because this is undoubtedly one of the smartest, most evocative platform games in recent years. Its use of sound alone is outstanding, and describing that would be almost as much of a spoiler as explaining the solution to a puzzle.

It's £7 on Steam, which is significantly cheaper than the 1200 points you'll still pay for the Xbox version. While not a long game, and certainly not one that offers much value in playing more than once, it's of such exceptional quality that it remains entirely worth it.

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