Have you ever seen the movie Night of the Living Dead? What that movie did is present a bleak outlook, created deepened horror, and created a contrasting effect on the subject matter by deciding to use black and white in lieu of color. It works extremely well and adds another layer of depth to the film. When used properly(like the aforementioned film) this trick can add more artistic merit to the film and in the end what you get is more of an experience more so than entertainment.

So, why am I talking about movies when I should be reviewing a video game. Well video games have as many things in common with movies as they do differences. One of the things they have in common is how an artistic choice can have a major impact on the whole of a game giving it a whole different meaning. This artistic choice in question is the use of black and white. In the 2D side scrolling platform/puzzle game Limbo by Playdead Studios you traverse a world completely devoid of color as you push forward to discover the purpose of your journey. The lack of color in this game creates a harrowing experience that, unlike a movie, can only be experienced in video game form.

As you start the game you find your character, a young boy, lying on the ground in a bleak forest. As he comes to and everything comes into focus you have no idea why you are there or what is to be done and the only thing you can do is go forward(or, hint hint, backward for an easy achievement) and see what awaits you. As you move along through the world of Limbo obstacles block your path forward and you need to figure out how to manipulate the various boxes and set pieces of the environment to unblock your path and push forward once again.

As you move along you pass through 2 main areas, a haunting forest and a dilapidated mechanical factory each boasting puzzles that fit their environment well. For example, in the forest you pull a bear trap under a rotting carcass hanging from a tree branch to have it pull of the carcass, release some weight and bring the branch up to a higher level so you can progress. In the factory levels puzzles utilize magnetism, machinery, and gravity manipulation to allow you to pass to the next obstacle. All the puzzles of the game are well thought out and you will be pushing you trial and error and puzzle solving skill to the max. Along with the puzzle solving there is also a need for quick reflexes and excellent timing skills in order to properly execute the solution to a given puzzle. At times you can be sloppy with your timing, at others you need to be dead on, which can be frustrating, but when you finally pull it off you will get a great sense of self satisfaction. Also included is optional achievements that have you searching for hidden insect eggs to crush. Finding and figuring out how to reach them adds another handful of puzzles to the game, and are a welcome addition to the game.

As far as a narrative goes, there really much of one in the matter of traditionally speaking. The only thing you learn about your journey are vaguely revealed at the end and the story of the world you are exploring is told only through the environment and at times through the puzzles. What there is of a narrative is very well presented allowing the player to make his own conclusions to what is going on and what has happened to the little boy’s voyage through the world of Limbo.

The soundtrack is extremely minimalistic and acousmatic adding even more to the bleak and harrowing realm of the game. You will hear the sounds of footsteps, the hum of machines, the wind blowing, the pattering of rain, and the snap of electricity and all this creates “music” that adds so much more to the emotional experience of Limbo than any sweeping score ever could. If you have headphones available, this is one game that would love to be heard through them so you can hear every nuance that just adds more layers to an already excellent, and different, audio experience.

Visually, Limbo is a stunner. Like stated before, the entire world of limbo is monochromatic. You will not see anything outside of black, white, and the shades of grey they combine when mixed together. This approach completely changes the way you look at the game. Without the lack of color, the game would leave you with a very good platform/puzzler, but nothing else. Removing the color adds levels of atmosphere and emotion that I have never seen in any other game. Think of the horror and thriller films where the director just shows you a shadow of the monster or pursuer. It’s a lot more terrifying not knowing what it is that is haunting you, your mind fills in the blanks and what you can conjure up in your mind is a lot more terrifying that anything that can pop up on the screen. Your own imagination will create an image of the shadow or darkened object and what you personally fear is exponentially greater than what any director or game designer can begin to imagine.

This is a game that will be used in the “Video Games as Art” argument for a long time and rightfully so. Limbo is a work of art and if you take a step back and look at it as something beyond just a video game you will see there is a lot to be discovered. It’s a game about fear. Fear of personal safety, fear of the safety of others, fear of loss, fear of confusion, and fear of the unknown. I highly recommend purchasing Limbo and playing through it to the end, even if you need to refer to a walkthrough to get past a couple of the games more difficult puzzles. It is relatively short, about 6-8 hours on your first playthrough depending on your puzzle solving skills, and the frequent quicksave feature can also allow you to play the game in short bursts, although I recommend sitting and devouring this game by large chunks and enveloping yourself in its world. This is an experience not to be missed and is currently available on Xbox Live Marketplace and through the retail package of the Xbox Live Greatest Hits Collection. It will be making its way to the PC through the digital distribution service Steam in the near future.

Photo Credits: http://www.limbogame.org/gallery/

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