Limbo & my introduction to indie games
All gameplay images captured via the PS5 share feature.
Indie games are an incredibly popular and viable alternative to your usual triple-A blockbusters that nowadays garner much of the attention. When I first began writing this, I stumbled over that sentence and debated whether to scrap it entirely as I felt it might not be representative of the reality. But then it was widely reported that Sony fully intends to pursue just blockbusters, leading me to feel reassured that what I had written was justified. It is reasonable to assume that the typical gamer may completely miss the latest indie release, with mostly only those passionately delving into each release realising an obscure gem has hit the online store.
I regularly peruse the online stores across Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo, picking up indie titles on sale. Standout titles such as Deadlight, Lone Survivor, Never Alone, Dead Nation, Resogun, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Among the Sleep, Ultimate Chicken Horse and many more can often be purchased for only a few pounds in one of the numerous sales for each system. I have sunk hundreds of hours into indie titles over the years, as so have countless others. The fact that some of my most cherished video games were created by development teams as small as only a handful of individuals (even a single individual on occasion) is mind-blowing! However, I must confess that my appreciation for indie teams and their creations has not always been this high. Not until I experienced Playdead’s Limbo back in 2010.
I was almost at the end of another school year, with the game releasing in late July. I had the entire summer ahead of me before my final year in secondary school would commence. A summer that would be spent creating many memories, and obviously many of them would relate to video games. I eagerly awaited Limbo’s release, and so on Wednesday the 21st July, I bought Limbo on the Xbox Live Marketplace for 1,200 Microsoft points (approximately £9.99) when Microsoft points were still the questionable digital currency needed to purchase content from the store. The game booted up with the bold title near filling the screen before moving on to the main menu with the ominous wilderness looming in the background. Starting a new game shifts to our protagonist (the boy) lying on the ground, soon awaking in this world known as Limbo.
Limbo is a 2D side-scroller in which you control the boy in just a few simple ways. You move from left to right, jump with the A button and hold onto objects with the B button pressed down. That is all there is to it regarding controls, and that is a plus in my book. It was a refreshing change to only need two buttons alongside the analogue stick. For a few hours, I didn’t need to learn a complex string of mechanics or memorise thirty different ways in which I could use the buttons on my controller, and that is a pleasant change of pace from time to time. Simplicity and minimalism define the game, from the gameplay to the puzzles, art style and the story. Although, it can also be argued that nothing is as simple as it first appears. For instance, the story could be seen as just a boy searching for a girl and has to go through various hazard-filled locations to do so. But maybe it goes much deeper than that?
The story is rather ambiguous, and there is an abundance of theories as to what the narrative actually is all about. After some research, I learnt that in Catholic theology, the word limbo means a place where unbaptized children reside who have died in infancy. The reason for this being that they are too young to have committed any sins but have yet to be freed from original sin. I feel it is worth mentioning that I am not religious, but I will listen and learn if the opportunity arises. I digress. My point behind the meaning is that one theory for the game's story is that the boy (our protagonist) has died and is now in limbo. The roughly two-hour adventure sees the boy search for his sister, with the theory being the boy is seeking his sister to say one final farewell before he ascends to heaven. Spoilers for a game over a decade old… the journey ends with him finding his sister. She appears to be covering or digging the ground, and many believe that she is burying her brother in the final scene. She feels his presence and stands up, to which the boy supposedly says his final goodbye. Whether this is the actual plot is up to each player to decide, but it is the one I believe to be happening.
The length will vary for each player also, especially since the puzzles will almost always kill the boy on the first attempt. The developers coined this style as ‘trial and death', and it will practically sum up everyone’s first playthrough. You will fail many times, and that is just part of what you must undergo. The games physics system comes into fruition here, with the player needing to work with it to avoid each gruesome death. At first, it will be as simple as leaping over chasms and bear traps. But, not far into the game, more thought will be required to overcome whatever is waiting to dismember the boy. Now you will need to use the bear traps to amputate enemies before they can do the same to you. That crate you left behind was the crate you needed to escape the room now filling with water! A body of someone you saw drown is unfortunately what you must use to trip the wire of the trap ahead. Limbo makes a lot out of a little and every puzzle has a relatively simple solution, even if it means becoming as ruthless as the rest of the world.
Along with the bleak environments and oppressive sense of doom, the deaths are also particularly vicious! Despite the unembellished art style, the ways in which the boy can perish will shock many, with it being very likely you will see the boy being decapitated, dismembered, shredded, skewered and crushed. I recall many reviews back then pointing out how graphic it can sometimes be. But the world of Limbo is not made of flowers and rainbows. Every part of this hell is black and grey and creates a feeling of being in a nightmarish dream where everything makes sense and yet doesn’t at the same time. Once again, it is simple but has much more depth when given a second look. Even the subtle use of music could be described in a similar way. Music is only used in a few sections, adding to the dread felt throughout each perilous chapter. One moment I love is during a section where you must take many leaps of faith from one tree to another. Suddenly a boulder swings towards the boy, and the likelihood is you failed to react in time initially. After your second effort in which you presumably survive, the music kicks in! The bass is heavy, and it immediately informs the player that this world wants you dead! It is masterful, as is the rest of the game.
Once I beat Limbo for the first time, I waited until the following day and then dived back in. Since then, I must have finished the game at least another six or seven times. Not only so I could attain the trophies for it (one of them to beat the game in one sitting with five or fewer deaths), but to just relive this indie game I categorically adore! Don’t get me wrong, I had played a few indie games before this but had never really thought much of them and most certainly never appreciated them as much as Limbo. After this, I started to keep track of the latest indie titles releasing. I became just as invested in indie games as I was triple-A releases. Playdead released Inside in 2016, which I had on my radar from the moment it was announced, buying it as soon as it was available. I can’t help but feel as if Limbo boosted my adoration for games such as Little Nightmares also. I recently published a blog about my tattoos relating to video games, with my most prominent tattoo being the one on my back that is of fan art of the game Limbo. I even purchased the PC physical edition just so I had it physically at the time, other than the triple pack with Trials HD and Splosion man (photo below). I have bought it for the PS4 and recently on the switch to play it on the go as well. Is this all a little much and perhaps obsessive for a 2D side-scroller? Possibly. But to me, it is yet another example of how much I treasure video games. There is one more reason for my passion for this game, however.
Something I will be talking about in the future is the combination between video games and mental health, with that being something I have been working on for a very long time indeed. I say this because I remember a piece of fan art that revolves around Limbo. Like a comic book strip, it has three images in rows. The first is in the usual black/grey art style. It depicts the boy stood looking at the spider that pursues you in the game, with a torch in the middle of them. The second is the same art style again, but the boy has now picked up the torch, yet to turn it on. The third shows the boy casting light over the spider, and now the spider is adorable looking. The grass is green, and flowers populate the ground. Maybe I am just a pretentious douche who looks too deep into things. But this piece of fan art changed how I viewed the game and resonated with me on another level. Perhaps what I perceived to be depressing, bleak and dark would look entirely different with some light cast over it. Like I said earlier, nothing is ever as simple as it first appears.