You know the feeling you get as you slip out of a dream with a start? That rush through darkness, like a free-fall your subconscious must end before the fall ends you? That's Limbo.
As a faceless shade of a child, the player controls a hellion bent on destroying everything around him to seek out his lost sister. Or is he the one who is lost? Limbo raises a myriad of questions throughout its five or so hours. You may even be saying, "hey, I couldn't help it if I made the boy wreak all of his surroundings!" But it happened. A spider was decimated, a body was hung, floods ripped and tore at piping, and the boy went on his careful, merry way.
Of course, this is all set in a world where actions are as stark as the light pervading the murky depths of the game's fore- and backgrounds. A bloodless world of gore. Of the many minds I've picked since its release, not a single soul has been able to ignore the quickness with which the child's eyes snap shut when death interrupts his progress. Yet, right back at it he goes, searching for a sister players can't help but feel they'll never see.
The addition of the action button complicates the formula to just the right level for each of the thought-twistingly delightful puzzles. Each one more dastardly than the last, the difficulty curve is rarely out of check as the solutions transform from "ah-hah!" to mind-wiping, jaw-dropped, lip-curling nirvana. Simplicity begets ingenuity begets simplicity. Side-scrolling has not been less complex since Mario first set foot in the Mushroom Kingdom. Several attempts have been made at modernizing a retro-platformer, though none as intuitive as Limbo has been; not even Braid.
Speaking of Braid, another exceptional element these two Live Arcade games share is their score. While Braid's was pieced together from an unrelated trio of demi-maestros' string and percussion pieces, Limbo's ambient chorus of tumbling water, grinding industry, and snapping twigs is enough a compliment to push the game deeper into the mind. An aurally austere short tale, our boy-hero's sonic-journey is punctuated by death. The scream of whirling saw-blades becomes an exclamation mark after a missed jump. Thumping pistons question whether you know what you are even doing. A singular hidden bear trap becomes the period on a section of unscathed platforming.
Limbo feels as simple as a sentence, but is as rich as collection of poetry. There's even a moment, completely and heart-wrenchingly, out of the player's control midway through where the boy almost reaches his sister, but Playdead removes control from our fingers and inserts a slug into the boy's brain. During these sections of the game, light allegorically redirects players to a path that will right their malady (the brain slug), but only if the player is quick-witted enough. Lost (even more) to the world, the boy's path must be restrained, almost sculpted, to ensure his survival until a time when stalagbites can consume the intruder. Unfortunately, once the boy is slug-free he returns to his sister's last-known whereabouts and we experience a "The Princess Is In Another Castle" moment.
Seldom does progression lead to confusion in horror games. Nearing the penultimate puzzle in Limbo makes one come to terms with all they have experienced the last 24 levels, each of the mechanics, the horrors, the deaths, all fluidly compounding to the final timed jump. And once our boy has whipped around courtesy of gravity's instability, we can only stare as he slams into a pane of glass, and skids to a halt among soft grass. Each breath is labored with nightmares; enormous insects, screeching industry, drowning, looming puberty, darkness, glowing slugs... Control leaves our hands and his sister's innocent silhouette gives us pause. As it began, Limbo fades out with an innocent gasp punctuating the silence, sending our minds reeling.