I am a wuss. I hate roller coasters, I used to hate being home alone, and I never play horror games. It wasn’t until I took a class on horror cinema in college that I learned to appreciate the genre. Growing up, I knew who Freddy Kruger was — someone to be avoided! — but learning about Robert Wiene, Kaneto Shindo, and Dario Argento actually made me interested in getting scared. But sadly, by that point I had already let Playdead’s Limbo pass me by.
So when the game was released last week for free on Xbox One, I couldn’t resist. It was time to face my demons.
It’s not that Limbo has a reputation for being the most terrifying game either. Even its most passionate players will tell you that Limbo isn’t scary, but richly atmospheric and ominous. Still, with the lights off on a recent summer night, I willfully let the game chill me (and I set my AC rattle on full blast).
Released in 2010 and conceived by Artn Jensen, the side-scrolling Limbo is a 2D platformer whose plot is as simple as the mechanics. Players control a nameless boy looking for his sister in a hostile forrest full of traps, gaps, giant spiders, and other people trying to kill or run away from you. The controls amount to three buttons: The joystick to move left/right, a jump button, and an “action” button, a catch-all to grab or use anything in the environment. And this is Limbo’s meanest trick: With few controls, players have to solve increasingly difficult puzzles through trial and error punctuated by gruesome deaths. It’s a good thing the visuals are nothing but oily silhouettes and foggy backdrops.
Whether intentional or not, Limbo is sometimes hilarious. Frustratingly so. Several times throughout the game you’ll fall into a bear trap, the metal teeth separating your body at the neck. It’s cartoonishly charming how your round head flies off, evoking early South Park when killing Kenny was the show’s best running gag. It’s the only solace in a nightmare you can’t wake up from.
But those laughs come and go. Fear surrounds Limbo like a fog, and it’s the most impressive element in the game. The Lovecraft-esque sense of dread is nailed throughout the five or six hour ordeal. It’s not about jump scares, though. This isn’t Five Nights at Freddy. Rather, the nightmares appear slowly, like an overwhelming force of nature — a giant spider’s legs out of the side of the screen, is perhaps the most recognized — to remind you how badly you should not be here.
Six years is a long time in video games. Later this month, Playdead will release Inside, a spiritual successor to Limbo with only a slightly more varied color palette and no less atmosphere to intimidate players inhabiting a non-superpowered, nothing-special protagonist against colossal odds.
Since Limbo, we’ve seen blockbuster triple-A games become even bigger, the proliferation of the mid-sized indie, the ubiquity of smartphones, whole new methods of distribution (perhaps the only other thing I dread more than giant spiders are microtransactions), the death of motion controls and the birth of VR … and yet, there’s still something effective, and effectively eerie, about two buttons and a joystick.