Imagine being a game dev and the calendar year for your launch includes Mass Effect 2, Halo: Reach, Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Red Dead Redemption. Now imagine launching a breakthrough game in the midst of that without any text, cutscenes, or colors. (Yes, colors).
It sounds impossible, no? You basically have every powerhouse in the industry dropping AAA-bombs every six weeks and somehow you not only compete, but thrive? What kind of a game would that be?
Limbo from Playdead is a remarkable feat of creative design and passionate game development. The story of the game is simple: players control a small silhouetted boy as he traverses an eerie (and lethal) forest in search of his kidnapped sister.
Not that you’d glean any of this from the intro. The 2010 game begins simply with your character waking up in a field, and you’re driven by the innate gamer instinct to go right. That’s it. It is minimalism at its finest. Yet the striking art style and brilliant sound design create an immersive atmosphere on par with anything else in Limbo’s busy launch year.
You soon encounter puzzles that, while familiar to most platform gaming enthusiasts, still manage to convey a lot of challenge and, depending on how attentive you are to the sparse details, a bit of confusion. The only standing criticism of Limbo that seems to stick is that it’s not for everyone. But unlike the ferocious franchises it launched against, Limbo isn’t meant to be for everybody, anyway.
Despite this, the response was tremendous. Reviews were immediately effusive and glowing with a rock-solid 9/10 on Metacritic. Even mainstream decidedly non-gaming outlets like The Atlantic covered it. Originally an Xbox 360 release, Limbo sold 300k copies its first month, and more than a million its first year. It’s been ported to every conceivable platform and sold millions more, and the reputation Playdead developed propelled their sequel Inside to the top of the charts, too.
The legacy of Limbo cannot be understated either. Before 2010, most indie success stories revolved around games that were decidedly “arcade-y,” fun, flashy titles like Castle Crashers that were awesome and well-designed, but void of any meaty artistic heft. Games like Kentucky Route Zero and Papers, Please and 12 Minutes owe a lot to the path Limbo created. It proved that there is an audience (e.g. $$$) for independent games with an artistic bent willing to take big risks.
It only takes about 5-6 hours to finish, but will take weeks before you can stop thinking about it. Is it fun? Not if you’re looking for light-hearted distraction, no. But it’s perfect for when you’re in a melancholy mood or need a palate-cleanser after a few weeks of binging Loki and chasing dodgeballs online. It’s beautiful and serious and difficult, like all the best challenges in life.
Limbo is available now on Game Pass, as well as Switch, PlayStation, PC, and mobile.