Limbo is the arresting puzzle-platformer released in July for Xbox Live Arcade, and I wanted to talk a bit about this fascinating game through the lens of narrative design. So if you haven't played and finished it already, I highly recommend you do so before reading -- or even instead of reading. After all, beautifully crafted and artful games like this don't come around very often, though I'm not writing about Limbo here just because it's great.
In some respects, there's not much to say about Limbo's use of narrative. The game doesn't have a single spoken word in it and barely has any written words in it either. I believe "Hotel" is literally the only word that appears as part of the game itself (discounting menu text and credits). Like the rest of the narrative, I think this word ultimately is a red herring, something that probably inspires a lot of speculation about its meaning when players run into it, yet there's really not much there -- it's art for art's sake. Which is fine. This is how Limbo works.
Limbo has no real story as such. But you go through the game consciously or subconsciously looking for one, expecting one, because Limbo does such an excellent job of creating atmosphere and giving exposition, using methods that are as minimal as they are effective. Thus you expect the opening exposition to be expanded on, because of how our brains parse things shaped like stories. The game has one of the most intensely concentrated and compelling openings I've played in some years. It makes you think there's a story, and fills your head with dozens of interesting questions: who am I? where am I? why am I here? what am I looking for? who else is here besides me? am I even alive? The game's presentation is so strong that you in turn play through with the confidence that the authors of the game, and the game itself, must hold the answers. These types of questions are enough to keep you going through some extremely challenging puzzles that you'd sooner give up on if not for the game's narrative drive.
If you've finished the game, then you've unlocked all the stages in the Chapters menu. If Limbo were a typical puzzle game, that Chapters menu would have structured the experience. You would have selected puzzles from that screen, finished them or maybe not, then dropped back to that screen to pick the next one. As a result, the game would have been a pale shadow of itself. One of the things that makes Limbo so special among puzzle games and among platformers is that it offers a completely seamless, contiguous experience -- it's like one long level. You become completely immersed in it due to the flawlessly executed art style, audio ambience, and physics simulation, all delivered without interruption. At the same time, little story vignettes imply a greater meaning to the events that take place, a meaning you continue to search for until the game is over. The game breaks your immersion only when it gets too hard, which happened to me a couple of times early on then a couple of more times towards the end. But not so often that I wasn't fascinated to keep playing, to see where the whole thing was going.
It ends up going who-knows-where. The theme of the game gives it an "out" from a narrative perspective, in that a game about the place between life and death doesn't need to make sense (and probably shouldn't), and it doesn't need to provide clear answers (and probably shouldn't). Even still, Limbo's narrative felt incomplete to me in a way that wasn't entirely satisfying. I loved the starkness of the ending, the smash cut to the credits. I didn't love that things that seemed so intriguing in the game never came back into play. It struck me that the most interesting scenes were front-loaded. The game was at its most interesting when other living beings were afoot. Shadows of savage humanoids lurking in the darkness. Strange tortured souls hanging in the background. Flies swarming rotten chunks of meat. A man-made spider contraption. These sinister images are the game's most memorable. Later when it takes a shift to giant clockwork machinery and sketchy film noir neon signs, I realized that what was pushing me forward was my search for continuity, to see those dark shapes from the forest in the beginning come back and reassert themselves. And of course I wanted to see what happened at the end. It's a puzzle game and I was trying to piece together the biggest puzzle it had put in front of me. But it's the one puzzle that can't be solved. In the end, the game ends close to where it started, in the forest where the game is at its strongest. Limbo is a game about what it feels like to take a wrong turn.
I had this feeling that there's no continuity to the game in part because there was no good way to create continuity among the puzzles the design team chose to include and polish to perfection, probably from among many hundreds or thousands that they cut during the iteration process. I found myself wondering what content was left on the cutting room floor.
In the description paragraph you can read before you download the game, you're told that it's about a boy trying to find his sister. This is a surprisingly specific detail for a game that revels in unanswered questions. In Shadow of the Colossus, the ambiguity around the protagonist's relationship to the girl he seems to be trying to save works in the game's favor, to build intrigue. You're left to wonder about their relationship and what would drive the protagonist to do what he's doing for her sake. Even if it's love it takes a special love and a special woman to motivate a young man to hunt giant monsters for a woman's sake. In Limbo, you see an apparition of what looks like a girl on a couple of occasions before you finally encounter her right at the end. It's easy enough to interpret the plot of the game as something similar to Shadow of the Colossus from these scenes, yet being told precisely what the protagonist's relationship is to the girl he appears to be searching for feels unnecessary to a game that gives nothing else away. I wonder if the creators of the game had much of a part in writing that description.
I don't think most people went into Limbo expecting much of a story, and neither did I. But having a story isn't the only way to build narrative depth into a game, as Limbo demonstrates. The game may have no meaning, but man, does it ever make you search for one. At least that's how it worked on me, and I like it when games leave me with a lingering feeling, especially if they're going to be short. Did you take something different away from it than I did?