Visual style makes ‘Limbo’ a unique game

Limbo” is a beautiful and creepy game that ought to fascinate students of art and video games.

The plot is no more than one sentence from the game’s tagline: “A boy — uncertain of his sister’s fate — enters limbo.” That’s limbo, as in a purgatory for children only. Other than that tagline, this game contains no dialogue. And there’s no storyline development until the very last 30 seconds.

And yet, “Limbo” is a fun and intriguing piece of art that has already won an “Excellence in Visual Art” award at the 2010 Game Developers Conference.

Here’s what happens in this side-scrolling horror-adventure:

At first, you (the boy) enter an evil forest. Then comes an evil factory. You often see other children hanging dead by nooses. A few rival children try to kill you with blow darts.

Giant spiders stab at you with their pointy extremes.

And much of the gameplay is a series of inspired puzzles that don’t seem to repeat themselves, which is very nice and often quite challenging.

So, in a second-half puzzle, you must manipulate an assortment of factory wheels and levers in a certain order, to change the direction of gravity many different times, to clear a bizarre-o-world path for yourself.

That game play is entertaining. But the visual style — entirely set in gray tones — is what makes this game unique.

It’s reminiscent of the great black-and-white films of the 1920s, like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and even some Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd pictures.

Your character, the boy, moves fluidly like an artful child, but he’s drawn in black silhouette with flashlight-bright eyes (sinister), and he moves to a musical score of menacing tones.

The screen always has a slight oval shadow around its edges, just like “Dr. Caligari” does.

And at all times, you see the boy and elements near him in perfect focus, but items in the immediate foreground and background are a blur. That’s how movies looked before deep focus was invented.

I finished “Limbo” in a mere 3½ hours. I imagine a casual gamer could get six to 12 hours out of it. It can be played only as a $15 download from Xbox Live.

The game can really mess with your head, since it seems at times like “Lord of the Flies,” or the Bauhaus nephew of “Alan Wake,” or a panicky Kafka echo of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement.”

I think it’s suitable for many kids, but not for sensitive parents of young kids, since they could be disturbed by images of a boy being repeatedly diced by a buzz saw or burned alive by a tire swing’s tire set aflame.

Oh, did I mention this game was made by Danish game designers working for a company called PlayDead? Oh, yes, the Danes are a morbid lot.

(“Limbo” by PlayDead retails for $15 through Xbox Live — Plays fun and fascinating, though very short. Looks phenomenal. Challenging. Rated “T” for animated blood, mild violence. Four stars out of four.)

Contact Doug Elfman at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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