It's time once again for the XBox Live Summer of Arcade, an annual promotion of new titles on XBLA. This week's title is Limbo, an indie game that proves it's the gameplay, stupid. That's not to say Limbo lacks style-- it goes out on a limb(o) on that front, presenting itself entirely in black and white silhouette. It's distinctive, albeit depressing. They also chose to use a blur filter which keeps me wanting to scream "Focus!" at the non-existant projectionist.
Gameplay is very, very simple. Move to the right (and occasionally back to the left, but generally, your goal is to advance to the right). Sometimes jump. Sometimes use things you come across (crates, power switches, etc). Don't die.
Except die you will. Many, many times. There's no story in Limbo-- you don't know who you are, where you are, or why you're on a relentless march rightward. But you quickly learn your surroundings are deadly and, mercifully, the cost of death is very low. The game autosaves at all the right times, resulting in very little pointless replaying of the same jumps and climbs. A click of a button puts you back at the start of the current puzzle.
That's more or less how the game is structured, as a series of puzzles. And the game's appeal lies in the utter simplicity, logic, and elegance of the puzzle design. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is extraneous. "Why is this elevator hoisted from above by chains, instead of being a single, solid piece?" you might ask. And well you should, because it's not by accident. The puzzles aren't convoluted. Their solutions aren't arcane. Everything is fair, laid out right in front of you. Delightfully, in most cases it's easy to execute the solution once you spot it-- you don't spend a lot of time retrying the same jump over and over to get the timing just right. This is a game that rewards thought, not reflexes.
There are some great bits of puzzle design here, but one particularly fine display of finesse involves some sequences where your character is forced to move in one direction only, either left or right, until something reverses or removes that restriction. At these times you often pass by ledges or routes that, because of your movement restriction, are inaccessible to you. But that's OK, because you know the game was designed that way. You know those routes are not important to you right now, because you simply can't use them. There's no anxiety about passing by, about wondering if you should be trying to reach them. A short while later, the simple removal of your movement restriction is a brilliantly organic design trick, instantly suggesting that since you can now go in the other direction, maybe you should check out those things you passed. In lesser hands, restricting an avatar's movement can frustrate a player. Here, it's actually liberating.
As clever as Limbo is, the oppressiveness of its art and sound make it a game I can only play in short bursts. Many will compare Limbo with Braid. The latter had bigger, bolder ideas in both story and puzzle design. People talked about Braid in a way I think few will talk about Limbo. I thought Braid's puzzle design had purity and elegance, but Limbo takes it a step further. I'm not sure, in the end, if it's a game people will love. As a game and puzzle designer, it's a game I certainly admire, and I'm enjoying the journey.