Limbo 1: Murnau’s Forest

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I’ve only been playing Limbo for a little while—this post covers two twenty-minute blocks of gametime—but already I am getting used to moments like this one, when I encounter a scene that brings me to a startled halt, gazing at some vision that is simultaneously horrible and beautiful. I stare (or rather, I regard my avatar as it stares with its bright, empty eyes) and take the measure of the mise-en-scene, which so niftily merges the cinematic with the algorithmic. Seen as a frame of film, the chiaroscuro layers of this misty, monochrome forest recall F. W. Murnau and Jean Cocteau, or the multiplanar woods in classical Disney features: Bambi, Snow White. Engaged as a juncture in a videogame, by contrast, the little diorama explicitly presents itself as a puzzle to be solved, an experiential bottleneck to the story’s unfolding. I know I can stand here forever if I choose.

I guess what I’m saying is I like Limbo’s pauses, the aporia that precede its epiphanies. The equilibrium they provide acts as an antidote to the relentless, headlong run-and-gun that typifies other games I play—the 2016 Doom most recently—as does the game’s nearly silent soundscape of drifting winds, rustling leaves, creaking chains, and buzzing flies.

I also like the frequency with which the game kills me. Every obstacle that impedes my rightward progress through this platformer’s sidescrolling world comes with a lesson in the form of a tiny death that will repeat until the problem’s solution has been learned: Falling on spikes will kill you, so jump over them. You will drown if your head goes underwater, so find a boat or a floating log. Some lessons are functional, the rudimentary physics of manipulation: Ropes can be climbed and swung on. Objects can be pushed and pulled. Some lessons are accidental and purely felicitous: Hold down the right- and up-arrow keys and you will skip childlike through the blowing grass. I care very little about my in-game puppet, whose dopey, compliant body reminds me of the kids savaged in Billy’s Balloon (Don Hertzfeldt, 1998). I drop it off trees and throw it into bear traps just to hear the meaty squish of its annihilation.

But I keep moving forward. After a period of isolation, alone except for the occasional rotting corpse, I’m starting to encounter other life: a giant, spear-legged spider. Another child like myself, running off as I approach. And every so often I crunch over a glowing egg and a score pops up. These bread crumbs, I surmise, will mark my progress through Limbo. When I shell out to the menu, I note that I have completed 11 “chapters” out of 40 or so.