Xbox Live Arcade
Limbo is one of those releases that people like me show to grown-up sceptics when attempting to convince them of the breadth and promise of the video game. Often, showing "mature-content" video games to non-gamer adults can be embarrassing. Eager to demonstrate that they can participate in the grown-up entertainment media, developers and publishers have pushed "adult" content to extremes over the past few years. This has been pioneered by Rockstar, the self-styled bad geeks of game development, who have produced some of the best work of the past decade.
But much as Rockstar's work is emblematic of video-gaming's maturity, it also clearly demonstrates its thematic myopia. Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt and latterly Red Dead Redemption display an adultness almost entirely informed by cult American cinema and trash pop culture. To find games where "mature" means something other than gangsters running over prostitutes (while swearing), we need to look somewhere other than the blockbuster releases.
Sensitive to this opportunity, Limbo wears its artfulness on its sleeve. Uncompromisingly bleak and unforgiving, this strictly monochromatic game plays out within a mistily rendered Fritz Lang world. Can it be that an Xbox Live Arcade game has snuck in that directly celebrates German expressionist cinema? (Do the shareholders know?) Through its explicit referencing of Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Limbo channels an aesthetic gravitas with which it proceeds to assault you.
You're a young boy who awakens alone in a dark forest. The game offers no context, no speech, no exposition, no clue why. This being a video game, you assume you need to do something, so you stand and start running to the right. Skipping along, the animation creates a palpable vulnerability, and the game quickly forces a remarkable and essential empathy between you and the boy. Within the first few minutes of play, you fall into a pit of wooden stakes that you had no way of seeing. You're impaled and your body breaks into pieces. It's genuinely unsettling.
It soon becomes clear that you're going to have to solve some puzzles in order to stop this repeated dying. While the challenges you face are often utterly unfair - you won't be aware of them until they have decapitated you - they are generally fastidiously fair in their solution. The persistence of the world and the physics that govern it usually reveal the solution to whatever obstacle you face. This is a game of rehearsing solutions until you find the right one.
Equally persistent is the cruelty of the game, which remains undiluted throughout. At one point you catch sight of other young children, evoking Lord of the Flies as they set traps and hurl rocks at you. Ultimately, however, you "win" as you employ one of their dead bodies as a makeshift bridge. Mario, this is not.
Perhaps most satisfying about Limbo is that it has an end. In a commercial culture in which value is often directly linked to the longevity
of a game's duration ("Over 30 hours of first-person mayhem!"), it is refreshing to be tethered to a complete arc of experience. It's (just) short enough to be played at one sitting, inviting you to play and replay the game in the same way you reread a novel or gather round to watch a favourite film. This isn't simply about discovering more hidden gameplay secrets, but about the richness of the aesthetic experience being more than enough to satisfy repeated plays. Surely that's a sign of real maturity?
Iain Simons is director of the GameCity festival.