Limbo -- Backlog Club October
Image: Playdead

This article is part of our experimental series, Backlog Club, where we (Nintendo Life!) pick a game that's on our list of "games we should get around to playing", and then we (NL + you!) spend the next month playing that game. This is the finale for this month, after we played Inside earlier on.

So, now that October is Oct-over, it's time for Kate to finish up Limbo...

Limbo is one of those games that you sort of have to play. It's a seminal work, one of the early capital-I indies that inspired a wave of thinky puzzles that were about more than just mechanics. So of course it was on my personal backlog — but, I'll be honest: I was putting it off.

I have played a little bit of Limbo before. A long time ago, in fact — when it was on Xbox Live Arcade — and I quickly gave up. It's a tricky game, and I am not really a patient person. But ten years must have made me a more patient person, surely? Isn't that the whole thing about aging, that you get wiser and calmer?


Limbo -- Backlog Club October
Not only can the boy not swim, he has no desire to even try, and will sink like a stone in any body of water deeper than he is tall — Image: Playdead

I have never wanted to throw things at the TV and sulk as much as I did when playing Limbo. Maybe playing it after Inside was a mistake, because I feel like Inside was a beautifully executed refinement of Limbo's modus operandi, and I think that Limbo pales in comparison. Perhaps you don't agree with me, and that's absolutely okay, but at least hear me out first.

The way Limbo is structured makes it a trial-and-error puzzle. Each small black-and-white puzzle-vignette has one solution, and it's usually not obvious at first. It'll involve exact placement of boxes, extremely tight timings, and avoidance of all the game's murderous obstacles to get past each one. Failure usually results in your avatar, a little paper-doll silhouette of a boy, being killed in one of a myriad gruesome ways: dismembered by a buzzsaw, turned into boy jam by a mysterious crushing-thing, zombie-walked into a hole by a brain-worm, or riddled with bullet holes by a laser. Who built this boy-murdering factory, anyway?

But returning for a moment to what I said before: I am not a patient person. There is a limit, apparently, to how many times I can watch a game gleefully ripping apart my on-screen child self before I start to get a bit ticked off. Unfortunately for me, Limbo absolutely revels in failure.

Limbo -- Backlog Club October
It's boy-squishin' time! — Image: Playdead

A lot of Limbo's puzzles feel like you are in almost direct communication with the puzzle designers, as if they're watching you through a one-way mirror and cackling as you discover a new type of electricity that kills boys, or that boxes dropping on your head are very bad for your life expectancy. I can hear them. The way the puzzles are designed, unless you know exactly what to do (or you are very lucky), you will fail each one at least once, and that's what the designers want from you — discovery through failure.

And hey, I'm not opposed to that! Learning from mistakes is a vital part of being a human, and Limbo isn't that punishing — you'll just get booted back to the start of the puzzle as the designers press their excited faces against the glass and urge you to try again. Plus, I adore roguelikes, a genre that's all about learning from the mistakes you made on the last run, and perfecting your technique to make it juuuust a little bit further on the next one.

But there's something about Limbo's particular brand of "oooooh, not quite, go on, try again" that really does not sit well with me. Do you remember Bean Dad? It's okay if you don't. It was a short-lived meme of a moment on Twitter, in which a man refused to help his nine-year-old daughter open a can of beans because it was a "Teaching Moment". It took her hours to work out how to use a can opener, because he refused to give instructions. She was hungry, she was tired, she was understandably furious at her father for being a strange and riddlesome Rumpelstiltskin, rubbing his hands together and urging her to try harder instead of just helping her to open the damn beans.

Limbo -- Backlog Club October
I have a particular hatred of chase sequences in games, probably because I have anxiety and it spikes my adrenaline something fierce — Image: Playdead

Limbo is my Bean Dad. I get that it's trying to teach me things, and to test me, but it is not my kind of fun, as it turns out. I do not want to have my fragile child body tossed into pits because I didn't position the crate in exactly the right place, or I jumped for a ladder 0.2 seconds too late. And don't get me wrong, I really appreciate Limbo's puzzle design — it's fantastically clever, and there's a reason people love it so much — but a can opener is clever design, too. It doesn't help that it's clever if you just want beans. Or, in Limbo's case, to enjoy yourself.

I think that's why I liked Inside, and didn't like Limbo, in the end. Inside takes the clever puzzle design, and lets you iterate on it more freely; Limbo is far more punishing, and although it has some rather beautiful "ah-ha!" moments, it has far more "oh come on" moments. I know what I'm supposed to be doing! I just can't get the timings right! I've never been good at timings!!!

I admittedly feel like one of those people who plays a game like Super Mario Odyssey or Skyrim before the old classics, and says that the originals are all a bit rubbish, aren't they? But just like trying to wrestle with the aging camera controls and frustrating mechanics of those old classics, Limbo makes me feel stupid and slow. Perhaps if I'd played more of Limbo back when it was the hot new thing, I could better appreciate what it was doing, and how it helped to shape the indie game scene as it is today. So, for the record, Limbo is a very impressive game, with some very impressive puzzle design. But I'm too hungry and too tired. I just want to crack it open and eat all the beans.

Am I being too unfair to Limbo?

Another month, another Backlog Club entry crossed off our list! What should we play next, fellow backloggers? Tell me your choice of games in the comments below.