Praise for Twisted Tales Events

'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Monday, 15 August 2011

Limbo reviewed by Tim Franklin

Developed by PlayDead
Published by PlayDead
Released in 2010
Available for Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, PC (Steam)
Certificate: Mature (M) - advisory only

As Limbo opens, you are presented with a forest of black trees, huge trunks stretching the height of the screen in a barcode pattern of black, white light, and more black. Behind and between them the forest stretches away, deeper, wrapped in heavy mist. The earth is black loam covered in black grass, and the light that penetrates the gloom is diffused by the constant fog. Where a solid beam of light makes its mark, it is painfully bright; over-saturated as a bad photograph. A little boy opens his bright white eyes and blinks - perhaps you didn’t notice him, lying on his back in the grass, because he too is completely black. He sits up, and now you’re into the game. You walk to the right, and begin your journey.

You will notice the way Limbo is presented to you before you notice what is being presented. In the videogame graphic landscape, currently dominated by hyper-realism and brown urban palettes, Limbo’s expressionistic greyscale startles and charms. Limbo’s game director Arnt Jensen developed the art style for Limbo while working as a concept artist at IO Interactive, as a way to keep himself sane in the increasingly corporate work environment. After an initial aborted foray into programming the game himself, he released a video of Limbo’s art in motion onto the internet, seeking out developers who could turn his animation into a game. The team that formed from this search is now the game studio Playdead, and comparing the final game to Jensen’s mock-up it’s apparent that the consistent, striking art style has been the guiding principle throughout Limbo’s development, informing the other aspects of the game’s design.

Although the doll-headed profile of the human(oid) characters will prompt some comparisons with Burton, Limbo is closer to the eerie gothic illustrations of Edward Gorey, or the expressionist silent cinema of Germany in the 1920s. The forests later give way to an urban hell straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927): environments warp and mutate to produce dreamlike distortions of scale that evoke Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The nameless protagonist is tiny in the forest, pursued by a gargantuan spider and dwarfed by the trees all around, but his encounters with industrial machinery suggest a built environment more to his scale. The random junctures between radically distinct environments, arbitrary mechanisms and improbable urban constructions throw the notion of a consistent world into doubt. The effect is uncanny and unsettling.

The sound design in Limbo deserves a special mention: eerie, airy and industrial, the synthesised soundscape hisses with a low level of static and an understated note of menace. It’s a benchmark in restraint, and combines with the panoramic hugeness and stark desaturation of the game’s environments to create a deeply immersive experience that floods the senses with white noise while depriving them of detail. When something disturbs this equilibrium you fix on it immediately. Limbo is best played in a dark room, in an empty house, with headphones clamped over your ears.

Your little boy will die, often; strangely silent as his neck snaps, his back breaks, and his torso is chewed up or his head is impaled with sudden rag-doll violence on a spike and the lights in his eyes go out. The world is littered with death-traps, some accidental (there is no shortage of deadly drops, precarious tree trunks or shorting electric circuits) and others literal, apparently constructed by Limbo’s itinerant pack of lost boys who appear from time to time to lethally bully your avatar and then flee. The art style colludes with the environments to make them even more deadly, obscuring some threats by blending them into the background and making others literally undetectable. This doesn’t feel like a failure on the designers’ part, but more like the product of a malicious and mischievous sense of humour. Often the only way to crack a puzzle is to die in the teeth of it, again and again. It’s a testament to the charm of the game and the satisfaction of completing one of Limbo’s deathtrap puzzles that this morbid design mantra will rarely spoil your fun.

Limbo channels the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft (of Cthulhu fame). Trapped in an incomprehensible universe of perpetually shifting rules and geometry, your boy is treated less with malice than with supreme indifference by his many murderers. Death at the spear-tipped talons of your spider nemesis is particularly ignominious: immediately bored with its kill, the arachnid flicks away your tiny corpse and returns to its previous repose.

Despite the persistent terror, this isn’t a nihilistic experience. After every failure you are presented with an immediate chance to repeat, and potentially escape, the previously fatal trap. There is always a way to succeed - inevitably, given that this is a game and not a Beckett play - but it still feels significant. Coffined in spider silk, enslaved by a mental parasite, trapped in a slowly filling water-tank, the nameless protagonist will engineer (or stumble across) some way to escape from his bind, rendering his previous deaths inconsequential. It will just take a few drownings or decapitations to figure out how to get to that point. Despite having no facial features except for eyes, your boy seems to be plucky and likable. Compare this to the state of the torture porn genre, a realm where violence begets deeper and deeper violence, and your little protagonist’s adventures become a humanist crusade to assert personhood in the face of an uncaring universe.

Limbo’s gameplay is satisfying and simple. It’s a puzzle platformer, a genre that went neglected for years until Portal (Valve, 2007) reminded everyone what was so fun about it - encountering seemingly impassable obstacles, from which you must glean some notion of a path and a plan before committing yourself to a rapid bout of twitchy reflex gaming that will either transport you to the other side, or the grave. Limbo shares a 2D design with its ancient forebears Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee (Oddworld Inhabitants, 1997) and Heart of Darkness (Amazing Studio, 1998), as well as their penchant for graphically inventive deaths and Heart of Darkness’s child protagonist. The puzzles rely on a modern physics engine which is subtly implemented. You may find yourself getting stuck on puzzles that cry out for binary solutions (switch on or switch off?) but which must be resolved by careful manipulation of momentum, inertia, and later in the game, magnetism and gravity. There are entire games in the marketplace devoted to each of these conceits; Limbo bends the rules of the game world a little at a time, never staying too long with any one idea.

Limbo is in fact very slight; a play-through should clock in at about the 4 hour mark. Given the low price-point for the game, this doesn’t grate too much (pound for pound Limbo compares favourably with cinema and comes out even stevens against budget DVDs), but the ending will come as a surprise, appearing at no particular dramatic juncture. This is perhaps a weakness of Limbo; while the levels are immaculately designed, there is nearly no narrative structure. You progress from left to right, away from one trial and towards another. This is made tense by the sympathy the hapless protagonist generates, and the awful beauty of the world he is locked in, and the game constantly innovates both its puzzles and landscape, pulling you on with pure entertainment. But the context for the boy’s actions - he seems to be seeking out a girl - is only suggested in very fleeting moments throughout the adventure. Even Mario had more plot.

Limbo is a creative whole. The plot and the gameplay have been folded around a singular graphic style that is never compromised. Purity of purpose has created something that is both beautiful and playable, wince-inducing and addictive. Limbo knows its limits, and perhaps that is the real reason for its abrupt ending: when the good ideas run out, the game stops. Compared to the lacklustre padding in many mainstream games, this seems immensely preferable: a short, sinister and utterly unique little game that will make you die again and again and again and come right on back for more.


Timothy Franklin works for Lancashire's literary development agency, Litfest. He's nearing the end of a course in playwriting at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, and a collection of reviews and mad railings at the government can be found at his blog, Unsuitable for Adults. He's a gamer, and that's where his interest in horror is most keenly focused.


  1. Potential buyers should be aware that Limbo is a regular in the various XBLA marketplace sales, and is often available for half price.

    At it's ordinary price it is great value, at half price it should be a definite purchase.

  2. I found that the "awful beauty" of the gameworld diminished in the second half, the cityscape. As a result, my enjoyment of the game diminished, too. Still a very engaging and atmospheric game. And I was happy to have the sense of dreadful mystery that was established in the first half of the game return at the very end.


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