In a few minutes YoungAn upcoming 2D platformer from Demagog Studios and it hit me like a train: everyone wants to do the next Limbo or Inside.
Now, before anyone gets the wrong impression, I’m not saying platformers like this are derivative or boring. By no means. Anyway, this is more of a comment on how the original Playdead platformer duology is 2010s Limbo and its 2016 spiritual successor, Inside– surpassed the status of “trial classic game”. They spawned their own subgenre. We’ve had Metroidvania since video games were nothing more than initial lines of code. The term “soul-like” has dominated gaming discourse for the past half century. I’d like to propose a new phrase to enter the gaming shorthand canon: “Limbolike”.
The definition of Limbolike is not an exact science, but there is a visual language that establishes a generality. It can’t just be a side-scrolling platformer with puzzles and a flamboyant art style; this is path too broad definition. Limbolike should be moody and atmospheric. This should include some creepy desolation or weird AF science, or both. This should portray you as a stubborn loner who does not speak. (Bonus points if you play as a kid.) But above all, Limbolike should make you feel like you don’t know what the hell is going on – at least not for sure. You will have to come up with your own thematic interpretations.
We’ve been swimming in these games lately.
Take Il, a puzzle-platformer from up-and-coming indie studio Spiral Circus, released this month for consoles, Switch, and PC. It certainly has the visuals to match, all done in delightfully textured grayscale. You play as a deep sea diver exploring abandoned scientific facilities. The trick is that you can transfer your consciousness into various sea creatures – lanternfish, hammerhead sharks, etc. – using their innate ability to avoid obstacles. I’ve been through a few chapters and I don’t understand what’s going on. It’s Limbolike!
There is also this year a calm, serene Far away: changing tides, from Ocomotive. Although it does not have grayscale images, IlIt unequivocally nails the Limbolike tone. There are light platforming elements, and sometimes you have to solve an elementary puzzle to get past, say, a sea gate. But the key to its limbo-likeness is that you are alone. You are traveling through the world left behind. And you have no idea how and why you are alone.
The last few years have, of course, been littered with similarly dark side-scrollers. Some, while awesome, don’t quite clear the Limbolike strip: Ori and the Will of the Wisps. (Too focused on action, too outspoken in his topics.) Carrion. (Sorry, power fantasy doesn’t fit.) Metroid Horror. (Yeahhhh, I think it fits in another sub-genre platformer.)
This morning at the Tribeca Festival, I did 20 minutes of practice with Young. Based on what I’ve played – with the significant caveat that it’s still in development and that impression may change once it’s fully released – I’m inclined to say it raises the bar.
You are a child. The demo I played showed me a futuristic version of Earth, destroyed and abandoned by people who left the planet to establish a colony on Mars. (Young The action takes place in the same fictional universe as Demagogue’s satire on capitalism. Golf Club: Wasteland.) When there are no people nearby, the child is literally brought up by wolves. All this time, soldiers affiliated with some nefarious scientific organization have been trying to stop you for reasons that have eluded me. The goal, at least as stated in the demo I played, is to keep moving towards the right side of the screen, which you achieve by jumping, dashing, climbing ledges, and occasionally swinging on vines.
Before the game begins, the child you play as finds an astronaut’s helmet tuned to a radio station from Mars. Not only does this give the child their first experience with other people, but it also offers a (very minimalist) excuse for a killer OST. From what I understand, the whole game is a mixture of indie rock rumors and esoteric dispatches from the now Martians. (One neat touch: when you enter the cave, the radio switches to static. You can’t receive a signal.) Young beyond that, it’s full of inexplicable oddities: neon blue giraffes and balls of flying purple slime, plus the whole “soldiers firing guns at a child” thing. But sometimes it’s a touch on the nose. At one point, you see a glowing roadside sign with most of the text off. Are there only letters left? RUIN.
Limbolike is defined not only by what is happening now, but also by what is on the horizon. Lana’s planet, developed by Wishfully and expected for release this year, takes you as a child to an exoplanet. Early footage indicates extremely Limbo energy. Somerville, from UK developer Jumpship, depicts you as an adult, accompanied by a dog, trying to survive on a planet surrounded by giant aliens. Early shots there also radiate extremely Limbo fluids (roadmap posted by xbox yesterday indicates Somerville to be released in 2022, but no release date has been set.)
Limbolike might not even be a side-scroller. During yesterday’s big xbox presentationAnnapurna Interactive publishing house presented Cocoon. Designed by Lead Gameplay Designer Inside as well as Limbo, you can’t help but notice that it carries the DNA of those two games despite the top-down view. There’s also some weird shit going on: you carry worlds within worlds that exist in pokeball-sized spheres. Hm.
Given the long and often difficult timelines for game development, this takes a while, but there comes a point where you see the influence of a landmark game start to generate enough obvious comparisons that you can’t ignore. We hit the spot for some gritty action games from FromSoft. We are definitely on target. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wildand even the typically cocky Sonic the Hedgehog went down the path dark, melancholy open world. Six years after release Inside, I can confidently say that we too have reached saturation point. Attract limbo likes.