Fumbling for meaning in Limbo

What follows is not a review, because it’s got bigger spoilers than an insecure kid’s hotted-up Honda Civic. I’m assuming that you, the reader, have already played through this game and are also trying to come to terms what the heck it all meant. This is my attempt at interpreting the plot with the sparse imagery we’re given to work with.

I’ll say it again: spoilers lie within! If you don’t care about getting spoiled, you should stop reading anyway, because the game’s crowning glory sits atop a marvellously bittersweet journey best experienced firsthand.

Limbo is a game about a nameless boy who wakes on the floor of a forest, his glowing eyes the only feature differentiating his silhouette from the stones and branches in the foreground. Upon lifting himself from the ground, he advances through this bleak, grey forest in search of his missing sister.

We know the boy’s motivation from the numerous previews written about the game, but no indication of this is provided in the game itself; even the official website doesn’t tell us, leaving those without prior knowledge in the dark. Obviously – and interestingly – those who begin without a clue may develop a completely different interpretation of Limbo‘s powerful, wordless narrative.

The initial forest setting is deathly quiet, serene and, oh… full of menacing things that want to kill you. No big surprise for those of us with the Hates the Outdoors trait. It is here that the boy must begin to manipulate the repressive environment  to advance past the endless obstacles that would rather have him crushed, skewered, or eaten alive by a giant spider. There are countless ways to die, each one intricately and gruesomely animated, and it is likely that the player will experience most of these during the course of his playthrough, perhaps willingly.

Many games operate on the thinking that death is ‘bad’, and punishes you in some way for it. Death in GTA4 means you’re footing a hospital bill, as well as the forfeiture of whatever mission you were attempting. Die in World of Warcraft and it’s a nice run back from the graveyard for you, as well as damage to your armour once you are in possession of your corpse again. Other games know to hit the gamer where it hurts: right in the ego, with a frustratingly long loading screen that must be endured before play is resumed. Whatever the case, the message is clear: DON’T DIE! As a general rule, we try to avoid death.

In Limbo, however, death is unavoidable, nay, necessary. Many of the game’s physics-based puzzles don’t impart any clues about how they are solved from mere observation, and the player will find himself throwing the boy into bottomless pits and against electrified walls, trying to figure out how to manoeuvre his small protagonist through each deadly trap in order to survive. These numerous methods of death are grisly, and all the more horrifying when we realise that we are essentially murdering a small child repeatedly.

Why does this game put a small boy through something so awful? It might be a psychological approach to a very obscure backstory – is the boy so willing to throw himself into harm because the loss of his beloved sister has defeated his own will to live? Or does he force himself to do these things because he feels responsible for what happened to her? Is this his way of paying for it?

The boy’s repeated death is fascinating and nearly unwatchable. The player will likely have trouble stomaching the other gruesome acts he is forced to commit as well – using floating human corpses as stepping stones to cross a lake, or tearing the last remaining leg from the body of a giant, dying spider, with a nauseatingly realistic flesh-shredding sound driving home the lunacy of what the boy is doing. Watching these scenes unfold through the blurred foreground and pools of almost divine light gives the impression  that the player is merely an audience to a macabre play; it feels like cold, cruel punishment. You have to wonder – is the game punishing the boy, or the player?

From the forest, a sinister bread-crumb trail of human corpses – some impaled, others hanged or caged – soon dwindles into a path dotted with crude, man-built structures, additional obstacles for our tiny hero. Up until now, the boy’s only foe has been nature, so it is a shock to not only encounter other human figures here, but also discover that those who are not yet dead have turned to Lord of the Flies-style vigilantism, and are pursuing the boy with makeshift darts, sending boulders down hills to crush him if he doesn’t fall victim to one of their spike-filled pits. It feels like a childhood game turned fatally awry and at this point the player may begin to feel gravely protective of the boy, wondering what on earth could have made these other children turn against him so coldly. They might not be needlessly aggressive; maybe they too were brought to this semi-hell for their own punishments, and they are merely fighting back against the hostile environment that the nameless boy now happens to be a part of.

Again, shades of guilt colour the story, an implication that the boy could not have warranted such treatment had he not done wrong himself. This is also alluded to in the lever-controlled mechanical spider the boy comes across – built by the enemy children, this replica seems to suggest that his nightmarish foes were created, perhaps self-conceived as a means of further punishment.

Regardless of how uncomfortable the player may feel about killing the other children, he will soon realise that it’s a kill-or-be-killed world, and these new, silent opponents form the next evolution of deadly puzzles to outwit. The player’s reward for defeating these enemies is their slowly diminishing presence in the game, their rudimentary huts and weapons gradually eclipsed by immense industrial structures.

Machinery pervades the landscape from this point on, until the poetic shapes and shadows of the opening forest setting are entirely replaced by the hard lines of cement floors, grinding cogs, and sudden, frightening bursts of electricity. Despite the urban features, this city is ruined and barren of any other life, except flies, maggots, and the occasional butterfly…

The first glimpse we have of the boy’s sister is in this machinery-dominated, final third of the game. A white butterfly dances about the boy, a premonition of hope; continue on, and the machinery gives way to the trees of the forest again, a still oasis from the unending noise of the city’s machines. This is where we see her, a long-haired silhouette sitting atop a grassy slope. As the player moves towards her, what appears to be a mind-controlling maggot launches itself from above onto our protagonist’s head, and against his will he finds himself running in the opposite direction. By the time he returns, the mirage of the girl on the hill has all but dissolved, and the player is greeted by the hard, unsympathetic reality of conveyor belts and large crushing mechanisms, a portentous metaphor for the boy’s tale: a one-way trip resulting in crushed hopes.

It is here in this factory-like wasteland that we come across the first and only written word in the game – a lethal, flickering neon sign that the boy must traverse reads HOTEL. With this textual representation rendering the hotel the only concrete aspect of the game’s plot, we can assume it to be a huge, devastating marker in the boy’s story. The hotel is, after all, where the game ends – and perhaps where it begins. It is arguably the most affecting part of the game – many of the puzzles require reversal of gravity, pinpoint precise timing, or the literal overturning of the world to complete, something perhaps representative of the boy’s journey; upon breaking through this dismal city, the boy and the player will experience the bleak revelation that is the game’s end.

The final puzzle, in which the player must alter the course of gravity just moments before being sucked into an enormous sawblade, sees the boy catapulted through a glass pane and back into the forest where he began. His body floats in impossibly slow motion, this moment of accidental death framed by an explosion of glimmering shards.

This is the end, and it takes us a second to realise that we are back at the beginning, in a profoundly Don’t Look Back-esque moment. This truly is a limbo, an inescapable cycle of colourlessness. It’s not all for nothing, though.

In the end, our boy finds his sister. But it’s no happy ending; she doesn’t look happy to see him, and he only stares through her, waiting for her to turn, to speak, anything. She is unresponsive, a ghost.

The game affords the boy – and the player controlling him – one brief, tormenting moment of realisation before fading to black. He, too, is a ghost. He probably has been all along.

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3 thoughts on “Fumbling for meaning in Limbo

  1. I am very disappointed that I will not be afforded the opportunity to play Limbo as there are no plans to extend it to other platforms, so I read your entry on this in its entirety…further confirming that I am being robbed of an experience! Would I have intuited what was going on in this game had you not imbued its story and its dark recesses with so much colour and meaning? The countless (but imaginative) ways in which the player/character can die might be initially construed as gratuitous, but to discover that is a very necessary element to the boy’s redemption is a far more interesting narrative tool. I confess I am suprised at the strength of the story in this game.
    On review, perhaps now I do not feel so cheated- it was a journey in itself, reading this.

  2. I gotta say, Limbo freaked me out, the numerous ways the designers killed the little boy ….

    But the overall design and such of the game was quite well done, all the music and atmosphere, worked well for it

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