Limbo iOS Review: Why the Ending Ruins the Masterpiece

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Limbo… That’s all the text you’re given to derive meaning from this 2D side-scrolling platformer. There is no narration, no dialogue, no thought bubbles, just “Limbo” and the game begins.

It received critical praise for it’s heavily stylized world with the grainy film filters, monochrome palette, and little to no music. It is the first game from Playdead and a passion project from creator Arnt Jensen who referred to its play style as “trial and death.” Death is deeply ingrained into the gameplay and narrative — hence, Limbo — and the deaths are so graphic with fantastically gruesome sound effects that you will strive to succeed to not experience another agonizing defeat.

It is a rare type of game that is undeniably art… but the ending ruins ruins the narrative. (Prepare for detailed analysis and spoilers.)

Limbo: An Analysis of the Medium, Themes, and Meaning

Starting from the title, the game is called Limbo which is essentially an indecisive afterlife. People who cannot move forward or back (heaven or hell) wind up in limbo. Yet, the medium is a 2D side-scroller, which suggests that you can only move forward. On the surface, that seems like a contradiction, but make no mistake, it is intentional.

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Most 2D side-scrollers provide the illusion of movement. When Mario runs from left to right, he remains in the center of the screen while the world moves around him; it’s like running on a treadmill with a wraparound background.

However Playdead intentionally meant for this contradiction since, if you knew there was no real progress to be made in Limbo, then why would you play? The contradiction exists so you don’t see that the goal is futile and small victories will amount to nothing. They provide the illusion of achievement with the illusion of movement, but you never escape Limbo. This is figuratively and literally true.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Limbo is the fact that the entire game is a panorama. You don’t exit stage right and begin another level on the left hand side, you only move forward — the difference between a paginated book and a scroll. The game designers went to extreme lengths for you to not even notice the fact that the trees in the background slowly bleed into a city setting and that melts into a factory setting. This is done so subtly that you will not notice unless you’re looking for it, which is brilliant.

You will eventually realize that you’re in a city, but won’t know how you came to be there. It’s because, progress in limbo is an illusion. The trees left you, not vice versa. When the city appears, it’s because it invited itself. You are not in control of the setting, the setting moves through you; you are not moving; you are in limbo.

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Reading further into this, these settings mimic a child’s growth in manhood. The spontaneity, free spirit, and play that comes from the woods, a sanctuary for a child. The deaths are caused by childish fears: spiders, indians (or Lord of the Flies), drowning. Eventually however, the woods fade into the city, an organized man-made contraption for kids to be taught how to function in a larger society. Finally, the world becomes a factory, representing work, and this one is particularly interesting as it introduces these white worms that attach to your head and move you forward; you have no control, you’re practically on auto-pilot as many of us are who trudge mindlessly through work.

As you move through each setting, the puzzles become more challenging. And since failing a puzzle means you die, “more challenging puzzles” really means it’s “harder to stay alive.” Which brings us to the ending.

At the end of the game, you abruptly shatter through a glass pane and wind up in a grassy field. The same grassy field from the beginning of your journey. You wake yourself up, as you did before, and start to move to the right, up the same hill that started this journey.

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It solidifies everything the game stands for. It completes the panorama. It illustrates the illusion of achievement, the illusion of movement, which is a reflection of the gamer who has not moved, but stayed perfectly still, playing through this game and treating the achievement of a puzzle solved as a solution to life’s problems; as a satisfying morsel before inevitable (the unconquerable) death.

But the game doesn’t really “end” (or start over) there. Instead, the boy walks up the hill, sees a girl and the game ends.

Had the game “ended” 5 seconds sooner, you would’ve had a timeless piece of art. Instead, it foregoes art to offer conclusion. But conclusion to what? The story’s narrative is Limbo and that’s all that is required. To imply, by the ending, that there’s more to the story, that there is an escape from Limbo, is absurd. It’s rewarding the player for progressing despite the fact that the “player” hasn’t gone anywhere. The ending contradicts the point!

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In the end, Limbo is a good game, but it could have been great. And I don’t doubt the creators’ integrity, nor do I know what kind of programming is required to make the game just continue in a loop, but the ending is slap in the face. It changes the experience into a story and it never needed to be. The game is about fears, death, and the afterlife… not Sally-something on a hill.

PS. What was up with those white, light eggs you crack open? Easter eggs… Resurrection metaphor?

For more iOS reviews, visit Derek Hobson’s Article Archive

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6 Comments on Limbo iOS Review: Why the Ending Ruins the Masterpiece

  1. I’ve always found it interesting that the character’s journey in Fight Club (a perfect comparison for anything) is that it’s about a man preparing for an adult relationship with a woman. At least the movie, but I feel like even Chuck said something similar. As a married man, I would think the romantic goals or finding a partner metaphor might mean different to you than the rest of us 30 year old boys.

    • Haha, fair. I don’t know if this is relevant to that, but I read an interview with Palahniuck where he said, “I think my partner and I have lasted so long because I get all my anger and demons out in my writing.” Maybe writing is his fight club.

  2. “The game is about fears, death, and the afterlife… not Sally-something on a hill.”

    That should read:
    “[To me] (t)he game is about fears, death, and the afterlife… not Sally-something on a hill.”

    I don’t mean that to be combative, truly. But the artist, Arnt Jensen, had a story that he wanted to tell through the medium of gaming. Since that time he has come out to say he intentionally wanted that story to be, and to remain, ambiguous to the player (but not to Mr. Jensen).

    There is certainly a story and the web abounds with ideas on what that story is. You’ve outlined some of that story in your feature above and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it all as well.

    The nearest I can conclude is that the story is of a man who died. In his youth his sister died from (falling?) from the family treehouse. Deeply troubled by the event he spent his life feeling very lonely and very scared of the big wide world and it’s horrors (spiders, bullies, etc). When he got older he left for the city to grow up and work but his fears of socializing remained keeping him alienated and, even though in a city, he remained more alone then ever (no people in any of those scenes). He must simply move on, drone-like, through life (brain bugs) always running from light and salvation.

    For a job he chose the one that required little personal interaction..that of a factory worker. Focused on gears and switches, there was little need to interact and he remained alone.

    (at this point I’m not very confident on the next part of the story; just ideas so far).
    Being alone, with nothing else to live for, he eventually takes his own life by jumping off of a bridge into the water. He had never learned to swim.

    In the closing of the game he crashes through the surface of the water (not glass, of this I am certain. The internet is wrong on this one) and dies. He awakes in Limbo forced to face the sequential events of his life and overcome them….the childhood fear of spiders, the bullies, the city…..The one final piece he can never emotionally overcome was the death of his sister.

    Since he cannot overcome, he remains in Limbo. In the real world many flies feast on the corpse of his sister and a couple sense his soul hovering in a place he cannot escape.

    Correct? Who knows….but the concept of creativity has left me enthralled by a fairly basic puzzle game.
    10/10

    • Definitely a 10/10! I like the idea of drowning rather than shattering through glass… that does make a lot more sense than glass and certainly changes things since… I think you can die by water in each stage of the game, right? Very cool analysis! Thanks for sharing.

      • ya, watch the closing scene again. There are clearly bubbles breaking through as he hits and his body motion is absolutely not of someone who was in a car wreck; it’s the movement of someone underwater. His sisters’ death could have been followed by basic depression and neglect by his parents, leaving him without learning the basic kids stuff like swimming.

        it’s possible it was a car crash where he broke through the windshield and landed in water but I don’t buy that. I’m convinced he returned to the forest where his sister died and took his own life by leaping into the water.

        Just played through the game last night, feeling fixated on the story today!

        • I wrote this review a little over a year ago, but your enthusiasm is infectious. I re-downloaded it this morning. It really is incredible and I’m going to be thinking about the drowning thing this time around.

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