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.
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.
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.
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!
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