“Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters limbo.”
Only these cryptic words usher us into the ruthless playgrounds of Limbo. Playdead’s decision to favor a minimalist narrative might appear to preclude it from the scrutiny of this “court,” but a substantial amount of work went into cultivating the atmosphere, mood, and tone of the game — elements essential to any story. That’s what I can look at. And while I could also make a short analysis of those nine words above, disregarding them exposes some of the game’s greatest strengths.
Be warned: SPOILERS ABOUND!
1. “THE SYNOPSIS”
Game box summaries can sometimes cheat a little. Typically they function as mirrors to content that might exist a few hours in, content that could attract audiences. But that content obviously has to exist within the work itself. Forget the blurb, canon as it may be, and think strictly within this game’s confines: how do you know the avatar is looking for someone? How do you know that this someone is the boy’s sister, or that he has any relationship to her?
The danger with these external signboards is that they can become a smokescreen for ineffective storytelling. Luckily, Limbo only falls into this trap partway. Even though the game fails to substantiate the description, the story retains its narrative impact in full (which I’ll cover next).
All I mean to say here, nit-picky as always, is that the Boy’s journey doesn’t need that synopsis attached to it. It’s an unnecessary crutch for a wonderful game that stands on its own two feet. If they need to fill the description box, then what’s my suggestion? Drop the subordinate clause. “A boy enters limbo.” (If I’m being more serious and less subversive: “A boy enters limbo in search of something he holds dear.”)
2. “THE (CANON) BACKSTORY”
If Arnt Jensen and his team intended a specific relationship between the Boy and the goal, they needed to have some suggestion of it. At the very least, something concrete needs to tie the girl to the Boy; maybe when she lifts her head in acknowledgment of his presence, we see that she has the same white eyes. The contrast with the other NPCs would be visually striking and quite poignant.
Suggesting the Boy’s motivation at the beginning beyond the genre-defining directive “move right” would take more finesse. One way would have been a simple photograph of the Boy and the Girl. Not incredibly original, granted, but effective. We’d know what’s missing from the picture, so to speak.
3. “THE (AMBIGUOUS) BACKSTORY”
That said, I’d sooner suggest ditching specificity altogether. Limbo exemplifies a ‘less is more’ design ideology, what with its monochromatic visual style, ambient soundtrack, and simplified controls. So, why do the Boy and the Girl have to be related? Why do they have to have a preexisting relationship of any kind at all?
It seems strange to suggest that a game as minimalistic as Limbo could stand to lose a few more details. But thematically, being especially open to interpretation would work perfectly. The concept of this place we call ‘limbo’ is all about uncertainty. Maybe it is a boy saving his sister, his soul charred black with sins he revisits throughout the game. Or what if the girl at the end is just another stranger in a long line of strangers who have tried to kill the Boy — but maybe, just maybe, this time he’ll have found a friend instead?
My favorite one: the Boy is not a boy at all. He is not human. He is not vulnerable. He is Death, come to carry the soul of a little girl into the ever-after.
4. “CHARACTERIZATION THROUGH ACTION”
Death pervades Limbo. While the game’s deliberate ‘trial and death’ playstyle forces us to bear witness to the many gruesome deaths of a minor, the moments I remember most comprise of the Boy as the death-dealer. From pulling off a spider’s last leg — clearly an echo of a stereotypical boyhood hobby (or was that just me?) — to leading three older, dart-spewing boys to their spiked-pit-and-crusher deaths — a power fantasy for the oppressed — I found myself reminded of both William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies and Walter White from AMC’s Breaking Bad. A steely determination belies his scrawny silhouette and it’s as shocking as it is heartbreaking.
The flaw here is that after graduating from insect dissection to manslaughter, he didn’t continue to escalate. Even counting the disturbing bits with those mind-controlling larvae, the Boy’s character regresses to a state of innocence as lifeless as the moving machine city. Devs proved more than capable of balancing his relative powerlessness with his resolve; only three of dozens of boys are killed and only one giant spider is slain. We never stop being dwarfed by our obstacles. Why wasn’t this carried through?
If you put Pilot-episode Walter White in the season four scenario, the results would be catastrophic. He would not triumph. He has to break bad bit by bit, morally-redefining decision after morally-redefining decision, down a spiraling stairwell where every step is necessary to reach the next. The gradual descent is what keeps us morbidly fascinated.
Suppose the larvae became a necessary tool to solve certain puzzles, something to which the Boy willingly subjects himself. He does so, perhaps, to bypass those ceiling eaters, who instead of being drawn to the larvae are actually repulsed by them.
Throughout the game’s first half in the forest, I couldn’t help but notice how some of the challenges could be emblematic of this ‘limbo’ plane as an arena for retribution. I mentioned pulling legs off a spider earlier, something for which the Boy is conceivably punished by being pitted against giant spiders; the older boys who bully him perhaps in the same way he might have done during his life. These are all just interpretations, of course, but the second half in the city lacks this potential for hidden meaning.
Why are there saws, gravity buttons, and electrical signs? Why is there a moving city filled with rotating rooms filled with giant gears? The implications were unclear.
6. “THE ENDING”
Towards the end, the metaphor resumes with great effect. The first psych-out encounter with the girl exemplified the game’s ambiguity. Was she a mirage? Did she get crushed by the wheels of the city? The climax of the story takes place when the Boy breaks through that glass wall, and again we find ourselves asking questions as time slows. Is this the Boy’s subconscious reminding him how he died?
Finally, no moment is more powerful than that last scene. It’s criticized for being too abrupt, but it really doesn’t need to be any longer. The Boy’s journey comes to an end so powerfully because it’s succinct. The danger, the torture, the terror, and the resultant tension throughout the game is all defused in seconds when he reaches a safe haven, and an epiphany regarding his sister’s fate. This is what resolutions are supposed to do. He has found what he’s been looking for. He’s home.
The strengths of Limbo lie outside writing in the linguistic aspect, but rather in the principles of building atmosphere, mood, and theme. Eerie details like the hanging corpses in the beginning give life to the death-ridden environment, and we should be mindful of how to include these when we construct scenes. I could write a whole other post on symbolism in this game, but suffice it to say: Playdead plants just enough to allow our imaginations to run wild, ultimately creating a shining example of how to do ‘ambiguous’ without veering into ‘obtuse.’ Phenomenal. Inspiring. Beautiful. Thank you, Playdead. Thank you.