Limbo: Break on Through to the Other Side

Posted on June 6, 2012

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Let’s talk about Limbo. It’s a difficult game to digest on many levels.

  1. Why is it that – in a time of super powers, super weapons, and surreal gore in video games – Limbo is so capable of drawing in its audience of gamers and viewers, then shocking them?
  2. How does the sound engineer/composer influence a) the story; b) game play?
  3. Does the sound give any clues to the story? What do you make of the flies surrounding the lump at the beginning – and throughout – the game.
  4. Why do you think Limbo is black, white, and fuzzy-all-over?
  5. Is Limbo just a game, or is it the unfolding of an elaborate transsensory fractal artwork?
  6. What does that mean?
  7. What does the game mean?
  8. Does the name “Limbo” imply anything about the game’s story?

What makes Limbo so special? There’s no headset accessory to wear, no connectivity to other players, no copious amounts of red blood, no jet packs, and no doom music to heighten the suspense. Heck, there isn’t even a sense of “what button combo do I push to make him super-jump or run super fast??” There is only move forward or back, jump a realistic height, and pull/push. You couldn’t get lost in Limbo if you tried. So what makes it tick, and what makes me jump a thousand feet in the air when I play it? Other games offer players an endless 360 degree vista, scrolling weaponry, constant assaults, but Limbo seems to focus my attention on that little boy by eliminating all of those other options.

At first glance, the game seems immature; naïve. It seems like a throwback to the old Nintendo Mario Bros. games. But beneath the surface is some rather sophisticated planning. The sound of the game is very soft, but beguiling. It’s as though the player is hearing sounds from the perspective of the little boy. His footsteps are crisply tentative when he starts moving, then they seem to soften to an afterthought the longer he trots along – especially as he closes in to a new challenge. This type of sound design is actually used to give gamers clues to game play. By removing a lot of unrealistically excessive visual stimuli, Limbo manages to more effectively put us in the game as the main character. We hear what he hears, we have only the clues he would have to solve the puzzles. We are forced to rely on our wits. This makes Limbo so good at suspense – we can’t see what’s coming. But sometimes we can hear it, and sometimes that is downright terrifying. We’ve all been kids in the dark, hearing what “goes ‘bump’ in the night.” That feeling can be paralyzing, like we’d rather pull the bedsheets over our heads than reveal the threat in a wash of light.

But sometimes we know just what that sound is in the dark: bugs. It’s unsettling to hear them buzzing around when you can’t see them. You just know that mosquito is going to show up the next day as a trillion mosquito bites. But the buzzing in Limbo is a little different. You can see the groups of flies buzzing over… something. What are those mysterious lumps? With no shortage of ways to die in Limbo, it seems likely that the lumps are corpses. I mean, c’mon. There are homicidal children with spears and such running amok in this game. And giant, vicious, hungry spiders! I’m going with corpses on this one, not fallen beehives with bees abuzz. Hm… Maybe this game isn’t as naïve as it seems, eh? With so little that can be construed as clues during game, everything with sound is a potential clue. So if the lumps are corpses, what does that mean? We’ll get to that…

It’s hard to be definite about the identity of anything in Limbo, though. The corpse-lumps are almost shapeless in the dark, fuzzy landscape. There’s no color to differentiate between the lumps and the grass and the traps, etc. One could hypothesize that the lack of color is alluding to a dream state. There have long been arguments about whether dreams are in color or black and white. One could say it’s the classic binary representing the battle between good and evil: the dark side of the force, and the… other side that doesn’t really have a name, but George Lucas implies is the good (yet mightily oppressive) side. But that’s a story for another blog. All things aside I will argue that the monochromatic landscape is just another way to cut off the senses and make game play of a game which would be relatively simple with color and intense graphics more difficult in their absence. It makes the gamer lean forward a little bit in their seat, makes their pulse speed up in anticipation, and makes them shriek when those tall blades of grass they run through are really disguising  a bear trap that sharply snaps its trap over the boy and cuts off ‘is ‘ead! (contractions provided for comic relief) As a gamer, you literally didn’t see that coming. But imagine if that scene was in color, and the trap was metallic in the grass, and the focus was sharp? Not too hard to hop over it then, huh?

But Limbo doesn’t have color, sharp contrast, or detailed instructions. Instead the details are in the sound, movement, and sense of anticipation. When the boy dies, his body slides limply down a hill, or he drowns, struggling to get above water, he hangs, impaled from the sharp leg of a spider, and his corpse vibrates upon an electrified plate. Fade to black. What is this game doing to this poor little boy? What kind of game is this???? When Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí made the short film Un Chien Andalou, and the woman’s eye was sliced with a straight razor, that was not just another 1920s film. That was saying something about film’s potential to mean nothing more than you see: moving art without a plot. The film itself is a dynamic frame for moving conceptual artwork. A motion picture. Through exptrapolation we can say the same about Limbo, a game that provides a frame for an otherworldly experience, like old movie reels constantly unraveling itself at one end while winding itself up on the other. Limbo is the unfolding of an elaborate transsensory fractal artwork. There, now you know what that means!

But really, what does the game mean? What is the little boys story? Why does he never get to his sister after all those tricky puzzles are solved? Is the lump at the beginning the little boy’s own corpse? Is Limbo more than a dream state to the little boy? Is he dead too? Is that why it’s called Limbo? Is it a social commentary on life and it’s challenges to reach our goals while life’s trappings get in the way? Only the artist/designer/writer/creator(god) of the game can really know. Alls I’m sayin’ is it could be construed as ironic that the game maker’s name is Playdead.

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