"LIMBO contains elements that may be offensive." It is this admonition that appears on the title screen and the suggestion that those sensitive to the impending violence enable the Gore Filter in the game's Help and Options menu. Before you even begin your journey, you're made aware of an option to censor your experience. If anything else could be derived from this message, it's a preparation for what's to come: to lure you in and make you wonder why such a warning was thought necessary.I suppose, then, I have a message of my own to give: The essay ahead contains major spoilers. Reading anymore of what is written will reveal essential plot and thematic points of the game. I recommend you play the game first before you read on.
Now, it's understandable how it can be considered tasteless and offensive to shamelessly have a child be the protagonist in a video game where he can and will be violently killed and dismembered, no matter the artistic intention behind that choice. Nevertheless, choosing to put a child in such a role was obviously a deliberate one and must be understood that everything in the game is to be affected by this assumption.Two questions come to mind from which I can begin examining LIMBO: Could the presence of specific themes justify the game's provocative violence? That is, could we rightly assume LIMBO is to be taken seriously as art? As LIMBO is presented, it may be too ambiguous to definitively answer these questions, but I do have my own reflections on the matter.
What's immediately striking when first seeing LIMBO is the artistry. There's an overwhelming sense of darkness that is so stifling, the child, the creatures, and much of the world are mere silhouettes, which gives a sense of distance, yet also a personal connection to the world strictly through what we may imagine these silhouettes could be.
The protagonist being a child allows us to more easily empathize with his situation. Could this be exploitative?* Yes; however, I argue against such an interpretation because of what else the child adds to the overall theme. At the beginning, when the boy awakens, we're not sure what lies ahead, yet the darkness's concealing presence gives a sense of foreboding, so we can surmise that there's danger, and that danger is increased by how limited the boy's capabilities are. With how sparse the presentation is (no narrative, no voice-overs, and scant context and story), the developers might have thought that they had to maximize the potential of the first and overall impression a gamer would have of the game, and making the protagonist a boy best suited their purpose.
The lack of a contextual narrative (as I alluded to above) is what is next remarkable. We don't know where we are, who the boy is, how he got there, and what his motivations may be hereafter. Again, a deliberate move on the developer's part. What I think this emphasizes is the primal instinct to survive. Why? It's never said, and that's what makes it brilliant. I immediately wonder why I should survive, and the only conclusion I can come to is that I desire it. The rest of the game demonstrates increasingly complex impediments to the boy's survival and your will to endure and overcome.
The merciless ferocity that can be requisite for survival is astounding. The will to survive at any cost can drive a man to do things he never imagined he could ever do, but when so driven, would out of a perceived necessity. A theme, I think, the game tackles is the incredible lengths man may go to survive, and that brings us to question, in a world seemingly with no context and no purpose but to survive, if life is worth living; if, the hindrances in our way to survival are worth the risk of a brutal death. When, for instance, you encounter the corpse of a little boy in chapter four, face down in the dirt, and see that the only way to get past the crushing trap situated ahead is to push the corpse onto the rope below to trigger the trap, it poignantly conveys ever more the seeming futility to risk death--to risk life--if you may end up fodder for a heartless machine's squashing. Yet, if you choose to, you ultimately move on because, without realizing it, you still want to live, to explore--for whatever reason--perhaps because to remain stagnant is against the will to live.
How does being a little boy add to this motif? His age, for example, implies his lack of history: he is, basically, a clean slate we are unable to fill with his previous experiences, and this allows the developer to re-direct the focus of the game to the primal need to live, rather than who the boy is, what is his past, and how does that shape our perception of the game's events. There is, furthermore, his apparent innocence being or having been shattered in the midst of his primal struggles. The kind of violence we adults try hard to shield an impressionable child from, the boy must face or risk death. What kind of traumatic effects could this have on him? It's impossible to discern, for instance, whether the boy understands beyond an instinctual level what the attacks of the giant spider at the beginning of the game mean to him. As the audience, it's easily inferred that the spider exemplifies the struggle for survival, which drives the spider three times, each more desperate, to kill the boy. It's during the final encounter that the spider attempts to stab the boy with its last remaining leg. The boy dodges the attack, rips out the spider's leg like he is playing a game of Tug of War, then pushes the body into a pit of spikes to use as a platform to jump to the other side.
In this abstract way, the game continues to stress the ways it's surreal, while also reminding you how real it can seem. The game encourages you to discover for yourself how you must survive, to familiarize yourself with the in-game physics, and that process will inevitably cause you to make careless choices and misguided assumptions that will result in the death of the fragile little boy many times. It's not really different from what you see in a lot of video games these days, yet the exceptional context of it happening to a boy is what startles you out of your surreal fantasy and compels you to consider the horrors of violence. That is, the game exploits our being desensitized of video game violence by having a little boy be the center around which the violence takes place, in order that it awaken in us the realization that the graphic violence has substantial meaning. The game, like an aspect of meta-fiction, makes you conscious of actually playing a game, so that you become more perceptive of a part of reality you may not have once considered.
Ultimately, though, I don't believe the developers succeeded in conveying much else. The sheer ambiguity of the plot-line--what little of it there is--failed to give a compelling narrative, and the primary reason is the ending's abruptness is both disappointing and baffling. One can speculate and theorize what the ending insinuates, but I doubt anyone can conclusively say what it really means (except, perhaps, the developers) because of the minimal frame of reference provided. It leaves itself open to the imagination so much, one wonders if the story is merely a visual narrative of a theme. Whatever satisfaction to be gained from the experience is dependent on whether you acknowledge a theme and are willing to explore its apparent expression within the game. The theme, like the puzzles throughout the game, must be mulled over and pieced together from what is available in the environment; only, unlike the puzzles, there may be no logical solution to be found.
For what it's worth, I have an interpretation of my own for what I believe the ending suggests, and to best express it, I'll give you a commentary of the ending and all relevant events. In chapter eighteen of twenty-four, the boy spots in the distance a little girl on her knees, peering down and playing with grass as a welcoming light brightens the area. Further on there also rests a ladder that ascends above from where you can see, giving you hope of escape. Up until this point, all humans the boy has encountered have been hostile or dead; the obstacles he has faced and overcome and the horrors he has seen were his reality, even though to an observer the events were surreal. The revelation is such an appealing sight after all you've been through, you can't help but feel hope compel you to eagerly run up to the girl and see what awaits you. But as you're about to reach her, a brain slug descends upon you out of an over-hanging pipe and takes the control of your fate out of your hands. It instead directs you in the opposite direction until you reach a lamp, in which you proceed to go back. In the distance, a loud thumping sound is heard, as if to crush all hope, and in the place of the girl, the light, the ladder, is the familiar dark space like you've seen throughout your journey, a conveyor belt rolling towards you and a bottomless pit, and further on, a crushing machine. Past all of this is a ladder, but it's not the same as before. There is present the risk and the uncertainty that has always accompanied you, yet also, now, a motivation to search for the girl. There never was a goal before except to survive. Now you have something more to live for.
Chapters nineteen through twenty-four are the most challenging of your journey, requiring quick thinking and impeccable timing, while further taxing your determination to satisfy that mysterious longing for the girl. If you master the gravitational shifts and surpass the buzzing saws, you fall through a streak of light. You seem to become obliterated in slow motion, becoming specks of light and then fading away. Moments later the boy opens his eyes to find himself in a place that appears very much like where you started at the beginning of the game. Now, however, the boy has a past from which you can draw from a perception of what you see from now on. You walk forward, ascending a hill until you stop and see the girl and the light and the ladder as they were before. As if the boy fears the scene will again disappear, he approaches with caution. Then the girl--as if hearing the wind whisper of the boy's coming--straightens up. The End . . . the end of what? Are the boy's struggles at a close? What I draw from all this, when looking back at the whole experience, is that the girl represents the boy's inner hope for a peaceful life. Perhaps the streak of light the boy passed through resulted in a natural, peaceful death, and he awakened to a new life without the struggle to survive, but to merely live--the primal urge to live, whatever the purpose that serves beyond its own sake--personified in the beauty that the girl and light express.
There, still hanging in the back of our minds, is the ladder, seeming to pose the question: Is life worth living, despite the seemingly horrific and insurmountable obstacles that may be put before us and for no apparent reason, beyond the innate desire? I'm not sure the game even asks that. More like, it pushes aside the question and instead presents another: Is not the innate desire to live enough? Almost recklessly, the game puts you in limbo and allows you to reach for the answer yourself.
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* - The reader should take note of the divergence of the noun exploit, which means, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, "An act or deed, especially a brilliant or heroic one", to the verb exploit, which means either "To employ to the greatest possible advantage" or "To make use of selfishly or unethically." In the traditional sense, is the boy the hero of the story or not?