**WARNING: Spoilers Ahead**
I’ve recently been reading Richard Matheson’s novel What Dreams May Come, which is the story of a man who experiences the afterlife, and what separates this story from other afterlife stories, is that it depicts the concept of Heaven as something both spiritual and subconscious. In the novel, Heaven is a state of mind, as is hell.
This had me thinking of a quote that I don’t remember the source of that goes along the lines of, “Hell is what you make it out to be.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist of it. It basically means that our most undesirable form of hell is that which breaks us on a personal level. The stereotype that hell is a place in which red men with horns and pitchforks make you eternally burn is simply just a description of how it makes you eternally feel. However, that state of mind can come from anywhere. Some people find that the worst thing on earth is being force-fed milk because of their lactose intolerance. Some people find rape to be the worst thing one can endure. Whatever each different person is experiencing in their own personal hells, they all share the feeling of being thrown into an eternal fire forever.
And thus strikes the tone of Playdead Games’s LIMBO, which can be interpreted in many ways, but if you want my viewpoint, it is not of eternal salvation (Heaven) nor is it of eternal suffering (Hell), but rather, it is about an eternal longing (Purgatory). And in this eternal longing, our nameless, young protagonist is trapped in a state of mind that is the equivalent of a dog chasing a bone without realizing that the bone is attached to a fishing rod that has been tied on top of the dog.
Many have considered Braid, another brilliant XBLA game, to be the Eraserhead of video games. I beg to differ, and say that LIMBO is more in line with David Lynch’s abstract masterpiece. It even gets the black and white aesthetic to the tee. And while Braid had an ending that could be seen in many different interpretations, LIMBO is the same, but it is not just the ending that is open-ended. The entire game is open-ended. Braid contained scraps of text that gave you some backstory on the protagonist’s state of mind and lust for his princess. With LIMBO, however, everything is told in a visual language that is so subtle that you just might miss it, and many have missed it.
I was discussing the game with a friend of mine one day (He is one of the co-hosts of the CinEffect podcast I do /shamelessselfpromotion) and he found it to be overrated. He thought it was a decent puzzle platformer, but didn’t get what people were saying about it’s story, because he did not think that there was any semblance of a story to begin with. I see where he’s coming from, but at the same time, I think he only looked at it from a surface level. And on a surface level, it is a series of disconnected locations in a black-and-white color palette that are high on atmosphere, but have nothing to do with each other. Again, that’s only on a surface level.
Let’s begin with the opening of the game. Your protagonist wakes up in a field, and you are quickly thrust into this world with little in the way of preconceived expectations. If you were smart enough to know that the title LIMBO referred to the Latin phrase of “limbus” meaning “the edge of hell”, and see that our child protagonist begins his journey as he’s lying down in an ominous forest with his eyes closed; it’s easy to determine that your character is dead.
And that isn’t the only case of symbolic imagery that pertains to death. One memorable sequence in the game is when you ride a boat through a foggy river to a nearby bank. It’s one of those moments like the train sequence in Spirited Away in which so much melancholy is evoked with absolutely zero dialogue. The river has been seen by many as a representation of the River Styx in Greek mythology, in which you had to take a ferry to reach the Underworld. This theory is reaffirmed by the fact that the game officially opens up once the boat ride is over.
As I stated before, this is where the game truly begins to open. If we are to go with the insight that the strange setting you’ve been thrown in is, in fact, a subconscious state of mind, analyzing what all of the seemingly disconnected events and environments in the game have to do with our protagonist’s own state of mind, we could uncover the mystery of what exactly is the frying pan we’ve just landed in.
After encountering the spider for the first time (we’ll get more in depth with him later), you begin to spot something that hasn’t yet been seen in the forests until now: Tree houses. In them, you can spot other figures you look like they’re about our protagonist’s age. The only difference between you and the other children is that they are hostile. And they’re not hostile in the same way that a bully is hostile when he kicks sand in your child’s face. They’re murderous. They throw burning tires at you, attempt to claw at you with bear traps, and even try to set up a giant rock to fall right on top of you and crush your bones into the ground.
If we’re to accept that this is our protagonist’s state of mind, what exactly is it saying? That kids can be jerks at times? Actually…that’s a valid, but simplified answer. What the real answer probably is is that the kids that the Boy has encountered throughout his life had caused him endless suffering during his childhood. In his living state, the Boy was bullied and tormented by other children, and this afterlife depiction of these very children is a much more exaggerated outlook on the trauma the Boy had to live through. Through his eyes, they were more than just bullies, and we see that through his perspective.
The next thing you encounter is the infamous spider, which chases you, and even wraps you in its own web, until finally collapsing to the ground. When it’s killed, you have to pull apart it’s one remaining slender leg, then roll his carcass to fill up a spike gap and form a bridge.
This is something I figured out easily because it is something I can honestly relate to. I’ve always had a fear of large insects. I’m not the kind of guy who freaks out when an ant crawls on him, but when I realize that there’s a tarantula crawling up my spine, I panic like I’m trapped in Hiroshima as it’s being blown up. Assuming that we’re still in the Boy’s childhood stage as he’s sifting through memory after memory, I could imagine the spider representing the Boy’s arachnophobia. So why did he have to pull apart its leg and roll the carcass? We’ll get to that in a bit.
Next up is a strange puzzle. In order for the boy to cross a gap, he has to fill it up with water so that a log can act as a bridge for him. In order to fill it with water, the Boy traps a strange animal into a wheel mechanism, make it run inside it like a hamster, and then…it somehow allows it to rain. The rain helps maintain a steady flow of water to fill up the gap and traverse safely.
The creature running around in the wheel resembled that of a hamster, but there was one thing that I noticed in my second playthrough: The animal dies once his job’s been done, and it starts raining. Considering the creature’s resemblance to the hamster, I could only assume that it represents a pet that the Boy had, which died before his very eyes. When it died, the rain began. Another thing I started to notice is that right after that puzzle, the setting shifts to an industrialized area.
I interpret that this represents the Boy’s maturation. He experienced the death of a companion, his pet, and was stricken with grief (the rain starts to pour). It is at that point, that he stop being a child and he becomes a man.
The next sequence of the game garnered a lot of confusion from gamers. The setting shifts to an industrial cityscape that’s much different from the forests and tree houses we traversed earlier. The player has to solve puzzles using the many mechanisms at his disposal, and one of which really caught my eye. In one of the puzzles, you’re in a factory and you have to make a tire cross a long gap by moving these platforms above, and traversing it to the other side. You push the button to make tire after tire pop up if you keep failing, and you’re pushing platforms around to no avail just to progress to the next stage.
Given the factory setting, it feels almost as if the Boy is working at the factory. Each of the industrial stages seem to represent his adulthood, and many of them look like they represent different jobs the Boy might have taken in that stage of life. When you’re trying to outrun the rising water levels, you’re a plumber who has to maintain the flow of water. When you’re zipping a long cables on top of rooftops, you’re an electrician. And when you’re moving the platforms and tires at the factory, yes, you’re a factory worker.
Many people criticized this portion of the game because the earlier stages kept hinting at other human beings and creatures to interact with (the spider, the bullies, etc.), but the industrial stages stripped that away and made you feel really alone. And that’s supposed to be the point. You feel alone.
Considering all the traumatic incidents the Boy experienced in his childhood (bullies, spiders, dying pets), I can assume that he wanted to run away from that life and start a new one in seclusion, where he can keep working to keep living, and not have anyone bother him.
This feeling of lonesomeness is quickly turned around when, during one peculiar puzzle, you spot a young girl playing in a field. You step closer and closer to her radiance and light, when all of a sudden, the glowing worms make you step away from the girl. When you return to that area, the girl, and the field for that matter, have disappeared, and in its place stands more machinery.
Many have speculated on who this young girl is. If you look up the game’s plot description, it states that it’s the Boy’s sister, but I don’t buy that. There’s a good chance that it’s the Boy’s sister, and you can interpret it that way. But that’s only one interpretation out of thousands. The girl can represent anything. The second he sees her, you now wish to escape the industrial setting to go after her. She can represent the hope for a better life, a more meaningful life. She can represent a lustful desire that the Boy chased after as an adult. And she can represent a family member long deceased, like a sister. The possibilities are endless.
The most peculiar stage of the game comes when you’ve exited the industrial setting. It seems as if you’re back in the forests, but there’s still some industrial pieces that obstruct the nature. They do have a forest-y vibe to them, and there is plenty of foliage, but there will also be power plants that protrude from the ground, and elevators to get you up from one hill to the next.
Considering the forest took up his childhood stages, and the industrial city took up his adulthood stages, it’s safe to say that this is where the two collide. The Boy, now an adult, is chasing after the girl, and in order to do so, has to go back to where he came from (represented by the forest), but it isn’t the same. He notices the changes of modern technology invading his childhood home. It’s like how you wish to go to that park you loved going to when you were a kid, and when you visit it as an adult, you realize that it’s been replaced by a f*cking Wal-Mart.
Finally, we approach the last level of the game. The ending has riled up lots of gamers, for good reason. It ends on an incredibly abrupt note that many found anticlimactic. And while I’m not arguing that it isn’t anticlimactic, I think there’s more to it than what people are seeing.
Let’s look at the final level as a whole. In this level, you have to bend the laws of gravity to your whim and time jumps correctly to when gravity shifts to a different level to avoid turrets (Yeah, I have no explanation for the turrets). Your sense of placement becomes disorienting when you constantly bump up and down from the floor to the ceiling due to these gravity shifts.
The final set-piece of the puzzle comes when you have to time a jump correctly so that you can fall upwards, towards a spinning sawblade, and if it’s timed correctly, you’ll fall back down to the ground before you hit the buzzsaw. In mid-air, you have to activate a switch that makes you fall to the right side, and when you do, you crash into a large window in slow motion. When the crash finishes. You’re back at where you started, only this time, you finally meet the girl in the field.
Many have attempted interpreting the ending in which the Boy slowly approaches the Girl, only to be abruptly cut to black. However, that’s only a small piece of the ending. The entire level as a whole represents its meaning.
In the level, you’re constantly bumping from ceiling to floor, only to crash through a huge window. You wanna know what real life event is similar to that? A car crash. Bumping up and down, and then thrown out the windshield, smearing your brains across the pavement.
What LIMBO does, is take one of the oldest interpretations of what you experience when you die, and shows it to you through a fresh perspective: It documents one soul’s entire life flashing before his very own eyes. Everything from his childhood being bullied, to the day to day drudgery of working, to the sense of longing he feels when he wishes for a better life, the nostalgia when he goes back to his childhood forests only to find it run over by technology; his entire life is literally experienced again in a matter of mere hours.
All of the easy-to-miss traps make you die many times throughout the journey. In this game, dying isn’t the same as another game where you hit restart. You are literally punished and punished for all of your mistakes, but given second chances to live them over again, since you’ve already died.
Who is the Girl in the field? His sister? A representation of a life he’s always wanted? The nostalgia and longing for a simple time, a simpler childhood? Or perhaps…the girl represents Heaven. Caught in this purgatory, this Limbo, standing at the edge of death, he wants to move on. When he meets the girl on the field, a ladder can be seen at the top that ascends into a bright light. When the game ends, and the credits roll, you see that same field and that same ladder again, only this time, the Boy and the Girl have been replaced with rotting flesh with flies. They no longer exist in LIMBO, and they are together in a place more comforting.
The life that flashes before the Boy’s eyes can be seen as a test. In order to ascend into Heaven, he had to confront all the fears of his childhood (Like rolling the spider’s carcass to form a bridge to the next stage of life), and trudge through the monotony of his working years (the factories). Then, he had to leave behind his old life, so that he can go somewhere new.
To quote a song from Arcade Fire, “My Body Is A Cage”. The Boy’s body was his cage. It was probably his refusal to accept that his life was gone that kept him chained to his memories of the past. And when he finally accepted his fate, the cage opened up, and the ladder was just waiting for him. His entire life, flashing before his eyes before giving it all up.
If you liked this post or thought it was utterly pretentious, leave a comment. Also leave a comment if you’d like to hear me analyze more games that have meaningful aspects to them. If you’d like to see me analyzing Red Dead Redemption, click here. Also share it with other people who are interested in the meaning of Limbo, and others. It helps spread the word around and what not.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to cry in a corner for a few hours because this game is so f**king depressing. Bye!