By setting its action in a literal out-of-body experience, Limbo changes our perception in two major ways that make it essentially and marvelously different than its peers.
Playing any video game is, in itself, a sort of out-of-body experience. Largely inert on our couches, we travel far and wide, have thrilling adventures in exotic locales, and perform acts both awful and beautiful, all without consequence to our physical selves. A few button presses on our side of the screen cause our virtual selves to open a door or climb a ladder, have a conversation or start a fist fight, rip the arms off a monster or trigger a bomb that levels a city.
Limbo takes this remove a step further by setting its action in the literal out-of-body experience of the game's central character. In fact, the only thing we know about our game-self going in comes from the wonderfully terse description: "Uncertain of his sister's fate, a boy enters Limbo." For this journey, instead of inhabiting a well-defined character like ‘Space Marine', ‘Gangster', or ‘Medieval Hero', we become a character twice removed from reality. While in theory there is a fictional boy in some fictional reality that resembles our own, what we are playing in Limbo is his out-of-body experience - an ethereal nightmare world of chiaroscuro forests, giant spiders, scheming bullies, and frightening technology.
That added distance between us, the players, and the action on screen changes how we perceive the game in two major ways, and these shifts make Limbo so essentially and marvelously different than most of what we're used to in games.
First is the way we learn about the character we control. There is no text, no speech, no instruction book to give us any background. The story of Limbo is less explicit than even some of the most conceptual works of game consoles past: at least Shadow of the Colossus had its subtitled oracle, at least Rez had its console-typed mysteries. The past life and present predicament of our character in Limbo is told entirely implicitly, through the symbolism of his dream-state imagery. Only the abstract shades of monster, tormentor, machine or crevasse are present to clue us in to the ‘real' boy whose mind created the limbo we're stuck in.
Though the action of the game is fairly traditional if occasionally difficult puzzle-platforming, the greater textual puzzle of what's really happening is wide open for interpretation. My personal invented fiction involves a small boy and his sister on the road back from summer camp, where the boy has had a terrible time. He's terrified of bugs. The older campers picked on him. The hikes were scary and an industrial complex across the lake made menacing sounds through the night. His sister tried to stick up for him, but she being older, they were always separated into different activity groups. The ropes course was particularly scary when he had to hang upside down, not being used to having his equilibrium switched on him. And then, on the road back toward home and safety, there was a crash that sent him flying… (this part I derived entirely based on the 'solution' to the final puzzle). The ‘real' boy whose projections we explore is trapped in a coma, needing to find his symbol for salvation before regaining consciousness. (**Vague spoiler: Considering the final scene still takes place in black and white, I'm not so sure he succeeds.)
Naturally there are scores of other ways to interpret the game, but the fact that the text of the game itself never pulls back to the ‘reality' of this fictional boy leaves the ultimate question up to us to answer. Unlike other games with dream sequences - where we see the dream but also the dreamer and can therefore connect the dots (Psychonauts, Arkham Asylum) - the lack of information in Limbo keeps us as lost and frightened as the ‘real' boy whose dream we're sharing. Thanks to the designers' discipline in keeping us in the dark, we grope for any sliver of understanding or comfort the same way our character does, and come up short, confused and alone. Just like they want us to be.
So on to the second point: another way in which that added layer of distance (player to fictional boy, boy to on-screen character) shifts our perception. Ironically, it's how the out-of-body element removes a layer of unreality from the game. Sounds backward, but think of it in terms of fail states. In basically every other game, we're in a world we're supposed to take as real, and yet dying and learning how to do better next time is a necessary key to progression. When we play as a character like Drake or Master Chief, every time we ‘die' is a willful suspension of disbelief. The hero isn't supposed to die, he's supposed to overcome all the odds and triumph. It's us, the imperfect hero-puppeteers, who make the mistakes, so we just load up from a previous scene and try again. Every error breaks the illusion of continuity, and we've trained ourselves to just accept that as part of the language of games (like all streets being wet at night in films, we've just stopped thinking about it).
In Limbo, the only thing we know for sure is that we're in, well, limbo; or in other words, purgatory. Whatever nightmare, subconscious or afterlife state this version of limbo happens to be, there's always one basic rule to purgatory: we don't leave until we've learned the lesson we came to learn, or resolved whatever issue put us there. Of course, the typical way to learn these moral lessons is trial by fire - endless punishment and pain until we get it right. And boy does our little character go through pain in this game. Graphic, violent, darkly funny, almost Itchy-and-Scratchy style pain, again and again and again. Often, the only way to figure out how an obstacle works is to get killed a few times in a series of morbid experiments.
But since what we're navigating is clearly an out-of-body state, it actually makes more sense that we just keep getting thrown back into the grinder over and over. There are no other game conventions present - no levels, no health bars, no hints to help us along - but because of its premise, the cycle of dying and retrying feels like part of the intent of the game instead of a convention being used as a crutch. In this abstract, disorienting, frightening world, it's fitting that we'd be tortured by various evils, in the hope that every death teaches us something that brings us a little closer to salvation. That's what limbo is for.
Not to say these are the only highlights of Limbo. The art style is gorgeous in its stark black and white. Puzzles that start off maddeningly obtuse end up incredibly satisfying once we've cracked their secrets (Kirk at Gamer Melodico detailed perfectly the one and only puzzle that frustrated me to the point of seeking help). And though it's short, it falls into the elite group of games that only feel quick because they're so engaging we can't put them down. The classics that have great ideas, pack them in tight, and then end before overstaying their welcome. What makes this game truly special though is the bold choice to avoid any pretension of depicting a real world, and taking us along into someone else's limbo. Even if we don't know anything about this boy, we certainly feel his fear, feel his pain, and feel his need to get back to something real. How surprising that in the universe of made-up game worlds, something that's so willfully unreal does such a better job at making us feel something genuine.
Brian Longtin writes about video games and other things he likes at his blog, Under Culture.
Republished with permission.