Before LIMBO

Beware spoilers for LIMBO.

While there is a lot of current-day media focused on World War II and its shocking effects on history, if one pays attention to those who lived through World War I, there is much media by artists, heavy in what they believed was the inhumanity that had entered the battlefield at the hands of their fellow men: what technology and the nation-state could do to destroy the individual. Due to both my heritage (and copious studying of it), and the germ being planted in my head of the inspirations behind LIMBO by the fine folk at Playdead Games, my mind naturally drifted to this area while playing the game.

Image is grayscale, the forefront black being a young boy holding a stick in front of a glowing, bent pipe, while behind both is a crooked tree.

Image is grayscale, the forefront black being a young boy holding a stick in front of a glowing, bent pipe, while behind both is a crooked tree.

Worth nothing is that you start off on the ground, slowly waking up, and what comes into focus is not just the shape of your body, but your eyes, the large stand-out in the pitch-black of your body’s shape. As you progress through the game, what all other figures lack is a set of eyes. They are lost to the world, which you are seeing, with which you are interacting. From which you stand apart.

The game’s challenges steadily progress from the more natural to futuristic technology, with a bit of creepiness and ambiance added to taste. Beyond environmental puzzles, you quickly encounter bear traps, and then the ‘boss,’ the torpid, giant spider. It is while dealing and running from the spider, the natural elements, that you come across your next foe: other young boys, whose eyes are missing, and who set to bedevil you with flaming tires, blow darts, and one can assume have set the various traps you encounter.

Watching my roommate play this section, I was struck by how one can lose one’s self in the moment. In a fight to not see your own self die, you suddenly find yourself leading others to their death. You engage in activities to forge ahead. You are not mindless, but you are doing what is required. These are the parameters, and to progress, you must stay within their guidelines while following this path–and LIMBO is pretty much one path you travel from start to finish, a few back and forths here and there.

A small boy, on the right, has a glowing parasite worm atop his head, and is running to the left, a flimsy shelf being on the far left.

A small boy, on the right, has a glowing parasite worm atop his head, and is running to the left, a flimsy shelf being on the far left.

I knew that he would soon find the parasite that would drop on his head and control him; this event only seemed a more overt depiction of the activity in which we were engaging already. Before encountering the first of these, I was taking my time, enjoying the backgrounds, the grainy and blurry effects that mimic the silent film era projected on a screen, and the sparse sound that worked together to create an indelible experience. Suddenly I had a force controlling me. I would run right, though I could slow the passage of my footfalls, and their quick staccato suddenly became a reluctant pattering. The world was only something to which I paid attention to accomplish my goal.

For most of these cases, not knowing exactly into what I was heading, the reluctant pattering is what stayed in my head, knowing I was headed into almost certain doom, and hoping I had set myself up to make it through the experience. I both did and did not have a choice to continue. Naturally, as games go, I managed to survive, and in this case by casting off my commanding parasite, feeding it to eyeless, toothy worms.

The perils continue in a more urban landscape: electricity, large circular saws, and even machine guns threaten, steadily building forward in time’s momentum of ways we can manage to kill one another. The only real text to grace the screen in-game comes in the lit sign crackling ‘Hotel.’ There is no home, and no comforting presence to be found in such. This is probably not even your city, even in limbo. After traversing it for some time, suddenly you are met with an industrial soundtrack of saws, electricity, and hydraulic machines of some sort pumping, grinding, and creating a cacophony in what has previously been a comparatively quiet experience. You are traversing the industrial machine now, and you can grow accustomed to the experience.

You continue on, the goal being only given in the XBLA dashboard description: find your sister.

This is not to say my interpretation is what Playdead had in mind, nor what you will encounter and experience. What I saw when I finally managed past the implausible, and ultimately fantastic gravity switching buttons (accompanied by circular saws into which I could plummet and eviscerate myself) was finding my sister. What I happened to see was statistics of the number of men, and a substantial number of young men and older children, who never came home from either World War; never came home to the women that were their family, and who had little to offer in terms of solace.

Even outside of the battlefield, that little girl has lived in the same world as you. And she no longer has eyes bright enough for you to see into them. She is a mystery, like the entire world has been, and all you have on which to rely is your own experience.

An experience which you can relive, your deaths becoming a languid snapshot, longer than usual, but not long enough to dwell too harshly. Sure, this serves as being able to survey your surroundings and ascertain what you did wrong, but it also shows the once-bright light of your eyes snuffed out, becoming part of the darker world around you.

Stay an individual.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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2 Responses to Before LIMBO

  1. This is the best Limbo post I have read thus far. You have touched on many of the elements that really stood out to me, as well as pointing out many I did not notice (such as the evolution from natural to industrial to technological).

    I think the cyclical nature of the game would also tie in to what you are talking about. The way the game more-or-less ends where it begins (not exactly the same place, but a place and scenario obviously meant to replicate the game’s beginning. Not to mention that after we return to the menu screen, we realise that the menu screen is indeed the game’s ending scene plus some arbitrary amount of time (enough time for the boy and his sister to die, rot, and be pestered by flies).

    But yes, those are my added musings. Great post. :)

  2. Denis Farr says:

    Thank you, Brendan. I found the evolution both interesting from a setting point of view, as well as looking at your enemies. The environment always stays a threat, but as you move to a more industrial and urban setting, living beings no longer factor. You have progressed to only facing off against machines and the parasite that sublimates your will–and even the parasite starts factoring in less and less.

    I was actually very confused after I crashed through whatever pane of glass there was back into the forest. When the boy was waking up, I thought the game would just ask me to play it again, exactly the same layout. It would have been a very obtuse way to get across the point of limbo, however. Instead, I like how, as you posit, the scenery is basically the same, and the place where we start, the menu, is where we end. It adds a much more ludic view into how we approach the game, as well as tying it together more subtly in theme.

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