Yeesh… what a brutal game.
You heard my reactions to some of the environments and deaths in the Crash Course episode that I filmed, and I’m here to say that things did not get any more pleasant. The actions and events that occur in “Limbo” are just as dark as its art style. In later sections of the game, I was mowed down by machine gun turrets, sliced to bits by gigantic circular saws, crushed under the weight of massive metal crates, and electrocuted by neon signs and powered rails. Every single sharp, sudden death made me flinch just the slightest bit, and I don’t feel that I ever became completely desensitized to the numerous gruesome annihilations that I subjected the poor nameless boy to (with the exception being the annoyance and frustration I felt during those sections where I failed a jump or a puzzle over, and over, and over again).
As much as this game made my skin crawl, I still enjoyed it. I enjoyed the challenges that it presented for me to conquer, whether the test was one of reflexes, problem solving, or a combination of the two. I enjoyed the minimalistic art style of the characters and objects, of the backgrounds and foregrounds. The lack of color in the palette of the game made everything sharper and more distinct. I enjoyed the eeriness of the surroundings created by the fog and the grain effect on the screen. I enjoyed the strong sound effects and the lack of music through most of the game, but when music was present it was ambient and dark, which helped strengthen the nightmarish setting of the game.
Another mechanic of the game that really stuck out to me was the use of the glowing maggots that would leech onto the boy’s head. These maggots would allow the boy to move in only one direction, meaning that you would be forced to overcome the obstacles in your path – no running away and thinking things over. It added yet another layer of hopelessness and despair to this dark game – you no longer get to decide which way to go. You can adjust how quickly the boy moves and you can make him jump, but you are headed for the horrors that lay to your left or your right and there’s little you can do to prevent them from dismembering you. You are helpless, and the boy cannot get rid of the parasite by himself. You must wander until an NPC rids you of your curse. And the maggot always seems to steer the boy into the most suicidal predicaments. Remember that boy that I saw wander into the water near the end of the episode? The one that I dragged out of the lake and used to set off a trap that wound up pulverizing his body?
I thought that he had some cobwebs in his hair, much like the cobwebs I had stuck in my hair after escaping the giant spider. I thought he was just tired and injured and dove into the lake because he didn’t see it. The fact is, that was not a bit of cobweb on his head – it was one of those maggots. I thought the boy accidentally stumbled into the lake, but he was driven to unconscious suicide because of a brain parasite! After I encountered the first instance with the maggots myself, I remembered that scene and just felt… cold. Just this wide-eyed horror as I remembered what I thought was an attack, and with the new knowledge I had gained, I understood that it was the end of a long march in which the other boy knew he could not control his fate, knew he was approaching the lake, and knew that his own body and mind were betraying him to end both.
Just… holy hell.
Towards the end of the game, the scene switched from a vast forest sprinkled with tree houses and booby traps to an industrial cityscape. This last section of the game had some of the coolest puzzle concepts in the experience – gravity-shifting wells. Some of these wells would only affect inanimate objects in the field (like boxes and planks), and some of them would also affect the boy, sending him flipping to the ceiling and turning the game effectively upside down, or catapulting him sideways through a field of spikes and circular saws. These events ranged from “Well now – this is intriguing. I appear to be standing on the ceiling of the facility. Hmmm… I shall wander about and attempt to make sense of all of this in a calm and orderly fashion,” to “SWEET BABY JESUS I’M HURDLING TOWARDS THE DEATH MACHINE HIT THE SWITCH OH MY DEAR FUZZY SANTA IN A BIKINI THIS IS NOT ANY BETTER SPIKES AHEAD SPIKES I SAY HIT THE SWITCH HIT IT HIT IT HIT IT VVVVVWWWWWOOOOAAAAAAAaaaaahhhh the ground! I missed you so much! Mwah, mwah, mwah! I’ll never leave you again, babe! Promise!”
In short, they sure were times, lemme tell ya.
Now that I’ve said my piece about the gameplay, I’d like to talk a bit about the title and the setting of the game. “Limbo” is the First Circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno – a place at the cusp of hell’s gates intended for unbaptized children and virtuous non-believers. Given that the protagonist of the game is a young boy, we could assume that the setting he traverses is the place Dante refers to as limbo, as he could be considered young enough not to know or commit true sin, but was simply never baptized. However, since the game does not have any other similarities to Dante’s story other than the name, it is not probable that the boy is in fact in the First Circle of Hell.
But “limbo” could mean something other than “the edge of hell”. The word “limbo” itself stems from the Latin “limbus”, which means “edge”. A more recent definition could stem from the film Inception, in which “limbo” is a dream-state in a person’s mind where the subconscious takes control and time expands in the dream. A person could spend only minutes asleep in the real world but could experience a lifetime in limbo. So this definition of “limbo” is “the edge of reality”, and tying this definition to the events of the game make things more interesting.
If the boy is currently at the edge of reality, what could reality be? Perhaps the boy is in a coma and is on the edge of consciousness. This would explain the odd surroundings that seem to be similar to what a young boy might familiar with – other children, tree houses, a fear of spiders, an inability to swim, the city where he lives or visits, and his sister at the end of the game. The game ends abruptly with the boy finding his sister (or some young girl) and the girl turning to look at him. Maybe the boy came back to consciousness when his strong bond that he might have with his sister roused him from his comatose state. Or perhaps the boy is simply asleep and is having a nightmare. He is experiencing a horrible reality where everyone and everything is out to get him. Once again, the boy has no problem running, leaping, and climbing; but he can’t swim. Maybe he loves climbing trees and being in tree forts, but hasn’t learned to swim in real life, so bodies of water haunt his nightmares.
The last section of the game was a stark contrast to the woods, caves, and ponds of the earlier portions. We see a city with chimneys, neon signs, and mechanical (possibly electrical) factory equipment. So when is the game set? Is it set in the early 20th century? Perhaps this boy was one of the numerous children used for labor in factories during that era. But what about the gravity-shifting devices? Is that possibly something he read about or imagined and fit into his fantastical dream?
These conjectures all have their merits, but the setting (as far as time and place are concerned) isn’t as important as the game’s imagery and the boy’s journey. And the journey is worth taking. And it isn’t a taxing game to play through time-wise – I completed the story in a little under three hours. So if a platforming and puzzle-solving game with a twisted, dark setting and style seems like your thing, I highly recommend “Limbo”.