“Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo”
[♪♪ ‘tis the season to be jolly fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la ♫ MERRY CHRISTMAS! It should be the 25th of December, 01:00 here in the UK and I may be asleep…or awake – no idea, as this is a scheduled post hehe]
Developers: Playdead, Double Eleven
Publishers: Microsoft Studios, Playdead
Game Director: Arnt Jensen
Awards: “Technical Excellence” and “Excellence in Visual Art” (Independent Games Festival, 2010); GameSpot’s “Best Downloadable Game” (Electronic Entertainment Expo, 2010); the “Sound” award (IndieCade, 2010); “Best Indie Game” (Spike Video Game Awards, 2010); “Best Visual Art” (11th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards); “Adventure Game of the Year” and “Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design” Interactive Achievement Awards (from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences); named the winner of the 2010 Indie Game Challenge award in the “Professional” category; 2010 Annie Award for Best Animated Video Game.
Before starting the review, I’d like to thank Moro for gifting the game to me. I cannot thank her enough for having given me the opportunity to play this wonderful game.
[OST/audio: Martin Sig Andersen]
The soundtrack is very simplistic, which actually adds to the mood and the atmosphere of the game, contrary to some others’ belief that it ought to have been more than what it is. I strongly disagree. One enjoys the game as much as one does exactly because of the very subtle sounds (to which you have to listen very carefully and pay attention, as they provide crucial clues for the player to advance). Sometimes, less is more, and this is one of those ‘sometimes’. What Martin Sig Andresen achieved in this game is usually close to impossible, and for that, it [the game] earned considerable praise.
Art & animation
[art: Morten Bramsen | head designer: Jeppe Carlsen]
Again, minimalistic, which is what makes the whole game. The player is not distracted by anything else, and can thus focus on the subtle clues that I was talking about above, and, implicitly, on the story of the game itself. The art, which had ‘film noir’ as an inspiration, adds depth to the story, and thus, mood. It gives you the chills in the best way. That and…you have to love the physics of this game, and you have to play it to know what I’m talking about.
[‘tis lovely to play upside-down, isn’t it?]
The Ctrl key for grabbing and the arrow keys for walking and jumping – how much simpler can it get?
Story of the game – my theory on it
[director of development: Dino Christian Patti]
Firstly, a definition of the title:
- “an uncertain period of awaiting a decision, or resolution; an intermediate state or a condition”
- “an uncertain situation that you cannot control and in which there is no progress or improvement” (from The Cambridge Dictionary)
- “a condition or prolonged uncertainty or neglect; an imaginary place for lost, forgotten, or unwanted persons, or things; prison, or confinement; an intermediate, transitional, or midway state, or place; in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church: a region on the border of heaven or hell, serving as the abode after death, of unbaptised infants, and of the righteous who died before the coming of Christ; also, a dance from the West Indies, in which dancers pass, while leaning backwards, under a bar.” (from the Free Dictionary)
Well, I think we’ll all agree that it doesn’t have anything to do with the dance, unless one refers to the “Dance Macabre” genre, but in my opinion, that is too stretched a theory. The protagonist is obviously not unwanted or forgotten and it obviously has nothing to do with being baptised or not; so we’re left with an intermediate place… like between heaven and hell; considering what the game’s title means in Latin (limbus = egde) and what the boy has to go through, I’d say he’s on the edge of hell. Bear with me, please, I shall explain this and in detail, at that.
There’s something called ‘reading too much into something’, and when it comes to putting everything together so as to understand this game, this is really easy to do. I mean, you have to be very careful not to miss one of those subtle little clues that I was talking about above, but you also have to stop before you read too much into something. After I finished playing it, I researched this and that, here and there and everywhere (mostly to see if anyone had come up with a theory similar to mine), and it irked me that people came up with various theories while disregarding some crucial hints that one can find in the game, even though these are ever-so-subtle. Not taking those into consideration does huge injustice to this game. So, without further ado, I’ll get to busting theories with no basis, and subsequently writing my own view on the story of the game.
To start with, there are people who attribute meanings to the spider in the game. Well, its existence there can quite easily be explained, without going to any obscure degrees that I won’t even bother to mention: Arnt Jensen (the creator of the game) used his arachnophobia as an inspiration. The same can be said about the other fears that this game explores, such as fear of drowning, isolation or solitude, and obviously, death. Each and every one of us is scared of these, and they simply served as inspiration for the game.
Now, some people actually believe that the boy is in Limbo because of the sins he had committed during his life, and now he has to repent for them by going through his worst fears endlessly. Some of those who believe this, seem to take the ordeals that our little boy encounters during his journey in Limbo and use them as basis for this theory. Remember my take on the parallel drawn be certain fans between Madoka and Faust? Good, because I’ll say the same here: some things are simply used as inspiration and sometimes, there is no further meaning to them. I, for one, don’t believe that that boy could have sinned so badly so as to be stuck in Limbo having to wander there forever.
Some others who also said that this is a place where someone has to keep going through their worst fears and nightmares, based this on the very similar way in which the game starts and ends. These people also go as far as to say that due to this similarity, this game has no end, thus implying that this is a circle that the boy has to repeat over and over. Well, this theory has no real basis either, and here’s why: the boy doesn’t wake up where he started (in the beginning of the game). If you play until the very end of the game, you’ll see that he actually finds his sister. Here, at this very moment, his journey alone through Limbo ends, and their journey together starts. It is a sort of an open-end, but it is an end, nonetheless. I’ll be expanding on the ‘his journey alone’ versus ‘their journey together’ soon enough, so bear with me.
Yet some others who believe that the boy can never find his sister and thus never escape Limbo, attribute it to that vision he has in chapter 18: he sees his sister under the tree house and goes to her, only to have one of those glowing worms fall on his head. Watch me bust this one: firstly, he does find his sister, at the very end of the game, like I’ve already said. Secondly, think about it: the boy is in a place, possibly on the verge of hell, and has to muster every single bit of courage and motivation in order to achieve his goal – finding his sister, which is why he entered Limbo in the first place. So, imagine it: the boy’s in an abyss, in a state of despair – how hard can it possibly be for his brain to give in to a hopeful vision, something to help him move forward, especially considering what this boy had to go through (and it’s not even over yet). You know, like an oasis in a desert. Of course, one could also argue that this was the worm’s strategy, I mean, it’s a predator, after all. It had to lure the boy in its trap somehow. However, this doesn’t change the fact that he actually ends up finding his sister.
Next, some others have said that his sister looks like she’s burying him or digging for him (or his body), and apparently, there’s a legend or myth which says that one cannot escape Limbo unless their body is properly buried. Let me bust this one, too. See, in chapter 18 (see screenshot below) and subsequently at the end of the game, his sister looks like she’s picking stuff up from the ground, not digging or burying [him or his body]. Look closely at the position of her body and limbs, and her movement: she looks like she’s holding something (maybe flowers?) with the left hand, which is near her chest, while with her right hand she picks stuff up off the ground and stocks it – whatever that stuff is – into her left hand. It’s kind of looks like a child picking flowers.
So, after everything I’ve said thus far, after busting the above basis-less theories, let me finally express my own.
One thing to keep in mind constantly while playing the game, is the game’s tagline: uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo. This implies that the boy’s sister died and he enters limbo in order to find her. Remember when I’ve said at the beginning of this post that I’ll expand on my theory of ‘the intermediate place’? Time to explain that. They both died, but they are not in the same place. Picture the following: the boy’s sister died and she got neither in heaven nor hell…but somewhere like limbo. Her brother died, too, and got either to heaven or hell but his sister wasn’t there, so he purposely entered Limbo in order to find her. The fact is that they’re both dead – and I freakin’ cried my eyes out when I realised this.
Here’s what supports my theory: to start with, before you finish the game, when you go down the ladder for the ‘Alone in the Dark’ achievement, you get to a place where there are some candles in the ground and only half are burning. It’s ok if you can’t make sense of this thus far. But after you finish the game, if you go down there again (which is one of the ways to obtain the ‘Ding!’ achievement) all the candles are lit (see screenshots below). Now if you put two and two together, you get the scenario I mentioned above: his sister died (that’s why before finding her, only half the candles are lit – only one of them is truly dead) and he entered Limbo to find her, which he did (that’s why when you go there after you finish the game, all the candles are lit, for the both of them, implying that now they’re dead and in the same place, i.e., not one in heaven or hell and the other in Limbo). Why did I connect these? Because in many cultures (I’m afraid to say universally in the world, as I’m not familiar with every culture out there), people burn candles or incense sticks for the dead – it’s a custom. Not convinced? Look at the menu before and after you finish the game. Before you finish it, there is only a swarm of flies, while after you finish it, there are two swarms of flies, over what seem to be two graves.
As a little sidenote, I also have a theory about the treehouse: they either died under it, or it’s one of the places they loved to spend time in, while they were alive (obviously) and chose to imagine they were in such a place after death…still better than imagining yourself drowning or being surrounded by spiders, for example, right?
Lastly, at the very end of the game, after you press the last magnetic switch, if you do it right, the boy is thrown or passed through some sort of wall which shatters as the boy goes through it (somehow, this makes me think of the veil that Sirius passes through in the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Only now does he actually get to find his sister, implying that they’re in the same place. Remember where I talked about an open-end and journey alone versus journey together? Well, here’s where I explain that, too. He was alone, he went through all those terrible experiences in Limbo, in order to find his sister. He finds her, that is the end of his journey alone and at the same time, the beginning of their journey together. If we’re at subtle hints, see how when he finally approaches behind her, she stops picking up flowers and sits upright? This could mean that she sensed him and she was surprised – she didn’t expect him to come all that way to find her. And this is the end of the game; it is an open-end, but like I said, it is, nonetheless, an end.
And that is my view on it. Feel free to disagree, as usual. I’m happy with it, though. In terms of my reactions…well, I’m slightly more than just a mild arachnophobic, and when the spider appeared, I asked Moro to play those few minutes for me (when the spider was fully on screen, body and everything), as I was going to get hysterical otherwise. I also gulped, screamed, and obviously, cried; but how can you not, when (if you’re like me and cannot complete the game without dying – yes, that means I don’t have the ‘No Point in Dying’ achievement) you see those cruel and gruesome ways in which he dies? I’m talking about those spinning razors and those cogs, especially, amongst others. Of course, there’s also the fact that it’s a child we’re talking about here. It all seems so much crueller, doesn’t it? And since we’re talking about the fact that the boy is a child, I’ve another confession: I didn’t mind playing this game even though the protagonist is a boy. *cough* Those who know me, know that there are some games which I refuse to play (e.g., Assassin’s Creed) unless I can play a wifie… (and one of my friends gifted the Liberation one to me hehe). But anyway, getting back on track: I got so attached to the little boy from the very beginning, and Moro’s pointed out to me that this may well have to do with the fact that he’s a child. Also, remember my talking about fears and how these are the same for everybody? Well, doesn’t it change, even if ever-so-slightly the atmosphere of the game, the fact that it’s a child going through these, and not an adult? I think it does.
Now, I shall make another little confession and I’ll also ask about you, so sit tight. I find the following aspect to be crucial when it’s about playing games: do you get into the skin of the protagonist and become it or do you think of it as just a character? As weird as this may be for me to say, in this I’m all for the middle way. There are some games though (Need for Speed; Guild Wars; Oblivion; Mirror’s Edge, Portal) where I’m going to completely associate myself with the character I’m playing as. What about you?
And now that we’ve been over these aspects of this game, I need to touch on something else: the beauty in how simplistic it is. I know there have been lots of complaints regarding the lack of narrative or other kind of music for the soundtrack. But there is no need for any of those. Those who pay attention, can perceive subtle clues about the story and this is what evokes all those emotions. The absolute same goes for the music. One also has to pay attention to clues by listening to them (think of the Ding! achievement – you’re completely in the dark for most of it). You need these clues to know when to take an action (e.g., trying to jump over those spinning razors – in Ding!); try to mute your laptop and go for that and see if you can do it. And then perhaps you’ll realise the magic of the simplistic sounds in this game, and more importantly, their impact on the whole atmosphere. As I have already said, little is more, especially in the case of this game – this is exactly what makes it a masterpiece.
My verdict: this game is a masterpiece. It is magnificent; genius; brilliant; enticing; gripping; disturbing; beautiful. Very well paced, steady but sure development, it unfolds as it should – not too fast, not too slow, and if you don’t pay attention, you will miss vital clues. This is why people come up with ridiculous theories regarding what this game is about.
It’s worth buying it. It’s worth playing it. It’s worth your attention, energy, and time. I doubt there’s anyone out there who regrets having played it; I, for one, loved it to bits and strongly recommend it – if one is into this genre, of course.