Thursday, December 22, 2011


Limbo is a game about two things: platforming and death. But it's also about gigantic spiders, perilous pits, murderous hotel signage, facades of danger, and mysterious tribal children who want to kill you.

Because of this, you could say Limbo is a game of two sides, of which all games are divided between: gameplay and story. Gameplay consists of the acts of interaction the player performs: jumping pits, pulling levers, pushing boxes, and evading danger. Story is the meaningful connotation those acts take on through visuals, sound, and writing. Combine the two and you are no longer a series of pixels jumping across an empty pit with spikes, but you are a lost boy with glasses, evading a gigantic spider, and searching for his missing sister.

Limbo is a game that takes advantage of this. It doesn't isolate its puzzles from its story but uses its story to infer meaning beyond its puzzles. What about games that focus on gameplay without story, such as Bejeweled, Solitaire, or Tetris? These games are fun on their own but what does story bring to the table? Story elicits an emotional connection between players and the game. Story has the power to create feeling, to give you a reason to play, to interact with your mind while your hands interact with the game. It has the power to re-contextualize actions so that they take on a meaningful form greater than the sum of their parts. Instead of Limbo being a game just about evading traps and progressing through a world, it instead becomes a game about an oppressed boy searching for his sister through many different perils. And I would argue that's where the real magic of games comes from: when stories and games work together to create something more beautiful than their isolated parts.

Limbo is a beautiful game also because it does not force any of these story elements on the player. There is no direct exposition, no text, and no narrator telling you who you are or why you are doing it. Therefore the meaning of the story is left up to the player to infer. When a group of tribal children begin to attack you, the player is left to wonder why are these children attacking me and who are they? One of the more poignant moments in the game is when the player sees one of these other children operating a fake gigantic spider after the player killed the real spider earlier. Moments like these raise narrative implications that go beyond their immediacy. Does this mean that this entire world of Limbo is a facade? That these children control all the traps and deviousness out to kill you? Such questions are never answered (for better or worse).

In that sense there is no narrative progression in the game; it works instead as an atmospheric exploration of the world the player inhabits, which inevitably must be about death. The core experience of the game revolves around platforming, yes, but everything and nearly everyone is out to kill you. And the amount of times you die as the player reinforces this notion of despair. If the game were to make a final narrative say, then it must be about death--what does it mean that this boy dies so many times? That everyone wants to kill him? That even the boy would risk so much for his sister? It may be assumed that she must be the one person not attempting to kill the boy but the ending of the game leaves this ambiguous, which remains a perhaps better thing.

Limbo is a successful game through its use of signifiers, things that take on new meaning based on their appearance or context. You are not just a player solving puzzles; you are a boy fighting for his life. This is more than what Braid did, which I commend Limbo for. It is in the meaning of the gameplay in Limbo that the true story emerges, not in narrative bookmarks left for us at the ends.

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