A Journey Through Hell: Travel & Movement In Limbo

“Why is man the most restless, dissatisfied of animals? Why do wandering people conceive the world as perfect whereas sedentary ones always try to change it? Why have the great teachers – Christ or the Buddha – recommended the Road as the way to salvation? De we agree with Pascal that all man’s troubles stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room?”

From “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin

Travel. Etymologically, it is related to the notion of toil, of work, and of suffering. Today civilization is defined by the industrious stationary cityscape. Civilized men, you will find them in towns, in cities, in an office. The others, the ones that render themselves illegible to society–nomads–their world is travel. The true nature of travel, and the toil and suffering associated with it, is no stranger to these people. Today there are about 40 million nomads in the world–a far cry from what that number would have been just a few hundred years ago.

To us cityfolk, the world outside our little havens may seem like savage place–we may think that technology and the refuge of civilization can save us from it, but the second that I walk out into the wood, this truth becomes apparent even to me. That truth is bound in the delicacy of human skin. We’ve removed ourselves from that vulnerability, though, we believe no longer have to acknowledge it. We think ourselves gods in the face of nature: is there anything we cannot engineer or outwit?

Interestingly, the word travel may have origins in the idea of suffering, but if you were to look up the definition of the word right now, the dictionary states that travel is “it often for pleasure or business.” Ancient peoples travelled for necessity as hunter gatherers, or for spiritual pilgrimage. For these people, ‘a journey is a fragment of hell,’ as Chatwin would say. Ancient Egyptians believed that their purgatory would be a journey through the ‘Field of Reeds.’ Their afterlife became a projection of journeys they were not able to take during their lifetime. Today, we travel for novelty. Something, along the way, was lost. Somewhere, along the way, we thought we could defy our nature.

We’re in Limbo.

Limbo the game is reminiscent of these deep-rooted issues. The first time you boot it up, the little boy wakes up from his slumber and finds himself in a strange and foreign place. We don’t know where this place is, and we don’t have to: he’s in the middle of nature. Without knowing about the games’ penchant for gruesomeness, we can immediately associate the setting with hostility. Clearly we cannot stay here, and so we start moving forward: what else can you do? The purposelessness of it all reinforces the bleak notion that Limbo is our own fragment of hell.

The fact that Limbo is a platformer, which would imply the necessity of movement from left to right, is not as important as the ideology of walking itself. Etymologically, ‘walk’ is related to the middle English ‘awake’ and ‘reflect.’ We do not know why we are in this monochrome world, but the only way we can attempt to understand it, the only way we can wake from this hazy dream, is to voyage through it. ‘Great teachers’ like Jesus and Buddha have taught us this much.

Aboriginal Australians consider themselves and the land as one. This idea is in turn tied to the idea of ‘singing’ the land into existence–not as what we would hear on the radio, but the song of the natural landscape. The land and its inhabitants exist in a web of ‘songlines,’ the paths which are the products of singing reality into existence. To exist is to acknowledge the land, and you can only acknowledge the land if you follow the its songlines. Philosophically speaking, then, to know yourself is to journey. To know oneself is to walk; to be awake.

And yet the feeling I get when the only thing I can hear is the sound of crushed snow or foliage under my shoe is terrifying.

tras, tras, tras

The first section of Limbo sees us walking through the natural world, only this ‘walk’ is less idyllic than what we’d normally imagine a walk should be. Within seconds, you will undoubtedly walk straight into a beartrap. This is but one of the many gruesome deaths possible within Limbo. Most people find the fact that we’re playing as a little boy in such a dangerous world to be sadistic, but I cannot think of a better metaphor for our situation. The journey in Limbo is a fragment of hell. When we are out in the natural world, outside our element, we all become that little boy who could walk into the beartrap at any given moment. We eventually find ourselves traveling back into a city, only its torn down and ruined. It is no longer a safe haven for our little boy, though perhaps it never was.

tras, tras, tras

We no longer ‘sing’, and so we no longer know the land. The creatures and landscape of Limbo are unknown to us both literally–what the heck was that thing, a brain slug?–and metaphorically–where are we? The fact that the game gives us absolutely no tutorial or clue as to how to traverse the world heightens the idea of being lost. As gamers, however, our brains are probably hardwired to know how to play, and thus beat, a classic platformer–perhaps no different than having to resort to some innate lost knowledge based on the need for survival. It seems apt, then, that the controls require the use of only two buttons–the only way to traverse this hell is to go back to essentials. And so, off you go, on your search for that thing you might’ve lost along your way. Limbo tells you this is your sister, but this is a stand-in for something much bigger and sinister than that.

tras, tras, tras

I’m never as acutely aware of myself as when I’m on a walk. There is nothing worse than the unbearable void which I become aware of, than when I have nothing to hear but that tras, tras, tras. Per recommendations, I found myself playing Limbo in the dark and with the speakers turned up. Without knowing it, Limbo has become an exercise in reflection, a mirror turned back to me, every time the boy takes a step. It’s dark and lonely in here. Though there are only a few soundbytes for walking, turned up it is so visceral and undeniable that I have no choice but to listen, to give in, to travel a phantom of a songline that can only exist digitally for me.