The themes of Limbo

We’ve written pretty extensively about Limbo, the newest game taking the games as art community by storm. And it’s a pretty fantastic piece of work, to be sure. It’s one of the first games to subtlely convey art in a way necessarily of a video game. It’s not an art movie turned game, it’s not a clever gotcha plot wrapped in artistic trappings, it is an attempt at art. And sure, it falters a bit, but it shows us the goods, the ways video games can be artistic.

But I have to get something off my chest for a minute here. All the theories about what happens: they’re bullshit. You can’t really say a particular interpretation of art is wrong, but the theories about how Limbo is about a car crash, or how the protagonist is dead–those are as wrong as saying The Seventh Seal is about teabagging.

Limbo is not a game about the plot. This is confusing to us gamers, who operate in a world where plot is paramount. It’s a game about story, about concepts, and not about things that happen. If I described the game to you right now, not a lot of *things* would be mentioned. There’d be a spider. You killed it. There’s a hotel sign. It’s electrified. Some dudes tried to kill you. You break a window. You meet your sister. That’s it.

None of this matters, in the grand scheme of things. The plot is unimportant, the things that happens are unimportant. None of them have any real impact, and they aren’t the central point of the game.

And that’s fantastic. Limbo (half of Limbo, at least) is moving down the path towards games being integrated pieces between narrative and gameplay, and that is a development that is necessary for any games as art discussion to truly happen.

Limbo’s story is in its fear, created almost entirely through action. Limbo is a story about a boy’s fears: spiders, drowning, bear traps, parasites, crazy folks in the woods, getting crushed by boulders, having their sister die. Sure, maybe the folks at Playdead thought that the game should has a deeper, more intense plot, but they didn’t put it in the game for good reason. At its core, it is a story about fears, and about fear.

This distinction between plot and story is something Limbo manages to achieve where so many other games fail; at the risk of sounding self-righteous, it’s because the people who work on video games are computer science people, who rarely understand storytelling as a whole. Even in games where writers are brought in, they are usually either straight fantasy writers (who sell their fans a bill of goods based on world building) or people who are brought in to pretty up the writing done by computer scientists; they are glorified copywriters. Even with the advent of hiring writers to write games, I imagine there are few games that don’t spring from the mind of computer science majors, from people whose greatest writing successes have been (most likely) fanfiction.

Limbo has succeeded where many others have failed by having an actual story, with themes that couldn’t be dissected by a ten year old. There is complexity here, layers of it, written inextractably into the gameplay. There’s no plot, specifically, but there is a story, a very important story that is told with grace and respect. And that’s much more important than a gussied up metaphor about a car crash or the Manhattan Project.