Atmosphere is Not Enough: A Limbo and Another World Critique
(*Spoilers for Another World and Limbo*)
I finished Another World and Limbo in single sittings on back to back days and I find it remarkable how similar they are and how one gets what it’s doing so right and the other gets it so wrong. Both games are silent environmental puzzle games that tell their story through imagery and mood more than anything else. Both games exude an air of loneliness and oppression by the world at large and end ambiguously. But where Another World utilizes this a basis to dive into other matters and themes, with Limbo it’s the whole show.
Another World is a classic that I’ve been meaning to play for a while and finishing it left me with something. Afterwards, I had to pause for quite a bit. The game is not explicit in what it’s about and it certainly isn’t offering any profound sentiments. That’s something that gets lost when the word theme gets brought up. A theme can be a message or an opinion or an exploration, but sometimes a portrayal is enough. Another World portrays a friendship with so few elements that bigger games with all their material can’t seem to equal, even in good games like Uncharted. The game’s silence allows the player to fill in much of the details as the game itself treats most of the setting with broad strokes and simplistic iconography that the player is more inclined to identify with the avatar than not.
Limbo, on the other hand, falls flat on its face. The first third is strong with set up for the hostile, unforgiving, mysterious environment where it takes place and then does nothing with it. After the set up point you get the feeling the game doesn’t know what to do with itself other than more puzzles. That’s all the game is. Some set up and no delivery. The art, while stylized, is highly detailed. This clashes with the otherwise minimalist presentation. The environments are detailed, even if black and white, but the detail isn’t matched with anything else. Why are we traveling left to right? Hell if I know. Who are the savage children? They disappear after a while, so it’s never explained. Are the spiders the mystical guardians of torment and redemption or the transformed beings of those trapped so long in the cycle they’ve become feral? Answer: why are you hurting my brain with big words?
Both games are short. If you don’t die and can work your way through the puzzles quickly the games are 2-3 hours apiece. Good luck with that. Another World and Limbo are brutal games with nearly everything capable of killing you with the slightest touch. They contrast this with a liberal checkpoint system and near instantaneous reloading. The point is you learn from your mistakes and try again. Each death teaches you something about the properties of the puzzles and by extension the world. It characterizes each world as hostile, dangerous and oppressive. Another World transports you to just that, an alien planet where it seems an analog to the Roman Empire exists, but with lasers. Limbo wakes you up in what I can only suppose to be the titular plane of semi-existence. Ok, so now what do you do with that?
Another World answers, you escape, but not alone, you aren’t strong enough by yourself. You are given a buddy with whom you escape a cage and though separated from one another a few times you help each other out at key points. The end of the game has you crushed, tired, and barely able to move. You see a means of escape, but it’s beyond your strength and then your buddy comes. He picks you up and you both fly away into the sunset. Where you go and what you do or even if you are still alive are unanswered. But it doesn’t matter. The focus is on the escape itself and bonds forged in that fight for survival.
Limbo, however, seems to revel in its obtuseness. The player is in Limbo, I suppose, we only have the title’s word for it. Theologically Limbo is a piece of hell reserved for those who were otherwise good, but not Christian or baptized. The only inhabitants here are children, so that matches, but Limbo isn’t a place of torment. Limbo is a place for fundamentally good people who won’t feel the light of god, because they don’t believe in him. The punishment is a slightly lonely feeling, not being torn apart by saw blades. And what happens after you traverse the death traps you are rewarded with finding a girl in a field, she turns around, looks at you and then cut to black.
Limbo is missing something. If I were being flippant I’d say it was “a point” but that’s being too reductive. Limbo is missing a point, but I prefer to think of it as a connecting point. A point that all the dangling threads can tie themselves around and have everything make sense. I understand that the game is far more metaphorical and ethereal than Another World, but it does it for the sake of being metaphorical and ethereal rather than any point beyond. It’s metaphorical without a metaphor. It’s obscure, but it’s obscuring the idea of obscurity. The developers thought that with enough ambiguous elements thrown in people could pick them apart and come to their own conclusions on the game’s meaning. Except once you parse away the layers there’s nothing underneath. There’s no core. Limbo is hollow.
Another World isn’t ambiguous or obtuse, it simply doesn’t tell you much. It doesn’t have to. It has a focal point, the escape. Everything else not related to getting out alive doesn’t really matter. What we see, what we come across gives hints to a larger world, but we don’t need to know why, because the character doesn’t care and neither does the player. Enough information is given to understand our place in the world and our place is slavery, death or escape. Slavery means we don’t play, death means reloading and escape means winning. The game doesn’t allow for other outcomes or for interacting verbs besides those that fit with our role. Another World has a point and building all its loose elements around it. We can see an implied larger whole by standing on a solid core.
Much of the meaning behind both games and the feeling imparted by them is difficult to put into words. Difficult because we don’t have much material to work with and both games aren’t about the details rather than the larger feeling the game leaves us with. It’s best summed up by what the ending left with me. Another World left me asking, “What happened here?” Limbo left me asking “What The Fuck?”