The Text Says No: Why you can't interpret Limbo any way you want
I like getting thoughtful and intelligent criticism of my work. I like reading what people had to say. It means I had enough of an effect on them to make them think and drive them to respond. And while I like the criticism, whether it agrees, disagrees, clarifies or whatever else, I also like responding back. I want to head off at the pass that I’m writing to the following in an effort to silence my critics. No, I’m responding to them the same way they responded to me. We call that a conversation.
Right after I wrote ‘Atmosphere is Not Enough,’ within days I got two written blog responses that I’ve been meaning to respond to myself. I’m a little late, but I still want to do it. So here are my musings.
The first is by Chloi Rad who went to the lengths of setting up a blog just to respond to my piece. I don’t know why he didn’t just respond in the comments, especially since as of writing this it’s the only post on that blog, but I still appreciate the effort. He also says he hasn’t played Another World yet; well I implore him to do so.
Chloi Rad says that I am misrepresenting the presentation of Limbo by condemning it for being open to interpretation and that its vagueness is an asset as it matches the oppressive nature of the world Limbo is portraying and thematically resonates with the mystery of waking up in such a world in the first place. He then goes on to give his own interpretation of what is happening in Limbo. Generally I applaud this kind of thinking and yes interpretation can go many different ways and no single interpretation is flat out wrong so long as the text can support it. I have written on the nature of interpretation before, but now I’d like to add a caveat to it. While a work can have many interpretations and your interpretation is loosely supported by the Limbo text…there’s no other way to put this, you’re doing it wrong.
Before I used Mulholland Drive to show that multiple interpretations can exist for a vague, confusing and sometimes batshit insane work and still be cohesive. The trick is finding a key that can unlock the obtuseness and interrelated meaning of all the elements. This is true for all works, but for most it is much more obvious and we don’t instinctively put it in same mental category. For instance, Die Hard is about family and coming together to defeat a humbug in time for Christmas. Yes, it seems to go to absurd lengths when you boil it down to that, but it is true and is rather obvious about its intentions to the point that people get it without too much hand wringing. Mulholland Drive is another matter altogether, but only in terms of degree. The two main interpretations that I am aware of are the death dream that latches on the key of the finale and explains the story backwards, unlocking the meaning of the duality the worlds and the weirder imagery. The other is that the blue box is a hypercube that crosses two parallel realities with the elements mirroring themselves with the worlds based on tragic or comedic drama subtypes. Both work because they latch onto different elements to unlock the rest of the meaning. But each one focuses on one element in order to make everything else falls into place. Not so with Chloi Rad’s thesis.
He says several times “suppose” or “what if” or “maybe” to different elements to get them in line. He says that the boy in Limbo is the victim of a car crash and before he can go to the other world he must find his sister. Okay, simple enough. So he begins by crossing the River Styx (nevermind that Limbo is on our side of the River Styx and not actually in hell, I put that mistake on the shoulders of the developers not Rad) and is in the forest to represent life flashing before his eyes. By itself that is an reasonable statement, but you already said it was a car crash and the text needs to connect the two. Then he says:
Excuse me what? If the game doesn’t inform you of this in anyway then you are forcing things to fit. In fact, throughout your interpretation you only offer two actual pieces of evidence that seemingly support your theory without pushing other elements into line like the above Hotel piece: the burning tires and the crash through the glass at the end. Other than that you leave a lot of WTF imagery (that is far more important to latch onto) by the wayside. Like the fact that you do see your “sister” long before the end until being attacked by another brain slug only to come back and find the environment has changed. Or the rising water levels in certain sections, the spider, the kids, any of the industrial equipment. You give some reasonable explanations for the shifting gravity and bear traps, but everything else is based on further guesswork and supposition. And then you say:
Then that’s a shitty interpretation. You can’t exclude elements because it doesn’t fit your vision of what a work means. You have to figure out how they fall into place. If they don’t fit and there are as many items included as excluded then its wrong. The text says you are wrong. Your interpretation and understanding of interpretation is faulty. Yes, Death of the Author and all that, but a work cannot mean whatever you want. The text says no.
Which only goes to further highlight the problem I brought up with Limbo. There is no answer and I don’t mean there is no authorial driven answer, there is no answer of any kind. The elements are so far removed from each other that none of them can associate with one another in any way. You end up having to do mental gymnastics to try and keep things together and that is a sign of incohesive work if not one that lacks meaning altogether. A work doesn’t need a spelled out answer, but some cohesion in its elements might be nice. So I thank Chloi Rad for offering me a piece to bounce my position off of and help better explain why Limbo was pretentious and how meaning escaped the work. If it was a black and white puzzle game without the atmosphere and just the physics puzzles I wouldn’t have ground to stand on with such an accusation and thus wouldn’t make it. But if the developers added so much with regards to atmosphere and narrative elements that, even if only thematically, the lack of any cohesion that allowing for a meaning to be discovered (if not delivered) causes the game to presents itself with pomp and gravities it neither earned nor deserved, then yes it is pretentious. Not a failed attempt or mere experiment of formalism, but a pretentious work.
The second response comes from the all to infrequent writings of the belovedsanspoof blog. He goes to the lengths to invoke David Lynch in his piece, so you know this is going to be fun. He asks if he characterizes my feeling about Limbo correctly, and yes I believe he does, maybe a little better than I did myself. Belovedsanspoof (I don’t have his real name) defends Limbo not with a half assed interpretation that the game does not allow for, but with a different point of view. He says that Limbo is not about the “story” and is instead coming from the same place that much of Lynch’s work comes from, an image that the rest of the work is built around. He likes it to the Dadaist appreciation of an image as image. That works for paintings and maybe moving images in a set course, but in a video game it only goes so far. While the appreciation of an image as an image is nice in its Platonic conceptualizing it doesn’t work in practice. Even Dada art had meaning behind it or at least a point in the case of the formulism experimentation. Even Lynch at his most batshit insane has a core behind his work, even if he himself does not realize it at the time of shooting. Lynch’s work is cohesive even at its most ridiculous mainly because he is a circular creator. Elements repeat, they separate, scatter and then coalesce back together.
I also feel that I must clarify what I mean by a connecting point. The connecting point is the key I metaphorically explained above. It is the point that when used unlocks the meaning of everything else and also sets itself into place in the interpretation. It doesn’t have to be one thing; it can be any point in the work that sets all the other elements into place. Limbo does not have that.
I also feel like there is a disconnect between our usage of certain words. Story does not mean plot. The story is what the work is about. It’s what the core of a work is, where everything takes its direction. Belovedsanspoof says that the atmosphere was built from the ground up, but that’s not true. Playdead has spoken at length that the core of the game was the puzzles. The vicious nature of the puzzle elements and deaths were done as a teaching element and not as atmosphere building. The style came after they had many of their broad strokes in place as a way to explain puzzles to the player. The puzzles are the core of the game with the specific atmosphere tacked on. I’m sure a lot of the other atmospheric elements they had were tacked on as well. In fact Limbo goes on too long because of the puzzles. They ran out of creepy imagery and concepts long before they ran out of puzzles. The final third is full of padding. The shift in setting doesn’t help the game any either. We go from the forest to industrial environments with nary a word or pictorial why. This hurts the game overall.
Could not agree more in theory. In practice Limbo does not earn any of this consideration. Because if this is supposed to be a crazy subconscious dramatized, then it doesn’t go far enough. Furthermore if that were the concept behind it that would be the connecting point bringing meaning to the rest of the work. The thing is the game does not eschew the “filter of narrative.” It revels in it at the beginning. The repeating motif of the children and the spider as antagonists are clear narrative motifs of man vs. man. Even without them the narrative motif of man vs. nature still permeates the work at the environment becomes the antagonist. The narrative is one child’s journey through limbo until it just stops. You can’t have it both ways. It has to commit to the imagery idea or the narrative one. Lynch submits to the narrative every time. His works may start off with an image, but in the end they are there to supplement the story, the meaning behind his work.
I would love that to be the case, but it isn’t. Even without a clear meaning or just not being able to see it a person can tell whether they are looking at a work with an obscured meaning or one without any at all. It comes from pulling back the layers. If they find more and more layers then yes they just haven’t found the key yet. If they pull back and find only the other side of the same layer they just pulled back and nothing else, then no, there is no key. I am perfectly capable of asking the wrong questions of a work, but I don’t think Limbo has any right questions. It will ignore them all because it hasn’t the material to engage with any. It is a work that ultimately falls apart under it’s own façade if you ask anything of it.
In the end what I learned from all of this was not the something I was missing from Limbo, but rather that my dislike for Limbo apparently overshadowed my love for Another World, so let me clear that up. Another World is an all time classic that has stood the test of time and will continue to do so as one of the greatest video games ever made.