The “Limbo” Theory (Spoilers)

Released in July of 2010 on the Xbox Live Arcade, Limbo (developed by Playdead) is a 2D sidescroller with intense puzzle elements and horror themes.  Since its release it has been highly praised as one of the best indie games on the market.  If you’ve played this game you know what all the fuss is about.  Essentially, you played as an unnamed boy on a quest to find his sister in a state of limbo.  In other words, he’s probably dead (although there are a variety of theories).  Throughout the game you venture through a forest and into a more industrialized setting with gravity shifts and other obstacles.  The grainy black and white filter used throughout the game and the silhouette of the environment and the main character all create an eery atmosphere, but add exceptional artistic value to the game.  Although the aesthetic elements of the game are highly praised, there is much debate about Limbo’s story and the meaning that can be derived from it.  Personally, I’d like to share my thoughts about the Limbo’s meaning after just completing the game for the first time last night.

Although there are a variety of complex theories regarding the origins of the boy and his sister in Limbo, my interpretation of the game is rather straightforward.  After only playing through the game once I’m sure my thoughts aren’t as coherent as they could be had I played it another time before writing this, but this game gave me so much to think about!  Okay, here we go.  First, it is my interpretation that the boy and his sister are both in fact dead (I’ll talk more about the sister in a bit).  I assume they are dead simply from the title of the game.  Limbo references a middle state between life and the afterlife.  This makes sense in the first chapters of the game where you are chased by a giant spider.  Limbo is a place of mystery and chaos that doesn’t make sense, which is very similar to the state of limbo in the movie, “Inception.”  To make things more interesting, flies and maggots seem to follow the boy to various locations, possibly insinuating that he is indeed already dead.  Furthermore, the menu screen of the game is the same area in which the boy is reunited with his sister at the end of the game.  Yet, there are some rather notable differences.  There are two small mounds of dirt on the menu screen with two distinct groups of flies hovering above them.  This seems like an odd coincidence to say the least.  My guess is that the boy and the girl died at that particular location and were cast into separate areas within limbo.  At the end of the game the forest meadow where your sister resides looks to be in much better condition than that of the menu screen.  The latter in the upper right hand corner has begun to rot away on the menu screen, which could mean that time has elapsed from the point at which the boy and his sister died up until the events of the game.  Notably, the latter is is good condition when the boy and his sister reunite at the end of the game, which could be a visual representation of the scene of their deaths at the time it happened.  I surmise that these two contrasting depictions of the same area are meant to represent the passing of time, but then again…it’s only a theory.

Top: end scene of the game Bottom: menu screen

Top: end scene of the game
Bottom: menu screen

Moving on to the boys sister, I would like to note that I’m a bit lost as to how her representation fits into Limbo’s plot.  I find it interesting that the sister is always portrayed in rays of light because the light is what makes you change your direction when a maggot digs its way into your brain.  I’m not sure exactly how this fits in with the story, but to me it seems as though the boy’s sister plays the metaphorical role of an advisor or serves as a guiding force for the boy as he progresses through the various puzzles throughout the game.  Other theories suggest that the girl is on her knees praying when she makes her appearances, which connects to various religious beliefs and each of their interpretations of “limbo” as an in-between state of being in which individuals must earn their way into heaven.  Whatever the meaning, the menu screen still prompts me to believe that she had also been met with a terrible fate before ending up in limbo.  

As a metaphor, the glass wall that the boy breaks through at the end of the game to reach his sister is so cryptic that it is almost impossible to derive any real meaning.  Some surmise that it represents the boys completion of his quest from hell to heaven while others believe that it is the metaphorical (yet somewhat literal) representation of a car crash in which the boy and his sister both died.  I believe that its a bit simpler than that.  Limbo, to me at least, is a place of repetition and the recycling of events and actions.  I don’t think it’s any accident that the environment in which you land after shattering the wall of glass is extremely similar to the area in which you begin your journey.  Even the way the boy opens his eyes and gets up is reminiscent of the beginning of the game.  The only difference is that he meets his sister this time.  I believe the glass merely represents the breaking point in which events begin to reset themselves again, almost as if the boy is predestined to repeat the search for his sister over and over again.  I could be wrong…but then again I don’t think there’s any right answer per se.

The beauty of Limbo as a game is that it is 100% open to interpretation and the developers did that on purpose.  When individuals are able to interpret a piece of art (yes video games are art) in their own way it allows for more in-depth analysis and application.  Honestly, I don’t think there is any “correct” theory when looking at Limbo because it was designed to resonate differently with each person who plays it.  Because this concept was executed so well, Limbo is infinite in scope no matter what angle you view it from.

Have you played Limbo?  Give me your thoughts about the game or any theories you may have in the comments section below!

-Ocarina of Time Nerd

About Joel

Live, love, play video games.
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