Limbo Is A Poem

By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Monday, June 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm
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As I've mentally hashed it out over this past year, I've come to realize that Limbo is not a video game in the traditional sense. It plays, looks, and feels like one, but it employs a certain literary device in its narrative that brands it distinctive. Limbo isn't just a simple platforming puzzle game. It is a poem. And it hits like one -- it is raw, intimate, and immediate, and brimming with interpretive symbolism.

And since its release, it has haunted my thoughts on a noticeable scale -- far more than any other video game I've played since. I would say that I go back to its dark, lurid confinement daily and meditate on it briefly, in confused admiration, and then store it away again. It has become something that I need to work to grasp.

Warning: Serious Spoilers Ahead...

While the game is obviously not the written word, the base characteristics of Limbo can be described very accurately as "poetic." Outside of epic poetry, a poem is typically short. It is highly metaphorical. It uses the smallest set of descriptors to invoke the strongest feeling possible. A poem is, conceptually, just distilled emotion explained in the simplest and most vivid way.

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Commonly, poets use their medium to convey their personal response to complex human emotion. Limbo, as it hit me, is about the emotional journey of a boy coping with loss. In his reality -- in the moments before he resumes consciousness in the forest -- we are unsure of what trauma has impacted him, only that it seems like the loss of a loved one has transported him here. Given that the only information we have throughout the whole game is the tagline ("Unsure of his sister's fate, a boy slips into limbo"), interpreting the story as the journey of handling grief is the one that I can feel most comfortable with. And even still, my comfort only extends so far, and this is only one of many different meanings a player can glean from the events therein.

The other obvious interpretations deal with religion, insanity, and dreams. Limbo can be the interim between life and death. It can be the space between Heaven and Hell. It can be lunacy. It can be indecisiveness. It can also be a nightmare. The game allows for the player to experience the narrative, and apply meaning to it, in the way it suits him or her best. That is a very beautiful, very unique trait. And conversely, it can even be just a series of puzzles and creepy images if someone wants to leave it that way.

With each of these lenses, the game's characters and overall arc don very specific masks as they embody the different symbols and meanings to support their umbrella subjectivity. Probably the most recognizable and most memorable character inside the confines of the game is the black spider. It appears very early on, as you are only just getting your bearings, and your interactions with it spark a series of scripted events that end in the spider's very violent, very slow demise. 

For the coping theory, the spider symbolizes the choke-hold of depression and anxiety that accompany the holistic worry that stems from loss. Limbo projects that these symptoms come on strong from the onset of grief, and must be faced and dealt with head on, despite their overwhelming magnitude. And The Boy's encounters with the spider follow suit.


At first, the spider is a lurking evil, unapproachable and territorial. But it is also an obstacle that stands between The Boy and his salvation -- be it escape from this place, or the recovery of his sister. This hurdle is cagey and erratic. It has the predictability of a seizure. And once it is faced, it is a nagging, stressful problem that does not cease its curse until it is fully pacified. So The Boy breaks the spider apart, piece by piece, whittling it down to manageability.

Looking at Limbo as a dream, that spider is much different. It is the embodiment of fear -- the basis for which a nightmare can take shape. It chases you, it kills you, it wraps you in its web. It is oversized and mercilessly persistent. And you, The Boy, tear it limb from limb with that specific kind of strength that seems to exist only when you are minimally lucid, and your brain is soaking in melatonin. 

But being host to myriad metaphors is only part of what makes Limbo poetic. Back to how I defined poetry earlier on, the game itself is presented in the simplest terms to invoke the strongest impact. Unlike the longer prose of a novel, the setting of the game isn't described lavishly or embellished thoroughly. Instead, its monochromatic, pallid aesthetics stir a variety of strong emotions by detailing events in total starkness. Like the words in a poem, where each noun and adjective must exactly describe their purpose in the fullest, every pixel is shaded to provide the most atmosphere possible, trimmed of all fat.

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The forest is the prime example of this. A dark, black forest automatically conjures feelings of fear. There's the threat of something unknown stalking. There's an intrinsic feeling of isolation. Or of being lost. You are, for the most part, surrounded by silence. Occasionally a faceless child being held aloft by a ragged noose. I implore you to find an image that better invokes a sense of fear, confusion, and unease than a dead child suspended in front of a swinging bear trap in the middle of a forest.

I recall finishing this game at about 1:30am, sitting in my dark room, trembling and watching nothing in the dim glow of my television. While I had been fascinated by the mechanics, aesthetics, and minimal story telling, nothing hit me so hard as the final two moments. This is what I am calling the "couplet." In poetry, a couplet is defined as two lines that rhyme and quickly summarize a larger idea, or emphasize the moral of the story. The two moments that I'm referring to in Limbo make up the climax: when The Boy shatters the industrial glass and is thrust back into the forest, and when he finds his sister kneeling a few yards away. 

It is in these moments that all the muted emotions and permeating atmosphere come to a head. It is inexplicably deeply moving, and has resonated with me each time I've concluded the story and worked to figure out its meaning. And, like any good work of art, it is something that will need to be continuously teased out for a long time to come. But until then, I've set it in that small subsection of my brain that is relegated to only the most stirring pieces of fiction that need work. And it'll stay there, couched between the scribblings of Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams, and tip its hat to Andrew Ryan and Cave Johnson, who reside across the threshold, until I can sort it all out.

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Schivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.

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