Brutalizing Children in ‘Limbo’

by G. Christopher Williams

4 August 2010

A little boy is dismembered in Limbo with an astonishing regularity.

I’ll be posting an episode of the Moving Pixels podcast next Monday, in which we discuss Playdead’s Limbo.  Having completed our recording it occurred to me that we had never discussed one element of the game: a little boy is dismembered in Limbo with an astonishing regularity.

Surprisingly (it would seem), this issue just never came up.  However, the weird thing is that, having played the game, this imagery not coming up does not entirely surprise me.  I frankly gave it little thought during my own playthrough.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I do think about video game violence (as a matter of fact, I think about it a lot—see “The Dastardly Achievement”, ”Uniforms Are Relics: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and ”Splatter Porn and Additionally Strange Visual Stimulation in Video Games” among others).  Additionally, I teach a course called Violence in Film and Literature with some regularity.  I am not so much concerned about the question of whether or not violence should be a part of media though. I am usually more concerned with what significance violence serves in stories (my class considers how violence communicates moral messages, serves as part of religious ritual, or characterizes relationships between characters in fiction, as a few examples of the ways that violence is significant or even useful in storytelling).

So, it is with some surprise that I realized that I personally hadn’t considered the images of violence within the game all that much.  I usually want to consider what violence is all about in a game.

The initial time that the player witnesses the death of the protagonist of Limbo, a little boy, is probably by bear trap.  The boy’s body is completely dismembered, his head generally rolls away.  It is pretty shocking.  At least it is the first few times.

However, unlike games like Mortal Kombat and MadWorld where spectacular violence is often the focus of interest of the game, violence in Limbo instead serves as a distraction from the game.  In many ways, a very impractical one.

As a puzzle platformer, death is rather central and important to gameplay in Limbo.  Dying is critical in learning about the puzzles that the player encounters.  As I did report on the aforementioned podcast, I often paid close attention to the game during these death sequences, not because I was watching the gore though.  Instead, I tended to be looking at everything but the body of the little boy, as the few lingering seconds between loads often provided useful information about the environment that I was trying to puzzle out and traverse.  Death in the game provides clues about how the environment works and how to succeed the next time around.  In Limbo, you learn by dying.

Succeeding the next time around, however, speaks not only to the gameplay but also to the game’s narrative, which in turn might suggest some of the odd indifference that I felt about the violent imagery in the game.  Since the game is called Limbo, it is easy to assume that the world of Limbo is meant to represent an afterlife.  If so (and various elements of the surreal and strange environs of Limbo additionally make this suggestion), it would seem that the main character, the little boy, is already dead.  While the violence done to his “body” is horrific, it doesn’t seem that efficacious given that the boy is seemingly beyond mortal concerns.  The trial and error gameplay of learning by dying also serves to support this sense for the player.  After all, every death in this Limbo matters little, since the boy will re-emerge unscathed in just a few seconds to give it another try.  If anything, the certainty and cheapness of death here reinforces a sense of the state of limbo, nothing really changes, nothing really progresses.

If Limbo is an inescapable place, a permanent place of confinement (as it seems to traditionally be in a religious sense), watching futility and constant failure seems appropriate.  Indeed, such futility and failure (and the violence that accompanies it) becomes numbing (again, a possibly good description of a state of limbo).

Numbness might simply describe what is often held up as one of the main concerns with media violence, becoming jaded by regular consumption of such imagery until it becomes meaningless.  However, I am hesitant to account for my reaction in this way.  As I noted, I often pay very close attention to violence in all kinds of media.  I still have a tough time with scenes from Passion of the Christ (which I have seen three or four times).  I still flinch every time that I watch the opening scene of Un Chien Andalou.  On the other hand, the scene featuring the Bride’s battle with the Crazy 88s from Kill Bill fails to bother me at all.  Much of this, I attribute to the context of the scene within the film.  Quentin Tarantino establishes such a cartoonish quality of violence throughout the earlier parts of the film (including the literal inclusion of a cartoon full of violence within the movie) that the scene reads as absurd and, well, “cartoony”, hardly meant to be taken seriously. 

Limbo, however, is not cartoonish, instead, its aesthetic places violence in a context that is differently unreal.  Indeed, the ESRB gave Limbo a “Teen” rating, perhaps, sensing the unreal qualities of what would otherwise seem like especially horrific violence (as it is visited specifically on a child):

[T]raps and hazards contain giant boulders, saw blades, electric wires, spikes, and snapping bear traps. When killed, the boy gets flung around environments, impaled on spikes, or sliced into pieces. Black-and-white blood splashes accompany most attacks and death animations. (Limbo, Entertainment Software Rating Board)

It is this last sentence that seems to me to be especially critical in understanding why a distance is created between the player and the world in terms of the game’s violent imagery.  Despite the regular dismemberment of a child, the visual style of the game creates a weird way of perceiving the violence in Limbo.  Unlike the choice in films like Sin City and 300 to call particular attention to things like blood and otherwise grotesque imagery by featuring a world of black and white (or muted color) in which blood splatters much brighter in contrast to the rest of the world, Limbo’s black and white palette tends to obscure rather than focus the viewer on specific imagery.  While black and white often creates high contrasts, in the world of Limbo, characters, landscapes, and environmental props are often made muddier or are outright clouded by the darkness of the world.  Indeed, the inability of the viewer or player to see clearly is important to creating challenges in puzzles but also in setting the tone for the very different other worldly quality of Limbo.  It reminds the player that nothing here is entirely recognizable or entirely real.  Limbo feels more like a dreamscape (a place where “hamsters” on wheels can power the world’s weather, for example) than a real space.  The game’s resistance to allowing the player to fully know the world speaks of our inability to fully grasp such a place.

To call Limbo’s handling of a representation of innocence torn asunder something like “soulless” is to reinforce the world that Playdead seems interested in ambiguously conveying to us.  The concept of Limbo is all about figuring out what to do with unaccountable souls, souls that can’t easily be judged or evaluated in familiar terms.  Thus, the game simply serves up a kind of numb and unfamiliar violence.

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