[6 August 2010]
I love horror games, but too many of them mistake cheap scares and gore for horror. True horror isn’t disgusting, it’s disturbing; it doesn’t make you jump, it makes you think. True horror is subtle, never showing all of its cards because the more that you don’t know, the more frightening it is. In this way, Limbo is the best horror game that I’ve played in a long time.
Limbo is a nightmare. Which is not to say that it’s hard, though some of the puzzles will strain your grey matter. You won’t jump out of your seat at regular intervals. Limbo is a nightmare because it’s disturbing in a way that’s difficult to understand. This is a dark, ethereal, and dangerous world, one filled with giant spiders, malicious older boys, and screaming machinery, and by the end, you’re no closer to understanding any of it than when you began. Limbo is filled with dream-like imagery that might be whimsical in any other context (rotating worlds, levers for rain), but here such images make Limbo feel like a waking nightmare.
The minimalist art allows your imagination to play tricks on you. Like any good horror story, it’s what you don’t see and don’t know that’s most scary. The giant spider may be freaky, but when other children start attacking you, throwing bear traps and shooting blow guns, it’s more disturbing because you don’t know why they’re doing it. A spider attacking you is natural, it wants to eat; a little kid attacking you isn’t natural, so those moments actually become more memorable because they lack logical motivation (though I think that the spider has become more iconic of the game since it’s encountered in the demo and the boys are not).
At first, the world feels lonely because you start in an empty forest. The initial revelation that other children live here only strengthens those feelings of isolation because now there’s something thatwe’re specifically being isolated from. There’s a community here that we’re not a part of. Of course, this first encounter lacks any outright hostility. The other boy is controlling a fake spider, and while he may be trying to impale us, he might also be another scared little kid lost in the woods. The fact that he runs when we approach affirms the latter, but soon the other kids start attacking with undue malice. As a result, our previous isolation stops being scary. We want to be alone because all other living things in this world just want to kill us. As you enter a dilapidated cityscape, you start to fear another encounter with more kids. The game twists our own fears back on themselves, at first making us scared to be alone, then making us scared to be in company. You never feel safe even after hours of playing.
Limbo manages to create feelings of dread even when death is so common that it’s numbing. As G. Christopher Williams discussed in a post earlier this week, death in Limbo isn’t meant to be scary. Despite the many brutal ways in which this boy is killed, death is a helpful tool for solving puzzles. But even if death is practical, the images of a little boy being slaughtered over and over again are effecting. We may not be immediately disgusted by such images because they have a strong practical reason behind them, but in retrospect, the implications of a world without death become more unsettling. We’re essentially torturing this kid, putting him through one trial after another with no real motivation for why. This is a nightmare that he can’t wake up from, a dream in which he’s dying over and over and over again. If this is limbo, what’s hell like? The violence isn’t scary because it’s violent, it’s scary because of what it says about the world and ourselves.
What really defines Limbo as a horror game (for me anyways) is its utterly ambiguous ending. A good horror story leaves you hanging. The game’s description on XBLA says that the boy enters limbo to look for his sister but that doesn’t come across at all in the game itself. There’s a girl that we seem to be chasing, but the relationship isn’t defined. It’s so vague in fact that I feel that the XBLA description should be taken with a grain of salt. For a game that revels in ambiguity as much as Limbo does, such specificity feels very out of place.
So we’re left with nothing but questions: Where is the boy? Is this really limbo? Does that mean he’s dead? Is the girl dead? Does he escape limbo? If he chose to enter limbo, does that mean that he killed himself? Is this a game about child suicide?
Limbo is dark, literally and thematically, and such darkness works to make the ambiguous ending more disturbing than it would be normally. Our imaginations are left to run wild, and given the nature of the world, we’re inclined to take any hint to its darkest extreme. Limbo makes us think of the worst things imaginable, even if those things are entirely implausible.
Limbo transported me to a place that was both frightening and beautiful. Its minimalist approach to horror lets it avoid many of the pitfalls that bigger games commonly fall into. It stays spooky across multiple playthroughs by not glorifying gore but, instead, focusing on mood. Predictability doesn’t diminish its atmosphere. “Boo” moments are only scary once, but nightmares can haunt you for a long time.