Limbo doesn’t tell a story. Limbo is an impression.
Limbo is about childhood. Much of childhood is a form of limbo, a state that lacks a specific goal, something specific to accomplish.
I first played Limbo at the time of its release in the summer of 2010. I was staying with my sister-in-law’s family. I spent an afternoon with it. The game felt like summer, which may seem strange because it is dark and it is weird.
I play it again now, six years later, in the summer, which feels right. It is still dark, and it is still weird.
The silhouette of a little boy lays in the grass in a grayscale world. His eyes open, he rises, and then he is off, moving through a world of great danger, one in which being humiliated and eviscerated is likely. In fact, it will happen repeatedly. It’s the only way to learn.
I spent summers as a kid in fields, in construction sites, exploring, poking around, building things, and avoiding adults. Summer was 2x4s and ditches and rusty metal and streams. Summer was doing stuff with no particular aim in mind. Eventually you would need to go home, but that was about it.
Limbo is like summer because when you are a kid, when you are a little boy, summer is like limbo. There is no school to go to, no one to tell you where to be, no one to tell you what to do. There is just stuff to do in ditches with 2X4s, in streams with rusty metal.
Limbo‘s protagonist is a little boy, which seems appropriate to me. Like all little boys, he is intrepid and he is dangerous. So, too, is his world, which is full of spiders that will pierce him through with one stroke of a sharp leg, circular saws that will slice him in half if he doesn’t leap over them at the right moments, and old signs that will electrocute him if he steps in the wrong place. And he will be hurt by these things, but that’s okay because it’s the only way to learn.
I spent much of one summer in the rafters of an unfinished house. Me and two other boys hauled pieces of plyboard up into those rafters and laid them out piecemeal to create a floor for our attic fortress. One of us went through that flooring when he stepped on a piece that wasn’t placed well. He hit the wood floor below flat on his back. He stood, repeated “owie, owie, owie” over and over for about two minutes as he walked around in circles in pain. We were worried for those two minutes, then we laughed, and we all climbed back up into the rafters to work on the fort some more.
This is how Limbo feels. It doesn’t tell a story. It creates an impression. It suggests a liminal state of being, a state of being that is curious, brave, and indefatigable. As you back off a giant spider that threatens you with its spear-like legs, you soon begin to approach again anyway, just to see how close you can safely get. After all, you will get past him. It’s just a matter of figuring out how. If you have to bleed a little to get there, well, it’s the only way to learn.
Limbo, like childhood, is populated with other kids, weird kids, antagonistic kids, who want to harm you for no reason, who set traps and run off without warning. Why? Probably because they are in limbo, too. There’s stuff to do.
In 2010, when Limbo was released almost every writer here in the Games section of PopMatters (including myself) was writing about it, was talking about it. Looking back at those reviews, those essays, that podcast, I hear two complaints about the game repeated over and over again: Yeah, but what does it mean? And, yeah, it’s good, but it’s too short.
Playing the game again six years later, I feel myself recognizing that it doesn’t mean anything and it is too short. Like summer.