It’s tough to say something about Limbo that hasn’t been said in the eight years since its release. It is a little hard to believe that Playdead’s seminal work is pushing a decade, but then I think back to when it was released and the context makes more sense. Limbo came on the heels of several other indie hits that by 2010 were starting to annoy me. Many of them were rehashes of the same tired 2D puzzle-platformer formula, but with gimmicks and painfully obvious symbolism. It felt like every other indie game was saying, “See, it’s like Super Mario, but you’re the bad guy capturing the princess! It’s that so incredibly subversive??!!”
Limbo stood out because it had something most of the other indie critical darlings didn’t: subtlety. Limbo is not pretentious and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It can be comfortably beaten in one or two sittings, lasting anywhere between two to five hours. Most importantly, Limbo doesn’t overstate its premise and sustains just enough ambiguity to keep its world and characters haunting.
The term “limbo” comes from the Latin word “limbus,” which means “edge” or “boundary.” In outmoded, since-updated Catholic theology, limbo is the edge of Hell, a less malevolent region where the souls of unbaptized infants go. As an ex-Catholic myself I always found the concept of limbo curious and more than a little uncomfortable in its vagueness, as a kind of theological stopgap to explain an unsettling inconsistency in the logic of the supernatural. If purgatory is where the repentant baptized go to rid themselves of knowingly committed sin so that they become worthy of heaven, and hell is where the truly unrepentantly evil go, then what the heck do you do with innocent children who died before the age of reason, but never had their original sin washed away in baptism?
I could always imagine some frustrated but well-meaning old theologians agonizing over this problem. The concept of limbo—a sort of in-between place, neither good or bad—always struck me as an imperfect solution to a gaping logic hole in an already flawed and somewhat cruel system. There was always something charmingly half-assed and hand-wavey about limbo; as if it was a Band-Aid hastily affixed to a set of creaky rules only after some smartass young priest asked, “Hey, what about all the dead kids?” I can see why limbo was eventually replaced by a more benevolent, holistic interpretation of the afterlife. What does all my bloviating about theology have to do with the video game? Well I think a little background knowledge of what limbo traditionally is can make the game’s vague symbolism all the more unsettling.
In Limbo the game, you play as an unnamed child who wakes up in a world composed of shadows. His only defining feature are his beady white eyes that stand out dramatically against his hunched black silhouette. There’s no explanation as to why you are in this shadowy, monochrome forest or how you got there. You quickly discover, though, that this environment is deceptively dangerous, laden with hungry beasts and traps that construct a cruel logic of their own. On your first playthrough you will undoubtedly die, and die a lot, but the trial and error never reaches hardcore levels of Super Meat Boy frustration, or the pretense so obvious in Braid.
Limbo is one of the few games I’ve played that tells its story so well through actual gameplay. Its tricks and hazards mimic those found in so many other platformers, but in Limbo these old pains and deaths evoke a hard and consistent sense of phobia. Enormous spiders that pursue you relentlessly and cocoon you in sticky webbing, well-camouflaged bear traps, spike pits, drowning, freaking parasitic brain worms, many other games have these very things, but Limbo makes me squirm like few other games can. It’s the starkness of it all, each horror and death stated outright but without dramatic music stings or camera shakes, elements that would only detract from the plain ugliness of what your little character is enduring.
As your little guy continues his quest through the forest, he encounters other children who are very obviously setting traps for him. Eventually they start attacking him outright, forcing you to draw them into traps that you have already avoided, and at times using their corpses to traverse other obstacles. You’ll also occasionally encounter dead kids hanging from nooses or caught in other grisly demises, and it’s unclear as to whether these are other children, or previous versions of yourself. It’s hinted that your character is pursuing his sister through Limbo, and you do eventually encounter an elusive female child, but none of this is ever stated in uncertain terms and the game’s abrupt ending only adds further questions.
And this is brilliant. For me, this all implies that these children are trapped in the Catholic version of limbo. It’s not an explicitly bad place meant to torture you, but it’s sort of a place God forgot about, a lapse in the supposedly perfect divine order of heaven, earth and hell. There are nasty things in limbo that will hurt you, but it’s ultimately the inherent human sin—malice, resentment, tribalism—that compels these eternally bored children to prey on each other. You can be hurt and killed in limbo, but you never really die because you’re dead already, which means you can’t ever truly escape this giant hole in God’s thought process.
But that’s just my interpretation, no doubt influenced by my massive Catholic guilt complex, years of struggling with faith and how religious stories don’t make a ton of logical sense if you think about them too hard, and a pretty great Star Trek Deep Space 9 episode that’s basically about the same idea. Limbo could mean something completely different to someone else, and something else entirely to a third person. Its gameplay is tight and compelling, and its setting is just vague enough to evoke all sorts of emotions and takes on the story being told. I think that’s why eight years later, this short little indie game is still so beloved. It’s stood the test of time when a lot of other so-called instant classics didn’t. Limbo is like one of those short stories you read back in college, the kind that sticks with you and abruptly interrupts your thoughts at the most unexpected moments.
It almost goes without saying at this point, but indie games like this are perfect for the Nintendo Switch. They’re small, thoughtful games and it always felt a little cumbersome to have them tethered to a gaming PC or console. Now you can take this classic anywhere you want, and introduce it to your friends at a party or while waiting for the bus. Eight years on, the small, subtle and understated Limbo still commands your attention and respect, and I’d go so far as to say the Switch port is the definitive version, simply because it’s portable now.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.View Profile