The first title in the 2010 “Summer of Arcade” promotion on Xbox Live wasn’t a big, colorful, flashy, or highly marketed title; it was a dark, quiet, and eerie puzzle-platformer by the name of Limbo. Since the moment I first laid eyes on it, I’ve been completely intrigued by not only the gameplay, but the story as well. Of course, if you’ve played Limbo, you know that there really is no story to speak of, just a few recurring themes and events that could be construed as hints towards a longer picture. I played through the game again, trying to piece together any semblance of meaning in Limbo, and this is what I came up with. Please feel free to agree, disagree, or share your own theories, because I’m still pretty stumped.
Limbo drops the player right into a harmless-looking woodsy area, which becomes more dangerous and more technologically advanced the further the young protagonist travels. The only way you would have any clue what was happening is if you read the game’s description on the Xbox Live Marketplace, which reads “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO”. While that’s more information that the actual game provides, it raises even more questions about Limbo. Is the boy dead? Is his sister dead? Is he trying to save her, or just find her? What the hell does “limbo” even mean in this case?
Here’s where the spoilers kick in. As the boy progresses through the game, the setting changes from a forest-type area full of tree houses and wooden structures to a mechanical world filled with gears, levers, magnets, and guns. In the beginning, the biggest threat to the boy is a giant spider, who is reduced to a legless body by the time it is finally rolled onto a pit of spikes after several confrontations. Other recurring things are flies, butterflies, and some kind of mind worm that forces the boy to move in only one direction until he can rid himself of it. Later on, we see more gears, tires, and complicated traps.
At one point, more than halfway through the game, the boy walks partway up a hill and we can see what appears to be the silhouette of a young girl playing underneath a tree house. However, when he tries to approach her, a mind worm forces him to turn around; by the time he gets back to the same spot, the tree house, hill, and girl are gone, replaced with another giant mechanism. I didn’t pay attention to this part the first time, but I should have, because at the end of the game it’s repeated: after crashing through some glass to end the game, the boy wakes up once again, walks up a hill, and comes closer to the girl, who looks up.
The game ends there.
With such a chilling ending to the wonderful game, I just couldn’t let it go. I wanted to know more, and thought that playing it again would give me the answers I sought. I tried to pay more careful attention, starting with the menu screen, which had some details I missed before: two buzzing sets of flies exactly where the girl and boy had been at the end of the game. That seemed to be the biggest hint I was going to get about their fates, and it was from there that I formulated my theory.
The brother and sister are both dead, but didn’t die at the same time. I believe the sister died in childhood, represented by the tree house and the childish appearances of both characters. It may even have been a tree house-related incident, as represented by all of the wooden structures and hanging bodies earlier in the game. The boy, meanwhile, grew up, and this is represented by the game’s progression from simple and seemingly innocent (his biggest fear is a spider) to complex and increasingly dangerous. The glass that the boy is thrown through at the end of the game looks almost like a car windshield, and we do see rolling tires at several points in Limbo, so I would guess that he was killed in a car accident as an adult, but is stuck between life and death.
It is in limbo that the boy realizes he can finally find his sister. Maybe he couldn’t save her when they were children, or maybe he’s just always carried guilt over her death with him, but now he’s appearing as a child again and finally has the chance to find her. The first time he comes close, he is forcibly pulled away from her, and when he returns she is gone. Other residents of limbo actively try to stop him on his quest, which I think is because they are jealous, having already failed to move on to the afterlife. We don’t know what happens after the end of the game, but I’d like to think that they could leave limbo and go to whatever comes next.
Of course, it’s entirely probably that this isn’t at all what the developers were trying to say with Limbo. In fact, I want you to tell me if you think I’m wrong, and share your own theories. Go ahead, let me know what I missed. I’ll be glad to have a reason to keep talking about this game.