April 16, 2013 by aliymahmed
Limbo: Interpretive Art
Imagine waking up in the middle of the darkest forest without a clue as to what is going on, venturing through the unfamiliar terrain while questioning your own existence. That’s the scenario you are placed in when playing Limbo. The artistic qualities of the game, such as the uses of light and darkness and multiple depictions of death, places the gamer in a world of abstractionism that only becomes more abstract with the different puzzles and characters that the gamer encounters. Art affects people’s thoughts and understanding of life; because Limbo’s ending is ambiguous, it serves as a form of art since it allows the gamer to interpret the ending in multiple ways.
It’s not clear as to what exactly happens to the player character at the end of the game. After overcoming the final obstacle, the player character is carried by an anti-gravity field and shatters through a barrier between light and darkness, only to land gently on the earth. The player character wakes up and approaches a girl from a distance and startles her. The end. This ending is an unconventional video game ending. Usually video games leave gamers with a sense of satisfaction of completing the game with an ending that is more distinct, one that is either generally happy or filled with sadness. However, in Limbo, the gamer doesn’t know what to feel at the end of the game. Did we escape that terrifying world completely? Where did the game take place? Are the girl and her recognition of the boy a reality? Are the two characters even alive? The ending of the game simply leaves the gamer with more questions than answers, preventing him or her from feeling fully satisfied after completing the game.
Limbo’s ending can be interpreted in many different ways. Some believe that the girl, who is believed to be the boy’s sister, and the boy are dead while others believe that the boy is dead and that the girl is alive. Another interpretation is that the whole game is just a dream. Other ideas include that the whole journey is metaphorical in the sense that the obstacles in the game represent the boy’s fears, and reuniting with his sister is symbolic of him overcoming his fears. There are plenty of other theories out there on the internet, but here is my personal interpretation of the story: the boy is dead and the girl is alive. Throughout the whole journey, the boy encounters some of the most profound creatures, ranging from giant spiders and mosquitoes to brain-control slugs and carnivorous worms that hang overhead. Even the more humanoid characters are different in appearances. Moreover, the obstacles end up becoming more advanced and industrial along the way. All of these are reasons why I say that the game takes place in Limbo, the world that is between Heaven and Hell (forests wouldn’t be found in Hell, and you wouldn’t find those creatures in Heaven or on Earth). Additionally, at the title screen, we see a run-down ladder along with a treehouse that is destroyed, and there are also flies that fly around the area. This could indicate that the boy had died from an accident involving the tree house. To further prove this point, we can examine two scenes from the game. In one scene, the boy approaches the girl at the treehouse area, which has been renovated, but then a brain-control slug latches on to his head and steers him away from her. In the final scene of the game, the boy approaches the girl in the same treehouse area, which is still renovated, and he startles her. These two scenes may look similar, but there is one major difference between them: the mound. In the scene that occurs around the halfway point of the game, there is a mound underneath the ladder of the treehouse, but that mound is not there at the end of the game. The interpretation that I had derived from this is that the mound was the boy’s tomb, and that at the end of the game, the boy escapes Limbo and reunites with his sister.
Limbo’s narrative, mainly derived from the ending, can be seen as art. In the same way that art is interpreted by many people, Limbo’s narrative is constantly interpreted by those who play it. Art can have metaphorical meanings behind it, and in a similar manner, Limbo’s narrative has been viewed by some people with having a deeper meaning than what is seen at first glance. We wouldn’t view a painting such as Picasso’s The Actor as having only one perspective of the direction in which The Actor is standing. Some may see him as having only his head turned towards us while others may view him of having his entire front torso facing towards us. We can’t simply say that Limbo has only one true narrative but rather multiple acceptable interpretations of the narrative invented by others which can be deemed true with proper substantial evidence. In other words, there is no such thing as right or wrong interpretation when interpreting art, whether it is a painting or a video game.
Art is a form in which people can express themselves. Art is more complex than books or diaries in the sense that in books or diaries, the thoughts of the author are much clearer than the thoughts of the painter, as different colors and strokes can provide different connotations in addition to the physical manifestations of the painting. In Limbo, the usage of light and darkness in an unfamiliar world with an ending filled with questions provides ambiguity in the deeper meaning of the overall narrative and what the gamer’s journey exactly was. The gamer has no clue if what he had just played was a reality or just a metaphorical manifestation of his darkest fears; the gamer doesn’t even have a true sense of the boy’s existence. As gamers, all that we can do is guess based on our observations, and that is exactly what interpreting art is all about.