Limbo: Interpretive Art


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.


Around the halfway point of the game, the player character approaches the girl but is "slugged." The girl does not recognize his existence. Circled in red is a mound, which I believe to be the boy's tomb.

Around the halfway point of the game, the player character approaches the girl but is “slugged.” The girl does not recognize his existence. Circled in red is a mound, which I believe to be the boy’s tomb.

This scene occurs at the end of the game. The player character approaches the girl, and the girl is startled, which indicates that she recognizes his existence. It can be seen that there is no mound/tomb visible.

This scene occurs at the end of the game. The player character approaches the girl, and the girl is startled, which indicates that she recognizes his existence. It can be seen that there is no mound/tomb visible.

Pablo Picasso's painting, The Actor

Pablo Picasso’s painting, The Actor


6 thoughts on “Limbo: Interpretive Art

  1. This is a very good article, aliymahmed. But you are wrong to think that “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”. It’s understandable that you see it that way, but a book is as much art as a painting.

    Painting manipulates shapes and colors and is visually decodified.
    Literature manipulates language and is pure semantically decodified.

    “Art affects people’s thoughts and understanding of life; Art is a form in which people can express themselves.” That’s beautiful and true. But art surpassess this, for it is not obliged to this. You must be careful when mixing Art and Philosophy, Art and Social Issues, Art and Religion.

    But you are correct in many ways here. We have to observe, argument and find evidence for our interpretations, and you have well done that. 😉

  2. Well, I just finished the game and though I might have known that I would be “left in the dark” like this, I still feel highly disappointed from a gamer’s perspective. All these ordeals that the gamer goes through… The first two times I ended up restarting the game and continuing from the last checkpoint as it seemed to have become unresponsive. Then the third time my coffee was done, so I stood up and took my cup from the machine while letting the game run, and then it turned out there was this sorry excuse for an ending going on. Which to me is more like a really short epilogue. I am very appreciative of art, and the whole game oozes it, but the ending feels rushed, like they had a meeting where the designer said “well, we either shoehorn in an ending here or we really need to come up with some other game mechanic” and they went with the first. There is no warning, no buildup, nothing to suggest you’re near that “endplate”, it doesn’t even look like it, it’s just suddenly you flick that last switch and blammo.
    To me it doesn’t look like art but like a very poor and rushed design decision (forced by something like a release date or lack of funds or something).
    Also, I didn’t finish it in one sitting and I absolutely didn’t recognize that final screen from earlier. It apparently made no impression on me whatsoever the first time, even now that I know the significance I just can’t recall no matter how hard I try.

    This game gives enough of satisfaction for solving some of the puzzles and has virtually no “filler”, i.e. “action downtime” and is very generous with its checkpoints, which makes it fun to progress in small increments, but the final payoff to me just isn’t there whatsoever. Kinda feels like that painting where the painter left the canvas untouched and called it “lonely emptiness” or something. Very cheap. I want some payback for what I invest, which means I want some resolution at the end.

    Highly disappointing ending for a game with engrossing (albeit very easy to easy) puzzling and an insanely beautiful minimalist artstyle.

    • From a gamer’s perspective I can relate to your feelings towards the ending. The natural order consolidated in a gamer’s life is to get a reward after beating the game! That’s perfectly natural! The reward are usually extended cutscenes or plot revelations.

      But from art perspective, you shouldn’t expect it to give you any of those, for art only cares about itself. Limbo’s ending relate to all of its other elements which constructs emptiness and loneliness. Art doesn’t care about release dates or funds. From Limbo’s perspective, the ending leaves you with the same emptiness as it started.

      • That’s kinda weak though… I get your opinion on art, and I share it. But this is a special form of art: it’s a computer game that I paid money for. This game is moderately engrossing while playing, and solving the puzzles feels good. And visually artstile is freaking amazing. But with so little payoff for finishing the game, it feels like a waste of time in retrospect. That’s the worst kind… I prefer games that feel like a waste of time right in the beginning (like many MMORPG’s that are pretty much just meant to go on forever) so I can make a choice investing time into something meaningless. Which I sometimes do choose to do, and which isn’t a bad thing per se, but I’d like an incling up front instead of retrospectively at the finish.

        The increase in difficulty and the more action-oriented puzzling towards the end really feels like a build-up to a climax, and then it doesn’t deliver; rather it drops you off a cliff.
        I don’t agree that the ending relates to all of its other elements either. The elements point to a man-made industrialized environment of some description. They point to something that feels lonely, hostile and evil at first for someone dropped into it like our protagonist, but that can be unraveled, understood, even beaten to find something behind it, explaining, perhaps even justifying (if possible) it all. That’s not empty and lonely, it’s a FACADE of emptiness and loneliness that needs to be unraveled in the end. Hell, you even encounter groups of people (early in the game even) actually actively working against you.

        You say “art doesn’t care about release dates or funds”. I say it most certainly does in cases where it’s produced by companies that actually try to make money with it, like this one. (I think it’s even blatantly obvious in case, given the ending.) Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but this makes me, for one, wary of spending more money on any of their art.

        At least, that’s my interpretations 🙂

    • Sure, you’re defending your point of view with solid arguments. But why would videogames differ from any other art? You spend money for almost everything. From the “entertainment” point of view Limbo may be disappointing, but from art point of view it may be not, for art and entertainment walk different paths.

      “Gameplay” and “Replay”, common attributes analyzed from suppost critic reviews are entertainment attributes. You are suffering from Limbo not attending your expectations, hehe.

      • Yes, you’re right. I am suffering from that. My argument is that that is the *reason* I am less able than I should be to appreciate this as an art piece. It shoots itself in the foot, so to speak, and it’s doing that in my time too.

        As to your question: the biggest difference is that the art form aspect of a video game, especially a story-/adventure-driven one like this, requires a Good Chunk of time to be able to be fully appreciated. Namely, you have to finish the game. That takes up hours.

        I can choose to look at a painting for a minute and already appreciate it. I can look through a catalog of old Bentleys and appreciate them all in five minutes. Then I can choose to go back and look at every detail for hours to appreciate it more. But I cannot really flip through the pages of an adventure game and kind of pre-estimate the payback I’ll get if I invest more time in it without spoiling the story. This means that I de facto rely entirely upon the game designer’s ability to give me something back for the time I’ve given him, especially when the flow of the game dangles this carrot in front of me in the form of more and more stuff that is almost, yet not really, revealed. (Which it does really well.) And that in turn puts extra onus on the designers to cater as much as possible to the needs/wants/expectations of the people willing to invest that time. The way they can still put their artistic stamp on that should be by surprises, twists, emotional slight-of-hand, whatever, but not by promising a climax but ending in an anticlimax.

        That’s why adventure games with multiple endings based on paths taken during the game feel so much more rewarding, at least to me. It’s not *just* a replayability issue, it’s the ultimate way to thank the player for being willing to experience your art.

        As much as that can be called art, well, everything can be called art. This is a consumer product just as much, and in that I feel like I bought a ridiculously beautiful waterproof biker jacket that after five days turns out to let the rain through. Well, ok, a very VERY mild version of that, but still… 🙂

        And yes… I think art should offer some sort of reward for anyone being willing to spend time/money/effort/whatever on it. I’m just that hedonistic 😛

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