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Limbo: what does it all mean?

From the moment we saw the first black and white screenshots, we knew Limbo was going to be something unique. But we didn’t know it would turn out to be this year’s Braid, an independently developed, refreshingly clever take on the puzzle platformer genre that manages to spur conversation by including just enough uncertainty in the plot.

The developers at PlayDead Studios have gone on record saying there is no official meaning to Limbo or its ending, making it ripe for personal speculation. The only sanctioned story is “Unsure of his sister’s fate, a boy enters the unknown.” Here’s our take on the game’s many puzzles, environments, deaths and ultimate end – when we’re through, please share your thoughts in the comments!


Above: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS SO SHADDUP

 

Looking back, it seems clear to me that Limbo is a musing on the pain and confusion of adolescence, as well as the need to hold onto the innocence of one's childhood while making the transition to adulthood. The key to it all is the nature of The Boy's quest and the procession of environments, dangers and enemies he encounters along the way.

He begins in an ethereal woodland environment, fairytale-like in its trappings, despite all of the horrors on show. This section represents childhood, an idea confirmed by the fact that the greatest adversary it holds is a huge, shadowy spider-like creature. A childhood fear for a childhood world.

The next distinct environment occurs when The Boy moves underground and begins to encounter Limbo's more sentient inhabitants, the humanoid, weapon-using Lost Boy-style characters. This section, to me, carried a major Lord of the Flies feel, evoking the idea that this was The Boy's journey to high school. Away from the safety of his childhood, he encounters an aggressive wider peer group and established hierarchy, and has to survive by his wits and evasive skills against their organized, group-led violence.

Following this is his first experience of the wider adult world at large, typified by the broken down hotel. Suddenly the world of grown-ups isn't the perfect place he believed it was. It's a sinister, dirty, sleazy place, and the grotty hotel, with its sordid sexual connotations, is central to this whole metaphor.

And finally he reaches the roaring, screeching industrial area. This, with its grinding machinery, repetitive automated routines and treadmill conveyor belts, represents fear of being trapped into the perceived mundanity of adult working life.

And central to all of this is The Boy's search for his sister. If you've had a sibling of a similar age, you'll know that that relationship forms the core of your whole childhood experience. They are your closest relationship, your closest peer and your playmate, your interaction with them forming everything of who you will evolve into as a child. They're the closest to you anyone will ever be, both in terms of shared experiences and genetics. The loss of his sister thus encapsulates all of The Boy's fears of losing himself, and he must find her in order to maintain his identity and remain a whole person during his oppressive trails on the way to adulthood.

Limbo, the word in the title, does not refer only to the physical world the game takes place in. It refers to the metaphorical state that the boy's development takes him through. He is growing past being a child and is not yet a man, and he must hold onto his sister, and therefore himself, as he navigates his way through this dangerous state of flux.

 

I tend not to delve too deeply into the meaning of a game – is Red Dead Redemption a dusty, desolate meditation on the futility of the human condition? No, it’s an amazing cowboy game in which I can get drunk, have gunfights and be mauled by a cougar. Perhaps this face-value attitude is why I feel Limbo is actually being totally straightforward and open about what’s going on. It’s right there in the title…

He’s dead. They both are.

The girl died earlier. So what we’re experiencing is the journey of the boy, moments after his Earthly demise, questing through the murky in-between of Limbo (not the dance with a stick, but the spiritual place) to be rejoined with his sister in the afterlife. The theology of it can get a bit heavy, but here’s the basic gist: People who die and who are neither corrupt enough for Hell nor saved enough for Heaven go to Limbo. He’s overcoming obstacles as a way of undergoing spiritual cleansing, and when the time comes, he and his sister – who, by the way, is knelt in prayer the first time we see her – will enter Heaven together.

Morbid? Yes. Complicated? Not really.

 

Maybe it’s because I’ve played too many games and seen too many movies with giant, revelatory plot twists, but I got a strong sense of foreboding about Limbo the second the other kids started showing up. Why did they set all these traps? Why were they so aggressively trying to kill me, and then fleeing whenever I’d get close? I wasn’t the giant, hunting spider, after all, and if anything their actions seemed to leave them defenseless against said arachnid. Either it’s all just a big misunderstanding, or – and I see this as more likely – they have excellent reason to be afraid of you.

No, the protagonist of Limbo doesn’t seem very threatening. It’s not as if he has any guns or abilities beyond jumping and pulling on things. But how much do you know about him, really? He’s pretty resourceful when it comes to manipulating the world around him. He kills a creature by ripping its last leg off and rolling its carcass onto spikes. And he seems to have no compunction about killing kids later in the game by leading them through deadly hydraulic presses. And he dies, over and over again, only to resume his relentless push forward seconds later.


Above: Quit chasin’ me, y’dumb brat!

Like it or not, there’s a lot to suggest that you’re the villain in Limbo, and that your quest to find the boy’s missing sister might not be as innocent as it seems.

The ending itself is what seals it. After crashing into a wooded glen that looks an awful lot like the one in which you start the game, you finally find the boy’s sister. She isn’t in a posture that suggests distress; she’s crouching on the ground, possibly playing, possibly picking something, possibly digging. As the boy approaches – in a very slow, ominous way – she stiffens and doesn’t look behind her.

Cut to credits, and Limbo’s title screen… which happens to look almost exactly like the area where you found the boy’s sister. The differences?

A lot of time has apparently passed, as the rope ladder has mostly rotted away and the vegetation’s gotten a little more unkempt. There’s also a suspiciously well-defined lump on the ground that corresponds to the area right in front of where the boy was standing. And we can hear flies – a lot of flies – buzzing, suggesting there’s something disgusting nearby.

Given the game’s macabre tone, this leaves two possibilities. The first is that the boy killed his sister and left her to rot in the woods. The other kids, the ones who set the traps? They were her defenders. The entire thing was a gauntlet designed to keep the boy from killing his sibling, and you were the villain all along.

The second (and more fitting) possibility is that she killed him. Maybe he tried to kill her first. Maybe she’d been trying to kill him all along. The motives and specifics don’t really matter; all that matters is that he’s dead, doomed to rise again and repeat the actions that led to his demise, like a ghost. Or a soul trapped in limbo.

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64 comments

  • ashleylanglois - January 29, 2014 2:49 a.m.

    omigod. i just had another idea!!!! what if the entire thing was essentaily a warriors journey- a race to the egg inside of a women. the two wins were racing and the other guys were trying to beat them but they weren't strong enough which is why the boy conned them to their deaths or killed them! and when he finally reaches the egg (the sister is the oldest) they are finally aware of eachother. as for the girl picking grass, what if that was her merely kicking inside of her mothers belly? as for the shattered glass, it was the mother that was in a car crash and the two babies both died, and the ladder was a representation of their acceptance and guidance to heaven.
  • ashleylanglois - January 29, 2014 2:21 a.m.

    okay one theory that was bobbing through my mind in the begining was that he and his sister were in the womb, not alive nor dead yet. he was making his way through a jungle of others who wanted life just as bad as he, and when he reaches the end, he sees someone else already there. as for why he turned away from her in the first place was fear. the whole time he was trying to beat her and everyone else to the egg
  • MannyCF - December 13, 2012 10:09 a.m.

    I think they both just fell accidentally from the treehouse (hence the broken ladder and two fly ridden lumps) and died... the boy, not good enough for heaven but not evil enough for hell, has to go through limbo to reunite with her sister, who is pure (based on the setting of the light shining on her and the innocence of her playing on the ground and picking flowers/rock/whatever...) The boy is probably the older of the 2 and has a little more life under his belt therefore probably has made some bad decisions during his childhood (as we all have at that stage in our lives) which is why he must go through limbo. There you have it.
  • daniel-leinad - October 31, 2012 9:20 p.m.

    FIRST I DID NOT WRITE THIS BUT!!! I am sure this is the real true ending and I went LOL when i read "the boy may be the villian" thats not true read this its from the comments on Pewdiepie's LIMBO playthrough... I cried during the ending. I figured out what the story was behind the game. Takes place during a war in the 60s. "tribe kids" are enemy soldiers. machinery=war. blades=torture? there's actualy another story. sister fell and broke her neck, so boy went to parents. parents didn't care, only about leak in roof. boy and parents drove to store, but had an accident on way back. boy flew out glass window and landed next to sister. he doesn't remember wat happend. game starts here in his mindscape. kurodoku1998 2 hours ago in mindscape, many things trying to stop him from remembering. slugs are government driving "communism" into their brains (probs why they die in light; bc communism is "dark"). finally reaches sister. the glass at the end of the game is him realizing the truth and everything come rushing back to him. he is alive in his head and so is his sister, but what probably happend in reality is he died but the sister lived. they both ultimately die tho (the corpses at menu). kurodoku1998 in reply to kurodoku1998 2 hours ago
  • karli2 - September 16, 2012 8:43 p.m.

    Also, the maturing of the setting is a wonderful way to test a boy through mankind's sins.
  • karli2 - September 16, 2012 3:45 p.m.

    Limbo is about this boy stuck in a limbo (an imaginary place between heaven and hell) and he is being tested. Every time he dies, he cycles back into limbo again and he has no memory of what he is looking for except hints within his journey (ghosts sometimes are portrayed with no memory). He breaks through this limbo at the end where the end is where it all began. He finds what he is looking for, represented by memories randomly put within his journey. He arrives at this scene. His sister (or female associate) is mourning over his body as there seems to be an accident with the ladder and the protagonist fell. As she is morning, the boy walks forward and she is startled at this presence. She doesn't look back because the boy is a ghost. This is the boys final way of giving closure.
  • kara-hamby - February 20, 2012 5 p.m.

    I like all the theories and especially the villain one and the childhood-to-adulthood theory but I also have my own theory. Okay so it's a mixture of the villain and childhood. Anyway maybe he was the villain now bare with me, a serial killer, and limbo was his childhood and transitioning to his dark ways. The beginning is his childhood and he lived in his own fairy tale world and the spider was maybe one of his parents, that is merciless and always looks down on him. He moves past the spider/parent and finds his way to his high school years and the "lord of the flies" years:) the figures that attack him are the older boys and who are his first kills.(the bodies hanging and in crates) which the world turns into his beginning of his adult life with the hotel and other sensual themes where he made his other kills. That brings me to the little girl he sees and the maggots that dig in his head. The little girl, I believe is his innocence that was took from him at a young age or his very first kill and the maggots are his decisions in life which shriek away from the sunlight. Now let's move on to the industrial and the ending which the industrial segment is the last of his kills and the realization that his life is ending and the ending is his last few seconds of life which the breaking through the glass was either car wreck or something else. And he makes a realization, he wants his childhood back while he dies and he stumbles upon the little girl and he realizes that he could go back to his ways and kill her or merge together to get his innocence back and go to heaven. I believe the girl stiffens because she realizes what he is about to do. Kill her. The End.
  • levsidorenko - August 10, 2011 6:24 a.m.

    OMG People I get it!It's not about the boy or whatever! It is Kaltoria said, but i will explain it more clearly...It is the "story about man kind" ..but at the end..the braking glass...it is the 3rd World War..and then the boy is returned back to the "same" spot BUT it's actually that the people of the earth finaly FOUND THE MEANING OF LIFE. Think about it...
  • tristancabuang - August 9, 2011 6:08 a.m.

    and so my theory was 4months late. i thought i was posting about the PC version Limbo which only just came out recently. meh.
  • tristancabuang - August 9, 2011 6:07 a.m.

    -the first time we see the sister, the boy walks towards her but something eats at his mind and walks away, when he comes back, the sister is gone. during their innocent childhood, something took over the boy's mind (drugs, peers) which made him do terrible things to his sister which started their drifting apart. -tree houses, motels, cogs childhood, adulthood, work (as stated in the article), and the boy goes thru all those stages in his life -the last puzzle/the ending the boy falls and breaks thru barrier/glass could mean that he is old and dying in real life and has decided to say sorry to his sister for whatever wrong he's done to her. but the sister doesn't accept the apology because to her, he has long been dead. this could explain why the first and last scene is the same area only looks withered and worn, saying that the years have never healed the hurt from the first wrong.
  • calavera999 - March 26, 2011 5:55 p.m.

    Interesting comments, I don't agree with the hotel being representative of adulthood though. A "hotel" (especially the type that have neon signs saying "Hotel" are the type you stay in temporarily for a few days or even just a night. The kind of place you stay when passing through somewhere. A "no place". Just like Limbo.
  • goldengunguy - January 3, 2011 10:43 p.m.

    It could be about how mankind has hurt the earth. I dont agree with this, but i thought it up. The boy is mankind, and the girl is the end of the world. the farther he goes the closer he gets to her. When he breaks the glass hes at the point of no return like a nuclear war or something. then at the menu their both gone because the end is over and mankind is gone. and about the name, the game of limbo (the one with the stick) the farther down the stick goes the harder it gets to go under it. in limbo (the video game) the farther he goes the harder it gets to reverse the end.
  • ShokuaHyuga - December 31, 2010 3:40 a.m.

    I haven't played the game myself, but at for the time being I'm going to agree with Micheal's theory about the boy really being the villain trying to kill his sister.
  • tiedyedpunk - September 28, 2013 7:49 p.m.

    I've never eaten pineapple, but it's salty and I know it.
  • elpurplemonkey - August 3, 2010 5:58 a.m.

    With Limbo, I'm reminded of what one of my art teacher's told me once- he said that once an artist puts his work out there, it's open to anyone's interpretation. That even if the artist comes out and says his actual intention behind the piece, the various interpretations of the public are still just as valid. He no longer owns it- everyone 'owns' it, because it's art. What I'm getting at is that even if Playdead came out and said that Limbo is just about a boy literally finding his sister in a forest- all of the interpretations we have about it would remain just as valid as they are now. This is generally reserved for other mediums like film and literature, but extremely rare in video games. That is what makes Limbo so special. It is simply put, art.
  • kiwicrossing - August 3, 2010 12:21 a.m.

    I agree with Brett, the whole Industry section was what made me think about how nature is dying because of industry. Yea, I know I sound like a pompous ass.
  • HawtKakez - August 2, 2010 3:01 a.m.

    I really admire this game for providing so much thought to our industry. I haven't played it, since my Xbox ran out of juice, but I am overjoyed to see this personality to coming from everyone. What makes this game the way it is is how everyone can find their own story from it. That is a feat to be reckoned with.
  • Zeb364 - August 1, 2010 11:55 p.m.

    Fantastic article. I really enjoyed all the varying perspectives and how they weigh with/against one another. As for the game itself, I think it's perfection for the exact reason that an article like this can be written about it, it means something different to everyone who experiences it. It all depends on your perspective, approach, and how meticulously you choose to analyze it. You can be like Ryno and simply take it as a fun game or you can be like myself and pay attention to the subtext, either way is fine. All truly great works of art share this quality, no matter the medium. Another recent example of this is the film Inception. You can take it as purely an impressive spectacle or you can listen to the dialogue and witness the character development and get so much more. It's entirely up to the viewer.
  • The73oss40 - August 1, 2010 4:17 p.m.

    I think that "entering" implies choice, so in life he and his sister wer in some sort of accident. He died, but didn't know what happened to his sister, so he went from hell to limbo, which is actually life, to find her. The traps represent trials to escape hell. When he finally finds his sister, who always appears in the light(heaven)he finds out that she died to and they move on to heaven.The fact that he was from hell explains why all the other people feared him and tried to stop him. The changing enviroments depict going through life, beggining innocent in the woods but turning darker and grittier in the factories.
  • CandiedJester - August 1, 2010 3:05 a.m.

    These are all very interesting theories, very interesting indeed. My favorite I think is Houghton's, because it makes sense, I really like the idea, plus he mentioned Lord of the Flies, which is my favorite book, and the natives reminded me of it as well! As for me, well, I'm not one for interpretations. I just play the game, enjoy every minute of it, and don't raise questions. Why? Because really, what's the point? No one theory is right or wrong, we will never know the true meaning, and I look at it this way. They purposefully made it obscure, with minimal story content, specifically so that people COULD interpret it any way they wanted. Which is great, for people who like to interpret.

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