There has been much written about heaven and hell. The absolute paradise of the former and the absolute pain of the latter are some of only a small handful of human ideas that are immune to hyperbole; our mortal descriptions of such places will never be too much and of that we can be sure.
But what about what lies between? The concept of purgatory is a much harder one to pin down. Thoughts on the concept, both lay and philosophical, have defined it as anything from a second mortal existence to an afterlife of absolute nothingness. If the title is to be believed, LIMBO ostensibly takes place in this in-between afterlife. It may not be hell, but it is a far cry from heaven.
"Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO." This lone sentence is the closest thing to a synopsis that the creators have given us. How the boy got to limbo is unclear. Why you must press forward is unclear. But to stand still is to both promise and condemn yourself to nothing.
But after all, LIMBO is a puzzle platformer and the instinct to move forward is natural. The puzzles are elegantly designed and make the most of your limited capability for interaction: running, jumping, and moving objects. Everything feels right and the game plays as a good platformer should.
LIMBO is not content to only be another decent indie platformer, though, as the puzzles very quickly become trials of dread and fear. Death has always been part of platformers, but LIMBO is almost eager to remind you of the pain. In your desire to move forward, you only introduce to your character more ways to die. If you miss that jump, you will fall down a pit and be impaled on the spikes below. You will have your body torn to pieces by the crushing force of a giant bear trap. You will fall into a ragdoll’s seizure as electricity fries you. Even the more quiet deaths feel horrible; drowning in water is a whole process of struggling and sinking before becoming still. The screen will linger and you will sit with it until you are ready to press a button to respawn. Do you want to try again?
The hazards of LIMBO seem too much to all be manmade, but they all seem purposeful. It is hard to ignore the sense of malice that pervades this world. The colorless settings and the silhouetted character designs do some amount in making the deaths less gruesome, but only so much. You might find yourself standing still when you get that second chance. To stand still is to do nothing, but to move forward is to create your own hell.
But maybe you do keep pushing forward and maybe you do succeed more often than you fail. The purpose of this boy’s search for his sister is unclear: it could be a journey of redemption, or love, or curiosity. Either way, that there is even a chance at success and a chance at relief at the other end of each dangerous trial is, in a way, a promise of heaven. There will be hard times ahead, but the pain is not infinite. To be given the chance to find an answer and reach an end is a small but merciful thing. But before that, the hard times will only get harder.
There will always be ideas about that lies between heaven and hell, life and death. LIMBO has earned its spot among the best artistic representations of such a place – not only through its undeniable dark beauty, but also the fear that a similar world might await us.