Opinion: Life, Death and Videogames

Feature by Darren Carle | 08 Dec 2015

The role of videogames as a tool for coping is not one that’s often considered. Our games editor looks back on how sombre indie title Limbo helped lay a path through dark times 

As a relatively recent medium, videogames are proving themselves to be an extremely progressive art form. Though early titles still have resonance to this day, it’s incredible to think how emotionally engaging games have become over the past 40 years.

Recent titles such as That Dragon, Cancer have tackled some deep issues while, more broadly, games are increasingly helping people overcome personal difficulties. Writing in Eurogamer last year, Christian Donlan spoke about how the obtuse difficulty of the game Spelunky had helped him come to terms with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

In this regard, my own personal balm is perhaps a combination of That Dragon, Cancer and Spelunky; a title that wasn’t specifically developed to counter a particular malady but certainly had many of the right ingredients to do so. That game is Playdead’s cult indie title, Limbo.

With its monotone art style, Limbo was something of a revelation and combined with a story pared down to its bare bones, its stale atmosphere was paradoxically a breath of fresh air. However, the game's serendipitous timing amped my love for it no end and it was to become an unorthodox therapy for me in a fairly dark time of my life.

The subconscious effects of Limbo

At the time of its original release, my partner and I were recovering from the loss of our second child during pregnancy. The first (a girl) had reached the six month mark before passing away. The second (a boy) less than a year later, had not grown as far, his heart having stopped by the time of the three-month scan. Charlotte, as we would name our first, was the more brutal experience, my partner having to give birth to a baby who had died days earlier. The events surrounding our boy Jacob were more manageable but combined, the toll on both of us was considerable.

Returning from hospital, and booting up my trusty Xbox for a bit of respite, it was probably inevitable that I would download Limbo with it being the new indie kid on the block. However, I’m sure that somewhere inside I found a little bit of solace even from the game's title screen and enticingly ominous, ambient soundtrack.

Indeed, much of what I got from my initial playthrough of Limbo was subconscious. The story is deliberately vague and ambiguous, played out with no speech, subtitles or cutscenes. You control a young boy who wakens in a mysterious forest – no reasoning is given for this, and you’ll be no wiser come the end. Some critics bemoaned the lack of exposition and rationale for the events of the game, while others felt a spiritual comforting in a world free from the normal clunky trappings of videogames.

The general consensus is that you are playing a game set in the Catholic idea of purgatory. The ending is cyclical in one regard and certainly abrupt, but a cursory explanation is that it serves as the young boy’s personal trial, his own journey through purgatory to find his sister who has found her own idyllic piece of heaven. The obvious upshot to all this is that both have long passed, as the title screen itself secretly hints at.

None of this really sank in while I first played Limbo, mainly due to its abstract nature. Like a great film that leaves you pondering it days later, Limbo took its time and several ‘viewings’ to reveal just what it meant for me. As a fairly short game, I completed Limbo quickly – but that wasn’t enough. There were secrets to find and I felt unusually compelled to complete Limbo in its entirety.

Despite having played very few videogames herself, my partner has, admirably, always shown an interest in my hobby. Limbo was no different and during my animated descriptions of it, she had sussed a connection between current events and this strange monochrome game I was getting a bit carried away with. Assuming I too had noted the similarities, nothing was said explicitly. However, I was still oblivious for a few more days, long after completing it.

The penny did eventually drop, explaining away our fascination. In a world where we don’t know the answers to the big questions, there was some solace in being able to guide my little boy through the murky afterlife onto that bucolic wee hill where his older sister was sitting waiting for him. Limbo doesn’t shy away from exposing certain harsh realities, though. The natural world can kill you without the slightest concern and though you only see them fleetingly, the other children in the game leave their mark with traps they use to try and kill you.

More brutal than any of this is a scene early on in the game. A brain-leaching parasite that causes its victims to lose control of their own actions is introduced when a child, much the same age as your protagonist, wanders on-screen and into a small lake. They quickly drown but their floating body allows you to traverse the water. Once across you then need to drag the unfortunate victim along some gravel and unceremoniously slide them down an embankment in order to trigger a brutal, crushing trap. It obliterates any last trace of the poor child but allows you to survive and continue.

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It’s cold stuff indeed, but it’s not without reason. Again, life is unforgiving and sometimes even little children die. Yet also, it could be seen in a slightly more positive way – sometimes, something has to die for something else to live. In that regard I can finish up my own story with a happy ending. A few years after these events, we had a healthy baby boy. Our understanding, perhaps our way of putting the past events to rest, is that Adam is only here but for the unfortunate events surrounding his siblings.

Of course, the death of a child as Limbo alludes to, as opposed to the loss of a baby in utero, are different things. Still, the similarities, combined with my own imagination about what my lost children may have been like, were enough for my mind to draw parallels to Limbo. I’m sure very little of this was due to authorial intent but the meaning a player draws from a piece of art is more important in such instances.

There’s no shortage of personal stories about books, films and songs that have changed or enriched our lives. Yet talking in such regard to videogames is more likely to draw puzzled, embarrassed looks than nods of approval. However, by their very nature of being player-led, games have arguably more opportunity to make connections, whether prescribed by the developers or not.

As a ‘spiritual sequel’ to Limbo, I am eager to play Inside, the forthcoming game from Playdead. It may have a lot to live up to, but a recent delay to ensure its quality is testament to Playdead’s ethos. Combined with five years of further experience, I wouldn’t be surprised if Inside betters Limbo in many technical and aesthetic regards. However, it will be incredibly unlikely to eclipse their auspicious debut in my heart.