In his article, Atmosphere is Not Enough: A Limbo and Another World Critique and accompanying blog post, Eric Swain describes the game Limbo by Playdead as “a nice looking hollow shell” full of “wonderful imagery that never comes up again or pays off”. He concludes that “the developers thought that with enough ambiguous elements thrown in people could pick them apart and come to their own conclusions on the game’s meaning. Except once you parse away the layers there’s nothing underneath”.
As evidence of this he points to the lack of what he calls a “connecting point…that all the dangling threads can tie themselves around and have everything make sense.” For Swain, this lack of a connecting point and abundance of loose ends means that Limbo has no core and is rendered “metaphorical without a metaphor” incapable of being anything more than mechanically competent.
If I’ve characterised Swain’s argument accurately the suggestion seems to be that a connecting point is something a narrative game requires to be greater than the sum of its parts and that its absence is a failure on the part of the developer to communicate anything specific to the player and therefore something to be counted against it. I get this feeling strongly when he unfavourably compares Limbo to the game Another World (developed by Eric Chahi) complimenting the atmosphere of both games but deciding that “where Another World utilizes it as a basis to dive into other matters and themes, with Limbo it’s the whole show.”
My argument is not a specific defense of Limbo; Chloi Rad has already put forward a case for that in their post In Defense of Limbo. Instead I challenge the notion that the lack of a connecting point is necessarily a failure or should mean a game is hollow or lacking a core.
Swain is correct about the developers wanting people to come to their own conclusions about the meaning of the game. Producer Mads Wibroe in an interview with Gamereactor stated:
“We’re deliberately vague about what the back story is and why you are here. We want you to make up your own mind about what’s going on and get a strong feeling about what’s going on rather than being told an epic story”
Swain sees this vagueness as being ‘thrown in’, a sort of top down method whereby ambiguous elements were included to mask its lack of meaning. I would argue that the vagueness was there from the ground up and that rather than liberally including ambiguous elements, the developers were instead conservative with the inclusion of explanatory ones for the reason Wibroe stated; that instilling a strong feeling was more important than telling a story.
But the dangling threads in Limbo and the absence of anything to tie them around are repeated irritations for Swain:
“Why are we traveling left to right? Hell if I know. Who are the savage children? They disappear after a while, so it’s never explained. Are the spiders the mystical guardians of torment and redemption or the transformed beings of those trapped so long in the cycle they’ve become feral? Limbo wakes you up in what I can only suppose to be the titular plane of semi-existence. Ok, so now what do you do with that?”
In the documentary An Introduction to David Lynch, film professor Charles Ramirez-Berg says of Lynch’s process:
“Most narrative film-makers begin with the story then try to figure out how to illustrate the story. [Lynch] begins with an image and the story is secondary, it’s not primary at all. If you’re asking the narrative question, what does this mean? What was that story about? Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. Maybe you should go back to the Dadaist appreciation of the image as image. You’re going to get a lot more out of it if you appreciate the image and the primacy of the image”
This is the case for Limbo. The story is secondary to the imagery, maybe there isn’t even a story at all but why should it necessarily follow, however, that just as much can’t be got out of it or that it is any more hollow than Another World?
While Swain fully understands that Limbo is supposed to be open to interpretation I think he assumes it has an obligation to explain, if not itself, then parts of itself or at the very least communicate something, anything, to the player. I think this places too high a value on communication and specificity. Why shouldn’t atmosphere be enough if it inspires a strong feeling and a sense of place and mood? That’s enough for me and is more than I get from most films or games whether they have a connecting point or not. And if that emotional state is the product of strange and wonderful imagery then I have no expectation that it should all make sense. I’m quite happy to just feel it.
Conjuring up a series of images without a clear connecting point and then presenting them without an accompanying story might be someone’s way of trying to dramatise their subconscious; bypassing what they perceive to be the filter of narrative. This, indeed, might manifest in a noise of non-sequiturs but just as with the series of images, ideas and emotions that occur involuntarily in dreams, they can’t immediately be dismissed as meaningless just because there’s no apparent connecting point to them. There might even be a meaning that hasn’t been realised yet.
In the same Lynch documentary, actor Michael J Anderson who played the Man From Another Place recalls a conversation he overheard in the editing room for Twin Peaks between David Lynch and assistant director Mary Sweeney:
“…he was talking “play that again. Hey, you know, I’ll bet you that’s what I meant by that” meaning that he had already shot it and it was in the editing room and now he was deciding what maybe he had meant by it. That’s staggering. The courage and belief in self that that would require is staggering.”
Swain asks many questions of Limbo throughout his piece culminating in “What The Fuck?” Maybe Swain is asking Limbo the wrong questions.