Limbo & Exposition

Spoilers abound.

I feel very little need to explain what Limbo is, but for those few of you who have been on away mission to scout the outer layer of Mars’ crust for potential terraforming, here are the facts, laid out bare for all to see.

Limbo is a platforming, puzzle solving Xbox Live Arcade game with a gorgeous aesthetic and ingenious puzzles that tickle and tease at your intelligence until you figure them out.

It might seem that I’m getting more and more obsessed with how things are advertised, but it’s advertising that, usually, has such a massive impact on me when I’m starting to lose myself in something for the first time. We learn so much of games before they’re released that when I’m presented with something like Limbo, where all I’ve seen is a few screenshots, some feverish praise and a single trailer with the scariest spider ever in it, I’m suddenly playing something that feels completely fresh.

In fact, going into the game I was so excited that I didn’t even read the blurb on the XBL page for the game. I knew I wanted it; I didn’t need to read a paragraph on what it was to know this. So I downloaded it, played it, loved it. However, that blurb is pretty interesting. It provides infinitely more exposition that you find in the entire game, and because of that it colours everything that happens entirely differently. This is what that blurb states.

“Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO.”

The second half of it doesn’t really matter; we know it’s limbo because that’s the title of the game. But the first half, about his sister, and the fact that suddenly she’s in limbo is news to me. It’s only in the very, very final few seconds of the game that you even see a little girl, and everything up to that gives away nothing in the way of explaining why you’re there or who you are. Hell, the mere fact that it’s saying that he’s uncertain is giving the character more characterisation than the entire game. I can’t help but think that a PR played it and had to put something in the blurb, and so that was it.

And how does it change how you perceive the game? Well, for one, suddenly you feel like an interloper. You’re on a rescue mission, so clearly there’s a reason you’re going from left to right along the screen. Not only this, but all the enemies you encounter are suddenly kidnappers, or something of that ilk. It doesn’t matter that they’re nowhere near the girl; they’re between you and her, so they’re effectively guards.

More importantly, though, it takes away this sort of desolate, arbitrary pointlessness from the game. I don’t mean this in a good way; I loved that desolate arbitrary pointlessness. It’s called Limbo which, funnily enough, provides plenty of exposition as it is. You’re presented with this fuzzy, black and white world, filled with oppressive vignettes and looming, pitch-black trees that obscure the foreground and dominate the background. Waking up in a meadow, all you can do is press on; there’s nothing behind you. It’s a sort of lack of any clear direction that makes the direction you do go that much more powerful.

And then, after being terrorised by giant spiders, children, traps and everything else, there’s a glorious moment of freedom, smashing through… something, and landing, unconscious, in a meadow. Waking up in a meadow, all you can do is press on; there’s nothing behind you. It’s almost a pity that, instead of starting the game all over again, you stumble upon a little girl.

But there’s a sort of poetry even in this; throughout your time with the game, every single thing you come across wants to kill you, except a few rabbit things, but even they probably would if you weren’t so much bigger than them. Suddenly you come across something that isn’t actively figuring out a way to skewer your ragdoll on something sharp, and then the game ends. Or, more accurately, the boy and the girl disappear, leaving the scenery decrepit and barren. I like to think they are still wandering, just with a little more peace, hopefully.

But apparently that’s his sister, and he’s apparently rescuing her. There’s a moment about three quarters of the way through where you nearly reach her, only to get turned away by a brain worm, and by the time you get back to where she was, the whole scenery has changed. Seen through the eye of a rescue, this could be limbo actively changing to foil you, which puts a whole new slant on the slew of traps and puzzles you’ve come across so far.

But if you’re just here because you’re a little boy who’s died, then it’s more as though limbo is taunting you with heaven. Or at the very least, peace. What’s important though is that it establishes that the very scenery that you’re traversing is attempting to end you, and that makes things awfully depressing.

The lack of music, too, feeds into this, with any sort of accompaniment only kicking in at the most tense moments, and then it’s more akin a drone than anything truly melodious. So few and far between, it truly works to add tension and urgency to the game, where most of the time it’s merely ominous silence that bears down on you harder than the tinges of darkness that creep in from the sides of the screen.

It’s actually here that we start to get some exposition, although not necessarily on why you’re here or even what ‘here’ is. Instead, Playdead have been pretty smart with showing you how the world works before that lack of knowledge is going to kill you. This is exposition that’s mechanical rather than narrative. You approach a pond, and it’s littered with corpses. As you jump onto the first, knowing the water is going to kill you, a boy with a worm in his head plods towards the water and falls into it, dead. Not only does this provide you a way forward, but it’s also telling you that worm=bad.

A few moments later, you see some beaked creatures attached to the ceiling fighting over one of the worms. Now you know that beaked creatures eat worms. You could see all of this as clearly saying that you’re going to get a worm on your head, but at the time you’re more just noticing things and making a mental note. Throughout the game you get these little moments that inform without signposting. There are no flashing neons in Limbo. (Apart from the flashing neons signs.)

Beyond this, they colour the world and provide variety and texture that wouldn’t necessarily be there without it. See a corpse riddled with blowdarts, and you know that there’s probably going to be someone with a blowpipe around. Sure, there’s a few moments where you have to die to figure out exactly how you have to avoid something, but they’re really not that often; more likely you’re given some way of knowing what’s going to happen, even if you don’t always see it.

So I guess what I’m angling towards is that exposition doesn’t always have to be obvious. You can subtly hint at what you think the player needs to know without lighting it up in twenty foot letters (See Splinter Cell Conviction). Just a few hints are all you need, and suddenly the player is informed without being aware of it. A corpse set out in a certain way is always going to tell a story, regardless of how brief and vague that story is. Riddle him with arrows and players are going to be cautious for bowmen. You don’t have to get him to write out ‘Beware of bowmen…’ in his own blood for people to get that.

And at the same time, I’d really rather not have things aimed at the lowest common denominator. I know that sounds elitist and, really, selfish, but at the same time is it really necessary to provide some context for why a little boy is in Limbo? When you die you go to Purgatory, or so they say. All we need to know is that he just died. Or hell, maybe he didn’t; maybe he’s been wandering for years. The players imagination is always going to fill in the blanks, you just have to make sure that you provide enough information that they can extrapolate from there.

Basically: we’re not as dumb as you think.

About Phill Cameron

I've graduated, had a look at the world, and spat. Now I'm devoting my time to moving from 3/4 of a games journalist to 9/10ths. I figure I can get away with 9/10ths.
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5 Responses to Limbo & Exposition

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  3. xtal says:

    Enjoyed your thoughts. Particularly well made reference to the contrast between Limbo and Conviction: the latter almost literally holds the player’s hand so they can avoid failure; the former rejects that convention and trusts players to pick themselves up and learn from failure.

  4. szudden says:

    Nice work. I agree entirely, and was also disappointed by the description of the game in the Marketplace. At first I had trouble orienting to the game because I was trying to view it as the blurb had set it up… but as soon as I abandoned that idea, and approached it as you did, the game opened up to me. While it does make it hard to describe to skeptical friends who want a synopsis before they buy it (pinchpennies), the game is so rewarding for not having an introduction beyond the title itself.

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