Limbo: Concussive Conclusions
Playdead’s Limbo is a masterstroke and is rightly regarded as something extraordinary by critics and gamers alike. Its gloomy and sombre aesthetic is unique and the game manages to expertly straddle the line between innocence and otherworldy horror, it almost feels like the gaming adaptation of a fairy tale that was never written. And this is all achieved without any dialogue – players are given only a brief explanation about a boy searching for his sister, and the experience itself to try to fathom what is, and what has, occurred. The game’s conclusion left some puzzled, some disappointed and others, who had the desire, with some serious speculation to undertake…
Various theories have been postulated about the ambiguous ending, which sees the game’s protagonist, a fragile boy, fly feet-first, through a glass-like barrier before ending up in an unconscious heap akin to the game’s opening. Some players originally thought that this was the actual finale, leaving the game to continue in an endless, maddening, cycle. This would have been interesting, and passable, but it’s not the case. The boy awakens, walks up a small slope and is then finally re-united with his sister, who’s sat underneath the rope-ladder of a treehouse. This isn’t some classic scene of siblings re-united however, as its brevity and uncertainties are paramount: the boy approaches his sister from behind and when nearing close proximity, she ceases her undefined activity and sits upright abruptly. And that’s it.
This conclusion, if read closely, introduces a slew of questions. Why are the sister’s eyes not visible like his? What exactly is she doing underneath the rope-ladder? What is the significance of breaking through the barrier (something which occurs only once in the entire game)? Why does this happen in slow-motion? Speculation is rife, certainty is not. Many interesting and entertaining theories have sprung up about the game’s ending, here are some of the more prevalent ones:
The ‘Car-Crash’ theory:
This suggests that, some time before the game’s inception, the two siblings were playing in their treehouse where an unfortunate accident caused the girl to fall to her death. After this, the boy carried on through life, bereaved, and then either through carelessness or with intent, ends up in a car-smash which sends him hurtling through the windscreen (represented by the final glass-barrier) and into the afterlife (the self-contained section afterward). Here, his sister has waited for him (in limbo between worlds) so they can both ascend into the treehouse (heaven) together. Proponents of this theory see the puzzles and adversaries in the game as representing the boy’s life after his sister’s death; wandering the forest in a guilt-ridden state, working in a factory (which has connotations to automobiles, as do the tyre-swings), whilst the gravity-based puzzles could represent the inertia of the car-crash.
The ‘In Limbo’ theory:
This suggests that the boy actually killed his sister and is momentarily stuck in limbo (defined in theology as ‘the edge of Hell’) as punishment: forced to endure an array of frustrating obstacles, nightmare creatures (giant spider/’dogs’), demons (natives/hunters) and constant, visceral executions. This would also explain why she isn’t searching for her him, and maybe why she actually runs away when glimpsed earlier in the game. Once he has overcome this purgation, he is afforded one final moment with his sister before expiring into oblivion.
The ‘Treehouse’ theory:
This is more straightforward than the other ideas and suggests the boy died falling from the treehouse’s rope-ladder and his sister is actually burying his body in the final scene. The journey through the game is made by his spirit and he is travelling to the scene of his death so he can understand his fate, see his sister (who appears preternaturally aware of his presence) and finally be at peace.
Whilst these are fascinating theories, they do omit various elements to serve their own agenda. I’m hard-pressed to settle on which theory to align with, although several elements of the game’s conclusion are noteworthy. Firstly, the way the game slows down and its soundtrack shifts to a positive ambience once the boy crashes through the barrier certainly wasn’t dropped in on a whim – it’s very poignant and suggests a shifting of either consciousness or realms. The fact the sister’s eyes are never seen also implies she exists in a different state, of either mortality or consciousness, to that of her brother. Finally, some players have suggested the title-screen following the ending shows two swarms of flies buzzing over the siblings’ corpses. I see the flies and admit the swarms’ location is suspect, but I don’t see bodies on the ground, merely the once smooth terrain now ravaged irregular by time, just as the treehouse has now become an abandoned shell, unused and peppered by storms.
It’s a credit to the game that players are even concerned with putting this much energy into hypothesising on the conclusion and its meaning. In only a couple of hours, you cannot help (unless you’re a sociopath) but become attached to the boy and the dark, melancholic and lethal world he inhabits. Besides being interesting, perhaps this discourse is simply a way of extracting more from such a spellbinding experience after it has slipped away into a sublime memory.