Probing Purgatory

[This is going to be talking about the XBLA game LIMBO and the cross-platform game Portal 2. You should have played or at least be familiar with both works before reading this. In other words, I’m about to spoil.]


In both games, you awake from a sleep. Both for very different reasons.

In Portal 2, you are told it has been many, many years. From anywhere between a decade to hundreds of years, you have slept as the world around you — Aperture Science — has grown. In a twisted form of evolution, the robots that maintain the facility have made more and more parts, turrets and chambers for greater and greater challenges. The mission statement of “Science!” has been furthered in the utterly earnest way a robot works; it has been following its programming. Since the end of Portal, GLaDOS has slept on and off while the facility is run. You awake into this modern, twisted and sleeping world.

In LIMBO, your first experience is that of a boy in a forest. In sullen silence, you arise from the floor and begin to walk. The world is grey, the objectives cloudy and the narrative obscured. You proceed, either left or right, and walk on without a clear view of where to go. The space is vast around you. As two specks of white in a body of darkness, you walk on through this empty forest of twilight, a place either of dying or hope of rebirth.


There are two very different ways of teaching the player how the mechanics of these worlds work.

Excel through failure. That is the ludic approach LIMBO takes. Unless you know how some threat will manifest itself to you, you will die in some horrible way. This first represents itself through the bear traps and being crushed, munched and often beheaded each time you fail to figure out how to avoid them. This mechanic evolves over time from there, from static threats like spikes to dynamic ones such as saw blades that come at you. You learn over time how to adjust your play style to each new threat extending from the first failure through ultimately reaching the solution. Each lesson of pain is fuel for reaching further.

Valve, the developer and publisher of Portal 2, wants each player to achieve the same thing at every major puzzle: the “Ah ha!” moment. Through listening to the developer commentary of both Portal and its sequel, you learn that Valve takes great pains to play-test every game they make. All possible solutions are explored and puzzled are tweaked through iteration after iteration of testing. Eventually, they gleam the result of all this process: a puzzle that through various means (lighting, dialogue, art and positioning) will lead the player to what Valve wants them to feel, the “Ah ha!” moment. In Portal 2, you are taught initially through listening/reading, then through familiarity and finally through, you might guess, testing. Layers of mechanics are taught one at a time, through levels, with the ending of the game being a test of all learned mechanics.


Ending with a new beginning.

You make a mistake. You take the greatest moron that has ever been invented and you place him in charge of the most complex science structure in history. In Portal 2, from the moment you achieve the swapping of Wheatley and GLaDOS, you are ‘fallen’ from the modern world of Portal to the depths of the past and the world of Cave Johnson. You eventually reach the ability to change this first choice but only after you ‘activate’ the past of Aperture Science and are able, through linking the past and the present, to reach the end of your journey.

You might be reaching your body. Or starting a new cycle. Regardless, in LIMBO you reach some level of catharsis as you pass through the ‘veil’ and are put back, once again, into the silent forest from the industrial area previous. I would like to think that your goal, chasing after your sister, is finally achieved as you find a cloaked figure beneath a treehouse. This, regardless of true meaning, is the finality of the narrative. Your struggle is now over.


Is it?

As previous talked about, LIMBO leaves you with questions. What was the journey about? Was it all metaphor, an adventure through the Greek underworld or just a spirit’s task to seek out its body? There are numerous theories pulling from aspects of the game’s ambient narrative, but each points to some sort of ending, even if a playthrough of the game is only the end of a cycle. There is passing through a delimiter. What exactly that means leaves us, if you will excuse the pun, in limbo about the true meaning.

There is a theory that Portal 2‘s ending means that the game’s protagonist, Chell, is now dead. Borrowing, as people do from the ambient narrative in LIMBO, it has been discussed that Chell, upon reaching ever-extending fields of grain, has passed into the afterlife. Having finally reset Aperture and GLaDOS, her actions lead her to an elevator and an extended trip, featuring a detour of a turret chorus, to her freedom. Then a companion cube follows you. What can we make of that? Was it the first act of sentience from the cube, a gift from GLaDOS or a wish-fulfillment by Chell herself?