A Brief Moment of Literature Within LIMBO

Minor spoilers for those who want to experience the game in the dark for their first time:

LIMBO is a dark and foreboding game, where you play as a small boy trying to save his sister. You run from the woods through an industrial nightmare, and get chased and killed by almost everything you see. There are traps set in place to kill you, or just incidental hazards to trap the unwary adventurer. The game has already been compared to art multiple times, from its deconstruction of the traditional “rescue the princess” narrative to the perfectly crafted environments that never sacrifice gameplay for scenery.


LIMBO is not heavy on dialogue or writing, so while combing through articles I was surprised to come across one that paid any attention to the writing in the game. In one of the most iconic, but brief, scenes of LIMBO, you cross a giant, neon HOTEL sign.


Something I, and I assume a lot of people didn’t really pay attention to is the subtle way in which the game presents this scene. This is one of the only times you encounter any language in the game, so why did the developers choose for you to come across it instead of continuing to leave the game in an eerie sort of lingual silence? According to Flores, this scene forms what is known as concrete poetry: the typography of the words affects its meaning.

At this point in the game, you are well aware that everything is out to kill you. You’ve died dozens of times by now, and LIMBO never tries to pretend that it is going to let up. Yet, the HOTEL sign has multiple clues within its text that you are not safe near it. As you scroll across, it slowly reveals the word HOT, coupled by crackling electricity. As you climb across it, the sign fully reveals itself and breaks underneath you. The O swings and knocks over the T, allowing you to turn off the sign and presumably cross safely. However, just as the letter “l” in the word “hotel” trails off, so too does the L in the sign as it slowly shudders and rocks clockwise. It’s an interesting case of using the sound to reflect an in-game consequence.

The word itself isn’t without meaning, either, as it is meant to invoke a sense of safety. After traveling inhospitable woods and being attacked by a myriad of creatures, any sort of invitation to a home is more than welcome. After you shut off the electricity, and the aggressive sounds of electricity make way for wind and ambiance, the HOTEL sign becomes even safer for players. It represents a sense of security; since you tamed its puzzle, you are free to tread familiar ground. The sign becomes a solid, lifeless word in a game where an active usually spell danger for your character. However, as the static scenery betrays you and tries to throw you off of it one more time, you are shown that there is no safety or home within LIMBO.

The significance of this to our understanding of electronic literature is how subtly it can creep up on you. LIMBO is already so thick with atmosphere it is practically palpable, so it comes as no surprise that the developers were able to inject such a short, visual poem into the experience. Electronic literature is able to do this quite often; it can seamlessly be integrated into anything.


  4 comments for “A Brief Moment of Literature Within LIMBO

  1. Dylan Tibert
    April 14, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    I love how this is simultaneously a comprehensive and a close reading of text in Limbo, and how it demonstrates the impact of such a subtle, powerful, yet easily missable decision in the game’s creation. What I love is how the letters do not betray the sense of raw materiality that all of the ambiguously silhouetted objects, legible or not, possess in limbo. The text is both an exception to a previously unspoken rule of visual silence and a reinforcement of the rule that the physical qualities of all objects must be considered, even if it’s text, and evaluated for threat and utility. Another sense of foreboding created by the suspended letters, as I am retroactively recalling from my own play-through, was the fear evoked from the necessary act of walking underneath the letters after the collapsing O, by design, establishes a precedent quality of instability. I was almost certain that, as I navigated to the switch-box to turn of the deadly electricity, I would be crushed by a plummeting T or E, and likewise filled with surprised and relief afterward. Even then, the fear of collapse persisted until I had finally crossed the whole word. It is only at this point that I could see the word Hotel for what it implies, an ephemeral promise of safety and refuge.

  2. nbemis
    April 14, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    The storytelling in “Limbo” is a very interesting subject to me, and I see the entire piece as literature, granted a piece of literature in which much is left to the imagination. Walking through the game’s silent, linear world, encountering the game’s many creatures and hazards, leaves one with many questions. Why are there giant spiders here? Why are these children intent on murdering me? Do they want to eat me? Are they simply cruel? Does any of it matter, if either they or my character has to die anyway? The world of “Limbo” is ripe for interpretation, and a lot of what makes that possible is the silent nature of its narrative.

  3. star
    April 16, 2014 at 10:57 am

    I agree nbemis. Although there is very little text I consider it literature particularly in how the “Hotel” sign is used to portray the danger the boy is about to encounter. I noticed the letters H O T standing out to elude to the heat and danger. I think the angle at which we view the game is significant in exemplifying the vulnerability of the boy. Although the boy figure is small we are able to see the white eyes that contrast the silhouette body and dark back drop of the game. The sounds can be useful but sometimes by time you hear the sound of something falling or crashing or flooding it is too late to act upon it. This game effects me differently than other adventure games with adults because children are typically helpless and although it is possible for the boy to go through the obstacles safely it can take several tries and defeat.

  4. kmunnis
    April 18, 2014 at 6:19 am

    Critics or reviewers, I’m guessing, who you stated call this game a work of deconstruction are correct. The game is absent of color and dialogue and visual cues that one would find in most games. I don’t think I agree with the idea that there isn’t a “save the princess” theme. LIMBO does however have multiple genres at work, interactive fiction, poetry, and art. The game has immersion, the sound the atmosphere which doesn’t relate to the real world, the silence causes little distraction from the game and makes the player feel what the developers intended.

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