Limbo and the Edge of the Literary


In this paper, I address three potential limits between games and literature—narrative, language, and attention—by way of a puzzle platformer videogame called Limbo. I take up Limbo not as a work of e-lit but as an instructive example of the troubled and moving boundaries between games and literature. Released in 2010, Limbo features a player character who awakes in Limbo, on the edge of hell. He must traverse a world of bear traps, giant killer spiders, and spinning blades. As with any game, the player of Limbo will necessarily fail while solving the game’s puzzles; however, this game makes those failures especially painful. The player character is decapitated, impaled, and dismembered as the player attempts to solve each of the game’s puzzles. Limbo’s monochromatic artwork, its minimalist storyline, and these gruesome deaths meant that Limbo, perhaps predictably, found its way into various “games as art” conversations. However, this paper asks whether Limbo can serve as a different kind of limitrophe. It is fortuitous that the game’s very name opens up the question of limits, but Limbo’s use as a case study extends beyond the fact that it takes place at “the edge of hell.” Given Limbo’s near complete lack of text (the game contains no written instructions and only a single word—a large sign that reads “HOTEL”) and a lack of explicit narrative, what is the status of Limbo as a literary object? On first glance, the game fits neatly into Katherine Hayles’ category of “the electronic literary” since it seems to operate in the “trading zone” of games, art, and animation. However, Limbo can also be seen as taking up Joseph Tabbi’s definition of literature as “writing under constraint.” In fact, the game engages Tabbi’s definition of literature from the outside. It is quite clearly a game, but it is a game that takes on the constraints of language, attempting to craft a minimalist narrative that provides little explanation and that also eschews language. One might say that the game’s lack of language makes language all the more present. In short, this paper suggests that Limbo sits at the edge of the literary, both marking and erasing the limits between videogames and literature.