The decades-long debate regarding whether or not video games can be considered art (defined as the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance) seems to have come to a close. After all, games can elicit a wealth of emotional responses and interpretations that weren’t necessarily intended by the developer. But what if they could be used as something more? What if we could use video games in psychology?
A projective test is a simple enough concept. Essentially a personality test wherein the subject is given ambiguous stimuli and asked to assign meaning to them, a projective test allows psychiatrists to analyze the patient's response under the assumption that it is a projection of his mind’s conscious and subconscious attitudes and motivations. The most popular of projective tests is called the Rorschach test, invented in the 1960s, which tasks subjects with responding to and interpreting a series of nebulous ink blots.
I believe LIMBO (developed by Playdead), originally available for Xbox Live Arcade in 2010 and recently launched on iOS, is just as much a projective test as the Rorschach Test.
Without much context, the game's description prior to download offers only a short, ominous summary: "Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters limbo.” The player may garner any interpretation he or she wishes from those few words, and that interpretation will fit comfortably within such broad guidelines. Any of the concrete facts present beyond that point can be assigned varying degrees of significance by the player. Choices like these are ultimately of a personal nature. Let’s explore LIMBO's intersections of player decision chronologically.
Oh, and *spoilers*
Limbo begins to infiltrate the player’s comfort zone before they’ve even had the chance to begin gameplay. A monochromatic screen reveals the minimalistic art direction. The menu items glow an eerie off-white. The eager player starts the game but some linger long enough to notice two mounds of dirt, temples to two individual swarms of worshipping flies.
And then the player asks, “Is this relevant?”
Moments later, a boy lies unconscious, back on the ground. His glowing eyes flicker open as a chill wind breezes through the forest trees. He picks himself up to reveal a small, lanky figure crowned by a rounded head with unkempt hair. Perhaps it’s his similarity to Schroeder from The Peanuts, but he looks young--still in his pre-teens. As the player gains control and jogs forward into the forest, light filters through the trees, washing out the screen.
Video games have set a precedent for exercising tact when it comes to the explicit deaths of children, so, maybe the player feels safe. After continuing up a log, down a hill, and platforming past a few spikes, ponds, and pitfalls, the player comes across two bear traps in close proximity to one another. The player is meant to grab hold of the trap to the left and pull it away, allowing space between the traps enough to maneuver past them. But, due to the monochromatic art style, it would be perfectly reasonable to carelessly step into the traps, mistaking them for blades of grass and ultimately causing the boy's decapitation. And even if the player makes it through the bear traps unscathed, they may run headlong into a vicious spider, which will quickly assail and impale the boy.
Eventually, due to a lack of conveyance, the player will unfairly succumb to LIMBO’s foreboding environment. It’s so guaranteed to happen that the developers refer to the game as a “trial-and-death” experience. Is this negation of perfection and emphasis on perseverance and learning from one’s mistakes during gameplay somehow analogous to the human experience? Once again, the player must wonder, “Is this relevant?”
Throughout the rest of the game, the boy will traverse four areas after the forest, all of which blend together seamlessly and without interrupting the player's experience to load. The lack of contour might give the boy’s travels an illusory feeling. He will rarely encounter other humans, and the ones he does cross paths with are of a violent and tribal nature (with one exception). The areas--Forest, Wastelands, Caves, Hotel, and the Industrial Mill—are rife with physics-based puzzles and gruesome deaths.
Of particular note are the slugs that drop spontaneously from above and burrow into the boy's skull, forcing him to constantly move forward until light or predatory organisms hanging overhead remove them by snapping down on them with sharp, white teeth and pulling them out of his brain.
The Industrial Mill, the last of the five zones through which the player must advance, forces him to contend with gravity-altering switches before crashing his character through a glass pane. Following this dramatic, slow motion scene over which the player has no control, he recognizes that he is in the Forest, where he started.
It’s here that Limbo’s incredibly moving ending takes place.
And then the game blends right back into the title screen, ending exactly where it began.
Once again, the discerning player must ask, “Is this relevant?” And how about the ambiance or minimalistic approach to sound design? Is it relevant or is it just cool? What does it all mean?
So what does it all mean? Well, the interpretations range from absurd to touching, and are as diverse as the people creating them.
It’s important to note that I said “creating” and not “deciphering.” As Samuel Johnson famously said, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”
“The boy's sister dies due to a mystery sickness,” begins one interpretation. “Heartbroken and feeling lost, the boy feels like he can't go on without her and hangs himself. Some in-game evidence, such as the hanging body in the opening moments that are eerily similar to the boy himself, supports this theory. It could also be possible that he attempted suicide but was saved before he completed; now he is kept under watch and in isolation. The natives could represent the doctors trying to restrain him. The cogs symbolize him slowly coming to terms with his sister's death. At the end, he finds his sister digging in the ground. This could represent him finally realizing that he can live on without her, and when he approaches her, it is only to say goodbye.”
To some readers, this may sound ridiculous. To others, plausible. After all, is the notion not supported by some facts and disputed by none?
A different gamer offers a more popular theory:
“The end is where it all began. The ladder you can see is, in fact, leading to the tree house the boy was playing in with his sister before he fell and died. Instead of going into the afterlife he travels through Limbo in order to say one last goodbye to his sister. So throughout the game the boy is actually dead. The ending portrays his sister mourning over his body at the bottom of the treehouse and, as he approaches, she feels his presence, thus completing the farewell and giving him the closure he sought.”
This interpretation of the adventure is a hopeful one, putting an optimistic spin on the boy’s presence in limbo. Again, this interpretation is as valid as almost any other, but ultimately lacks creativity. In terms of originality and attention to detail, few interpretations can rival the “Car Crash Theory”:
“Some time before the game’s inception, the two siblings were playing in their tree house 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 glass in the game’s ending and into the afterlife. Here, his sister has waited for him so they can both ascend into the tree house, a possible symbol for heaven, together. 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, whilst the gravity-based puzzles could represent the inertia of the car-crash.”
Attentive players will also have noticed the recurring presence of tires throughout the game. They might be irrelevant, tied to the tree-house theory, or referential to a car crash. Even the smallest details of the game are ambiguous.
My personal favorite interpretation suggests that LIMBO is an allegorical tale about the growth of humanity, both on an individual scale and as a species:
“The game follows the social and technological development of humankind. The backgrounds alone make this obvious. You start in a forest, nothing but nature, merely trying to traverse the natural environment when you are faced with the predatory creatures, here in the form of a spider. The environment and its creatures are frightening. So is the dark. But you overcome those obstacles to find other people/children. After conquering the environment you conquer the other tribes, symbolized by the other children you encounter. The others and what they might do to you is what becomes frightening. But then you overcome that, in a way return to nature, but this time to begin to command it in the form of puzzles. Mines, logging, etc are prominent in the background. Then comes the city. Parasites addle your mind and cause you to navigate the cityscape in [a] uncontrolled and dangerous way. As the game continues, you master more technology (electricity, magnetism, finally gravity) and the technology becomes more massive and advanced. We also see the tools of war advance as well when the game introduces machine guns.
In a way you could argue children go through the same mental development as all of human kind, albeit at a breakneck pace. We start mystified by everything, afraid of the dark and creatures we aren't familiar with. Then we grow up and play social games with other children, sometimes bullying or banding together in groups. We learn more about how the world really works, then we face the city, technology, and how we should integrate into all that. At the start of the game the traps are all things outside of you: spiders, people. Eventually, the traps just end up being your inability to navigate the complex technology you've built for yourself.”
So, since the interpretation of art can be just as creative of an experience as the original production of art, it is valid to say that the gamer is partially responsible for the art of LIMBO. Pat yourself on the back and follow me to my next point, you bohemian, you.
The Psychology Of Art
Art is considered to be a subjective field. As such, the appreciation of art is an entirely personal experience that reflects one’s experience, knowledge, preferences, and emotions. So much so, in fact, that the relationship between the unique viewer and the art cannot be separated in the aesthetic experience; the sensory-emotional values are simply too important.
In one experiment aimed at examining how aesthetic preferences for seemingly meaningful and meaningless art are influenced by intimations of mortality, scientists manipulated subjects’ mortality salience, or their awareness of inevitable death, and subsequently showed them two abstract paintings. When asked to rate the attractiveness of the paintings, the experimental group rated the paintings significantly less attractive than the control group.
Individual personality types are also proven to contribute to the aesthetic experience. For example, anyone who is chronically disposed to simple, unambiguous knowledge will have a clear negative reaction to abstract art. They would likely dislike LIMBO. Further studies have shown that a person’s artistic preferences are valuable indicators of their personality. When referencing the “Big Five” dimensions of personality that psychologists like to focus on, Thrill and Adventure Seeking were positively correlated with a liking of representational art, while Disinhibition was associated with positive ratings of abstract art. Neuroticism was positively correlated with positive ratings of abstract art, while Conscientiousness was linked to appreciation of representational art. Openness to Experience was linked to positive ratings of abstract and representational art.
These studies have also been associated to the type of art someone is likely to create. Since interpretation can be fairly considered a form of creation, we can conclude that one’s interpretation of art, beyond simply whether or not they appreciate it, can be a clear indicator of their personality.
So, could video games, as art, be used in psychological research and psychiatric therapy? It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. In cases where a patient isn’t willing or able, a psychiatrist could get a glimpse into the mindset of a person by analyzing the art they gravitate towards. This isn’t, of course, to say that the games we play can be wholly condemning--simply that they offer a piece of the puzzle. But most importantly, research shows that video games can be more than just a hobby; they can be important elements within an individual’s life, alongside any other aesthetic experience.
As wild and varied as games and their responses could be, we should all move past debating whether or not they have value as art. We should now be at the stage where we are discussing what that means, the flexibility of the field, and what value a game can provide beyond purely entertainment value. Some researchers have already designed games to be used therapeutically, in terms of both physical and mental rehabilitation. With games like Braid and LIMBO serving as reflective surfaces that ripple and grow with different players in different stages in life, it isn’t hard to see why.
Video games are an extremely potent medium. So now what?