The Unimaginable Cruelty of Children in LIMBO
When I was growing up, one of my best friends was a kid who listened to Heavy Metal music, casually studied (and may have practiced) cyber hacking, and owned and built his own weapons, including (but not limited to) a pellet gun, a telescopic baton, and a slingshot. None of this made him a bad kid. On the contrary, he was one of the best sons and brothers a family could have: loyal and obedient to his parents, a decent enough student, and a great friend. He just happened to be interested in things that could be used, in the wrong hands, to kill or maim.
I remember though, that there was a seminal moment when he vowed to be non-violent his whole life. I wasn't around when it happened, but he told me of a time when a family of skunks took up residence in his parents' backyard. Naturally, they wanted the pests gone, and my friend took it upon himself to take out his slingshot to deal with the problem. He killed the mother of the family with a well-placed stone.
Afterwards, he told me he had never felt more guilt and heartbreak in his life. The thought of taking one creature's life was bad enough, but having robbed the skunks of their provider and caregiver, the pups were also doomed to die. This was to say nothing of the trauma of watching the mother die before his very eyes.
Now, some people would say that the skunks were pests, and they wouldn't be wrong for saying so. We kill animals all the time. For food. For clothing. Even just because they annoy us. But imagine, if you will, being a child in your pre-teen years, and coming to grips with mortality in such a sudden, brutal way.
My former friend was a great kid. But I have no doubt he weirded out a lot of the other kids. That was because they didn't know him like I did. All they saw was the slingshot and the baton, and they heard the metal music, and they kept their distance. The thing is, I get it. Because until kids are actually able to understand the hurt and pain a human being can cause, they are terrifying.
I was reminded of this as I re-played LIMBO.
LIMBO is a side-scrolling platform game where you play a child navigating a stark, black-and-white landscape filled with surreal imagery, deadly traps, and monstrous creatures. Your only clue to the plot is the game title, which would suggest that the place you find yourself in is some level/version of the afterlife. As to what/who you are seeking, you only find out at the end...and really, the ending is so ambiguous that I couldn't tell you for sure what happened anyway.
Like so many other games, though, it's much less about the ending than it is about the journey, and LIMBO's journey is filled with unforgettable, horrifying moments, many of which are punctuated by the other human inhabitants you meet. And all of those fellow humans are children as well.
None of these other children want to be your friend. At best, you find them in the process of committing suicide, or already long-dead (the question of what happens when you die in the afterlife is not one you want to dwell on). At worst, they attack you on sight, either by manipulating the booby traps found throughout this strange world, or with crude blowpipes they have fashioned themselves.
What makes this truly unsettling though, is that they do all of this in an entirely childlike way. Though there is malice in their actions, you can see that to them, it is all merely a game. The children adorn their heads with feathers and crude bucket helmets. They flee into clubhouses, pulling up their rope ladders behind them. They are, for all intents and purposes, children.
Indeed for all we know their acts of murder ARE totally harmless; your own deaths (which will probably be very frequent on your first playthrough) are but the consequence of a moment. You regenerate an instant later from the closest checkpoint. Perhaps they, too, regenerate. This creates an interesting, if somewhat unsettling, idea.
The thing about morality, and finding one's own place in it, is that it relies very heavily on social development. When someone does not function properly with other people, or disregards their emotions and needs to the point of appearing to not have a conscience, we call that person a sociopath. Now, obviously, this is an extreme designation reserved for people who actively have an actual personality disorder, but it also relies heavily on the frame of reference of normal societal structure.
What happens if we take the structure away altogether?
This is what makes the children in LIMBO so terrifying. Their cruelty is unimaginable because they literally cannot imagine anything past it. If we were in some terrible world where our lives repeated within the same age, over and over again, with no chance of developing a conscience, what kind of children would we be?
My friend didn't scare me because I knew he had imagination. He understood that actions have consequence, and he came to develop his own moral framework. But if we strip away those moments of understanding, we are left only with madness, trapped in a limbo of unimaginable cruelty.