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Welcome to The One Thing, a video game review series that does something a bit different. Rather than try to touch on all the features that make a game great, I attempt to distill a game down to a single element that I believe is integral to the experience of the game. This may not be the only thing that makes a game great, but if someone asked me to tell them why Limbo works, I’d start with The One Thing.

The one thing is The grayscale color palette.

At it’s heart, Limbo is a simple, relatively short, puzzle platformer. And all the elements that make a great puzzle platformer are here. Puzzles and platforming, of course, but also excellent control, a fair difficulty curve, perfect level design, and a protagonist that the player can connect with in some way. In this case, a human child, and I’m assuming most of you watching this were at one point a human child.

Going into Limbo, all we as players know is that we take on the role of a child who is rescuing his sister.

Other than that, the story of Limbo is vague, and has therefore generated a ton of player theories ranging from the main character falling from a treehouse to being killed in a car accident. Every theory involves death, by the way. The developer encourages the non-specific intent of the story by refusing to answer any questions about it.

Before I dive into the game’s lack of color, I’d like to talk a bit about the title. Limbo. Not only does the title being a single word remove any additional contextual help for determining an absolute theme–it’s not called “a child’s limbo,” “Limbo Run,” or even just “The Limbo”–the term itself introduces the player to the idea of being “in limbo.” Casually speaking, being in limbo indicates a state of directionlessness, or more appropriately in the case of the game, an inability to either progress or regress, or perhaps the inability to know if you are progressing or regressing. You’re stagnant. From a religious context (I’ll speak specifically to Catholicism), Limbo refers to an afterlife state meant for unbaptized souls. The souls aren’t allowed into Heaven but also aren’t damned to Hell.

I think the game honors both the religious and the causal meaning of the term. Are you dead and trying to escape Limbo? Maybe. Is the protagonist just as unsure about his progression as you, the player? Maybe. As a side note, a child protagonist is really the only protagonist that would have worked with limbo. The implied innocence of a child further conceals any concept of right and wrong, of black and white.

So where does the grayscale color pallette come into play? Well, it’s obvious, right? Grey conveys a sense of emotional fluidity, happy to sad, angry to joyful. If white represents hope and black represents defeat, then the greys in between represent various states of indirection and confusion. And that’s what you are when playing Limbo. Confused and left without direction.

Color and emotion is an inexact science. Earlier I stated it was Obvious that grey conveys a sense of emotional fluidity. But that hasn’t always been the case. Historically, grayscale was used in things like photography and television simply because it was the only thing available and later because it was cheaper to produce than color. Today, grayscale is an artistic decision, and like with any artistic decision (or what should be the impetus to every artist decision) the artist chooses a specific presentation based on an intended reaction. That reaction can be a marketing one, one driven by the need to highlight certain details (B&W photography tends to reveal greater detail than color, for example), but it can also be an emotional one.

Modern game players (and media consumers in general) see grayscale as potentially a way to give gravitas to something, make it appear historical, for example. But I think we’ve also been trained to see it’s use as a way to convey mystery or uncertainty. Perhaps you’re familiar with trope about self-indulge art school film students using black and white to force a sense of intrigue and importance. This is what Limbo does…but not in a self-indulgent way.

Can you imagine limbo with color? Well, you don’t have to. Dorkly made a great video about this. Link below.

Research/Sources/Credits/Inspirations (this is not a comprehensive list, as that would be impossible, especially the “inspirations” items)

Music Credits