Banjo-Kazooie: Nintendo and nostalgia

Over the past six months I’ve taken part in game-swaps with other bloggers. Possibly the best thing about them is the chance to broaden my gaming horizons: I’ve played a game I’ve never heard of before, a series I’ve never touched and a title with a mechanic I don’t usually like.

The latest game-swap has been with Nathan from Gaming Omnivore and we decided to go for genres we’re not skilled in. He was looking for a point-and-click and wanted something with a horror storyline; and out of the several options I proposed, he decided to go for Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. It may not be the scariest game but you can’t beat Tim Curry playing a sleazy protagonist. I can only apologise to Nathan for some of those puzzles though – nobody said that 90s adventures were logical.

In return, he asked my other-half and I to play Banjo-Kazooie. This was a very good choice for us in terms of the brief for two reasons. Firstly, neither of us are particularly great at platformers (check out our previous GameBlast streams to see us playing Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy and you’ll see what I mean). Secondly, it was also a sneaky way for him to get me to play a Nintendo game on stream (I still need to finish the post about why I dislike the company that I mentioned back in August). Well played, sir.

Rare’s release was just what we expected from a 3D-platformer published in 1998: big polygons, bright colours, caricatured characters and platforms where it’s impossible to tell how far you need to jump. It has a similarly cartoonish storyline to match. A bear and a bird – Banjo and Kazooie from the game’s title – must try to stop the plans of the evil witch Gruntilda, who has kidnapped Banjo’s younger sister Tooty with the intention of putting her in a machine and stealing her beauty.

They’re aided by Bottles, a mole who teaches them new moves, along with a shaman called Mumbo Jumbo who can turn the protagonists into other forms including a walrus and a pumpkin. The heroes travel to each of the nine levels through a central overworld known as Gruntilda’s Lair using collectibles to unlock doors. A certain number of Musical Notes will grant you access to a new section of the overworld, while jigsaw pieces known as ‘Jiggies’ will complete puzzles to get you through to a new level.

Each is made up of challenges involving standard platforming, helping non-player characters (NPCs) and defeating a range of enemies. Find Bottles’ hole within a level and you’ll learn a new ability to help you on your way. For some of these, you’ll need to seek out additional items such as Red Feathers for flying or the Turbo Trainers for speed boosts in timed puzzles. There are also the Jinjos to look out for, five small creatures in each level that will grant you a Jiggy if you locate all of them.

Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo, Kazooie, bird, bear, video game

The main reasons I don’t play platformers often is because I tend to suck at them and continuously seeing your character die isn’t an enjoyable experience. 2D versions aren’t too bad – for example, I managed to complete LIMBO for #MaybeinMarch last year – but I’m normally useless when it comes to 3D games. There’s something about the camera angles which means I don’t seem to be able to judge distances very well and falling off ledges ends up being a frequent occurrence.

Although you’re generally able to move the camera in Banjo-Kazooie, it usually ends up wandering back to its original position and is even fixed in one place in some cases. And let’s not forget about the inverted controls: when completing the underwater swimming sections, down on the controller moves the protagonists upwards and vice-versa. Although I played very small parts on stream, I’m very glad Pete was in charge for this game-swap because he did far better than I ever could.

He admitted finding the title hard at the start because it felt rather clunky being a 1990s platformer. But he’s now at the point where he’s really got the hang of it and has even managed to collect all Jiggies, Musical Notes and Jinjos in some of the levels. The swimming parts are still a pain in the butt and it’s proving far too easy to overshoot items when underwater or run out of air while trying to pick them up. But one or two more sessions (at the time of writing) and I reckon we’ll have another game-swap behind us.

I wouldn’t have been so positive if you’d have asked for my opinion during Furnace Fun though. This final level takes the format of a quiz show where players must answer questions about what they’ve seen, heard and discovered about Gruntilda during Banjo-Kazooie. It’s harder than it sounds: some of the screenshots shown during visual tests are so abstract they’re almost impossible to recognise, and we couldn’t hear the audio tests well due to our speaker-volume being turned down low to prevent feedback on stream.

Banjo-Kazooie, video game, path, lava, fire, quiz, Gruntilda

Consider also that if you answer incorrectly, you don’t get to move forward and one of your Honeycomb health-pots will be taken away. Lose all of them and you’ll find yourself being taken right back to the beginning of the level to try all over again from scratch. I have to say a big thank you to The_Ghost_Owl, The Gaming Diaries, Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes and Nathan for helping us by adding the answers in chat and cheering us on when we finally managed to reach the end.

Speaking of the people who joined us in chat for the streams, it was lovely seeing so many of them share their past experiences with Banjo-Kazooie. It appeared Pete and I were definitely in the minority of those people who hadn’t played it as a child on the Nintendo 64 or in fact ever picked it up before. Ellen from Ace Asunder revealed that it’s in her top-three games of all-time; and Frostilyte had plenty to say, particularly when it came to the engine room in Rusty Bucket Bay.

That nostalgia is an incredibly powerful thing. Most people recall social contexts and good relationships when they’re asked to describe a nostalgic memory; so they might reminisce about a certain title, but the chances are that they’re actually thinking about a time they bonded with loved-ones or shared their hobby with friends. Because my other-half and I don’t have these memories, Banjo-Kazooie didn’t have the same impact and instead ended up being simply an acceptable platformer.

I’m not sure we’ll ever feel more about entries in the genre. It’s The Secret of Monkey Island that brings back fond recollections for me because I received it as a gift for Christmas as a kid and it was the first game I’d ever really played for myself; and Pete always brings up Zork on the Commodore 64, a release which both intrigued and frustrated him. I think we’re therefore always going to be drawn to narrative games and feel more for them, because they feature in our earliest gaming experiences.

That’s not to say this current experience hasn’t been worthwhile though – far from it. As I’ve written previously and mentioned again at the start of this post, perhaps the best thing about game-swaps is that they’ve encouraged me to try titles and genres I wouldn’t normally play. So I’ve got to say a huge thank you to Nathan for proposing Banjo-Kazoozie as well as telling him ‘well done’: you did it. You actually managed to get us to play a Nintendo game on Twitch, damn you.

I’m still plugging away at Final Fantasy XIII at the time of writing but now having reached the penultimate chapter, it won’t be long before we’re able to start our next swap. I know that Frostilyte wants to see Pete play a visual novel, a genre he’s really not a fan of; will he manage to convince him?

LudoNarraCon 2020: Lost Words: Beyond the Page

If you’ve ever tuned into any of our GameBlast charity streams over the years, you’ll know just how bad I am at platformers. It’s not a genre I turn to regularly and when I do, my terrible reaction times mean it’s highly likely I won’t reach the end of the game.

It’s therefore a little strange that Lost Words: Beyond the Page caught my eye during last month’s LudoNarraCon. Although it’s being advertised as a ‘2D narrative adventure’, the screenshots available on the Steam page show platforming elements with the protagonist jumping across pillars and over holes. This initially put me off finding out more about the title – but then a detail caught my eye which made me try the demo for Sketchbook Game’s project myself.

You’ve probably heard of the name ‘Rhianna Pratchett’ already, whether that’s due to her involvement in the Tomb Raider series or through her author father. For me, I first came across her work when I played Overlord back in 2007. She won a ‘Best Videogame Script’ award from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for her work on the title and it’s easy to see why: the plot first comes across as being all about dark humour and then reveals that it’s deeper than it first seems.

Lost Words features a story written by Pratchett and this drew me in despite my platforming reservations. It’s told from two different perspectives, the first being Isabelle’s journal entries (also known as Izzy). Her updates about what she has been up to feature the sort of things you’d expect from a young girl such as drinking tea with her mother and making jokes with her father; but underneath the lightheartedness, she knows her grandmother is in hospital after a stroke and you can feel her concern.

The other side of the plot takes place in a world created by Izzy and is the setting for a fantasy tale she’s writing for her gran. The apprentice heroine, who I decided to name Grace in my demo playthrough, is promoted to Guardian of the Fireflies when Elder Ava retires. It isn’t long before she’s called on to protect the land of Estoria after a dragon attacks the village and sets everything on fire. It’s up to Grace to venture out into the world, track down the dragon and bring the fireflies back home.

The gameplay is split into two perspectives also. Izzy’s sections take place within her journal and players guide an avatar across her written words to the exit tears on each page. You’re able to move certain phrases around to create platforms for her to jump on and standing on highlighted words can cause other paragraphs or images to appear. There were also a few choices to make in the demo including the Estoria heroine’s name, but the developer confirmed in their live broadcast that these are just for flavour.

LudoNarraCon, live broadcast, video game, Lost Words, Beyond the Page

There’s a lovely part where Izzy recalls a holiday in Wales with her grandmother when they went to the beach at night. At first the pages are a dark grey but reaching the triggering words causes watercolour waves to flow across them along with a very brief lesson on bioluminescence. It’s just the sort of experience that a young girl would look back on and remember with excitement, and the visual effects here perfectly captured the character’s feeling of wonder.

When the Lost Words transitions to Estoria, the gameplay takes on more of a standard platforming feel but there are still a few surprises. You’re given a book which holds all the magic phrases you’ve learnt and can use these to overcome obstacles. For example, once you know the word ‘rise’, you can use your firefly to move it over a series of stone columns to enable Grace to move higher as she stands on them. Later on, ‘repair’ helps you undo some of the damage caused to the village by the dragon.

As mentioned above, I’m not usually a fan of the platformer genre because my level of coordination often doesn’t meet the requirements. But I didn’t struggle with this game and there didn’t seem to be any penalties even when I failed. If you fall off words during Izzy’s sections, you simply reappear at the top of the page; and when you’re playing as Grace, missing a jump causes a tear to appear in the scene and you’ll fall through it back onto the last platform.

Following the storyline and gameplay, the artwork between the journal and Estoria is different. In the former everything is depicted in handwriting, line drawings and watercolours, and there’s a lovely part where pawprints appear after Pinky the cat walks across the page. In the latter, the style is more vibrant and what you’d expect from a platform release. Although it’s a 2D game, there’s a great sense of perspective and depth given by shadows and lighting.

The voice-acting is so good and possibly the highlight of the demo, although it’s tough to choose just one when you put it up against the artwork. I haven’t been able to find who plays Izzy but I think she deserves an award! You get the sense that the protagonist is a sweet, fun-loving girl and her excitement comes through in her voice as she recounts her days. And when she receives the sad news about her grandmother’s stroke, hearing the fear in her words is heartbreaking.

Lost Words truly surprised me. As mentioned above, I’m not really a fan of platformers and reading the description given on the Steam page gave me the impression that it would perhaps be a little too ‘cutesy’ for my tastes. But by the end of the demo, I was impressed: I get the feeling that this is going to be a very personal and heartwarming tale, with some big emotions coming that are going to feel like a punch straight to the gut.

It might not be the first game on my to-play list once it is released purely based on its genre, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. Take a look at the official website for more information and keep an eye on Sketchbook Game’s Twitter feed for news on a PC release date.

Whiplash: weasel your way out of this one

COVID-19 has meant many gaming events have been cancelled this year. EGX Rezzed has been pushed back by three months; Insomnia66 was abandoned in favour of Insomnia67; and my other-half and I made the decision to not go to the London Gaming Market in March.

This may have been the right choice but obviously we were disappointed. You see, not only were we looking forward to picking up some additional games for our PlayStation 2 and Master System collections, we were also planning to meet up with the awesome Luke from Hundstrasse at the event. We hadn’t seen him in person since the meeting for the first time at EGX Rezzed in April 2018 and so we’d all been excited about some retro-gaming talk over a coffee or two.

In addition, Luke and I had been plotting a collaboration about our time at the London Gaming Market: we were going to search the stalls to find an obscure title for each other within an agreed price limit, so we had something to take home and review. Rather than letting the coronavirus ruin our plans completely, we decided to carry on with our project using snail-mail and you can find out about the strange games I sent to him in this post on his blog (he knows how sorry I am).

One day a package landed on my doormat and opening it revealed 2004’s Whiplash for the PlayStation 2. It’s not a release I’d ever heard of before this collaboration, but at first glance it certainly seemed to fit the brief of being ‘weird’. The front of the case pictured an angry white rabbit being thrown at a pane of glass by a weasel and I was surprised to see the Crystal Dynamics logo in the bottom corner; this looked nothing like a Tomb Raider game and I wasn’t sure Lara Croft would approve.

As with all good retro games, the accompanying booklet provided a lengthy overview of the storyline and characters (I really miss those manuals). The title is set within the walls of the Genron Corporation, a high-tech laboratory where animals are used to test products for humans. Spanx is a crazy weasel once used for electro-shock testing; Redmond is a know-it-all rabbit who failed his last mascara test in the makeup lab; and they’re now due to be chained together and shoved inside the Genetic Recombinator.

The company’s diabolical plan is to fuse them together into a freaky new creature but a miracle happens: our heroes somehow escape from their cage at the last second and now they must get out of Genron together. What lies in front of them is a perilous journey through a place where chimps with afros are given extreme haircuts, hamsters are fired at walls just to see how well they stick, and a cheery announcer provides messages about new product lines and how the abuse of animals is great.

Whiplash, video game, box, PlayStation 2, Spanx, weasel, Redmond, rabbit

Although there are two main protagonists here, Whiplash plays like most 3D-platformers from the PlayStation 2 era and it’s clear the developers drew inspiration from releases such as Ratchet & Clank. The left analogue stick or directional buttons control Spanx (and drag Redmond along behind him on the chain) and pressing L2 gives him the ability to sprint or scurry along rails. Tapping X makes the character jump and he can interact with the world using the triangle button.

So what’s the point of Redmond if the player is controlling Spanx? Well, the testing of Genron’s super-hold hairspray means that his fur has turned into a super-tough suit of armour so he makes the perfect indestructible tool. He can be used as a whipping weapon to defeat oncoming enemies, thrown into air-purifying spheres and turned into a grapple, swung around the weasel’s head to provide a gliding skill and attached to ziplines. It seems like the rabbit got the raw end of the deal.

A selection of baddies including scientists and robotic spiders will try to prevent your escape but the combat isn’t difficult. A variety of combo moves are available including an Air Smash and Hyper Dash, but mashing the square easily deals with most of them if you can’t remember the buttons like me. It’s worth noting that enemies won’t be completely destroyed and will eventually wake up after being temporarily stunned; but if you can’t be bothered to put up a continued fight in a particular area, you can simply run around them.

Although your main objective is to get the hell out of Genron, you can do a lasting service for animals everywhere by hitting the company where it hurts the most: in the bank. Freeing creatures around the facility sees them take revenge on their captors and makes your escape slightly easier, and you can drive Genron into bankruptcy by destroying everything that isn’t nailed down. This is probably the most fun part of the gameplay mechanics and it’s great seeing Redmond enter Hyper mode once he has caused enough damage.

Sadly though, it’s not all good with Whiplash. There are a fair amount of lasers-in-corridors and fire-ducts-in-ventilation-shafts sections which feel like filler. The hub-based level system can be difficult to navigate and sometimes it’s not clear what your immediate objective is. And as with a lot of old games, bad camera angles cause unnecessary deaths and frustration when they don’t look in the right direction – so much so that I passed the controller to my other-half for a lot of our first session.

I’ve seen been back and played the game again off-stream, and I can see a certain sort of charm even though I haven’t finished it yet. The title’s absurdist humour is its highlight and I love the way the protagonist’s personalities are reflected through their movement and one-liners. Even when they’re standing still, Spanx and Redmond perform little dances or look around for enemies; and Redmond comes out with phrases such as ‘You do realise I’m a rabbit and not some sort of asbestos plush-toy, don’t you?’

But again, it’s not all positive here. The relationship between the characters is a pretty violent one and although this suits the type of humour Crystal Dynamics were going for, at times you do find yourself almost wondering whether it’s entirely appropriate. The poor bunny is electrocuted, set on fire, filled with helium, frozen in ice and dumped in radioactive waste. Pete and I couldn’t help but look at each other and grimace each time Spanx shoved Redmond into a grinder to open a door.

Whiplash appears on Wikipedia’s List of controversial video games and this references an article published on The Telegraph website on 15 February 2004. It reports concerns from several bodies about the way animal testing is depicted and Labour MP Dr Ian Gibson is quoted as saying: “It is a nasty and vicious way of prejudicing young minds for the rest of their lives… Young people with fresh minds need to be brought into an understanding of the problem with both sides of the argument being put forward in a rational and reasonable way.”

Whiplash, video game, weasel, rabbit, Spanx, Redmond, grappling hook, electricity

This is despite the whole premise of the release being against animal product testing and it not causing the same reaction when it was released in America during the previous year. In a statement, publisher Eidos Interactive said: “Whiplash is based in a fictional animal-testing laboratory where the object is to rescue all of the animals and destroy the evil testing lab. Although the video game is fictional, we hope that it raises positive awareness of animal testing among children.”

Whiplash may not be the best game I’ve ever played but it’s definitely one of the best choices Luke could have made for our collaboration. It perfectly meets our brief of being something ‘weird’ and the gameplay, artwork, voice-acting and humour encapsulate the feeling of the early 2000s. On top of all that, the stories about the controversy mentioned above are a reminder of how overreactions to video games were quite common back then and it’s a nice slice of gaming history.

The next London Gaming Market is due to take place on 19 July 2020 and who knows, maybe Luke and I will get to do a follow-up on our project in person there. Until then, stay safe everybody.

#MaybeinMarch 2020: Thomas Was Alone

#LoveYourBacklog Week in February is an event designed to encourage everyone to share their love for their growing pile of video games. It’s something which should be a sign of just how much we love our hobby, rather than being viewed with a feeling of guilt.

We now continue with #MaybeInMarch, where bloggers are asked to try and complete the unplayed or unfinished title which has spent the most time on their backlog. My own attempt took place this weekend as I tried to complete Thomas Was Alone by Mike Bithell live on Twitch. It’s a game I bought the same time as last year’s #MaybeinMarch nomination, LIMBO by Playdead, so it has been waiting for me to finish it since 25 March 2013 – almost exactly seven years.

When I first tried it out back then, I think it was one of the first real indie games I’d ever played and it really impressed me. It was a surprise to find that a story more complex than ‘save the princess’ could be told through a minimalist platformer, and unique personalities could be given to characters who were just simple shapes on a screen. Sadly, I didn’t make it to the end though; this genre has never felt entirely for me so I think I put the title to one side in favour of a point-and-click.

After our success with LIMBO in 2019 (although I still can’t tell you for sure what it’s about), I was keen to try Thomas Was Alone again to see if I could make it to the credits this year. The first thing that struck me was just how good the visuals still look after all this time. At first they seem incredibly plain, with platforms marked out in black against lighter backgrounds; but peer closer and you’ll see all sorts of details. Just look at the way drops of water bounce off surfaces in a spray of square pixels.

The same level of quality is apparent in the soundtrack too. My stepson unexpectedly came to join us for the start of our stream and was passed the controller, by the end of his go was saying how ‘relaxing’ he thought the music was and how he thought he’d be able to listen to it all night. It’s chilled throughout the starting levels before Thomas as his friends know there’s anything wrong, but then creates a sense of urgency while still maintaining its minimalism the further you progress.

It’s impossible to talk about the game’s sound without mentioning its narration, and this is the thing I remember most from playing it back in 2013. I’m not usually a Danny Wallace fan but even I must admit that he has done an incredible job here and it’s easy to see why he earned a BAFTA Games Performance Award for his work. He somehow manages to enhance each character’s personality without changing the sound of his voice, and it’s hard not to laugh at some of his lines.

Saying that though, it’s also difficult not to become exasperated when hearing them while failing the same level repeatedly. This is what happened to us after reaching section 4.9. I don’t remember the controls feeling so sluggish when I first played Thomas Was Alone but now there’s a fraction of a section between pressing the A-button and the character actually jumping. A thread on the Steam Discussions reveals that other players have had similar issues and playing with the game’s settings may have given us some improvement.

After spending 30 minutes on the same level – the controller having already been passed to my other-half in frustration by this point – we decided to call it a day. It had taken us four hours to get through a title which, according to HowLongToBeat.com, we should have been able to complete in less than that time. We watched the ending on YouTube after our stream instead and, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, let’s just say that we weren’t disappointed about not making it there ourselves.

As Cameron from Dragon In The Castle said in Twitch chat that night: “Some games are just meant to be backlogged.” Unfortunately, Thomas Was Alone is one of those for me and I don’t ever see myself going back to it. I’ve written before that there’s no point in spending our free time on releases we’re not enjoying when it’s so limited and therefore precious; and a title that receives high ratings from critics doesn’t mean that everyone should buy it, will love it or will see it through to the end.

But that’s the beauty of #MaybeInMarch. It gives us a chance to try something that’s been waiting in our backlogs almost forgotten about, perhaps a genre we wouldn’t usually play. You might get lucky and find a new favourite. You might find something you don’t necessary enjoy but encourages plenty of discussion, as LIMBO did last year. Or you might find something like Thomas Was Alone, which makes you realise there are other titles much more suited to you as a player.

One of the conversations that came up in Twitch chat was Pete’s backlog and what his #MaybeInMarch nomination would have been. Well, I’ve just checked his Steam library and can reveal that it’s LA Cops by Modern Dream, a game I gave to him back on 05 October 2014. Who knows, if we can convince him to give up Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 for long enough, you might find him playing it during a stream one day.

As for me, it looks like I could end up playing one of several titles for 2021’s #MaybeInMarch event: The Cave, Papa & Yo, Still Life or The Path. At least it isn’t going to be another pure platformer.

EGX Rezzed 2019: Metamorphosis

How would you feel if one day you discovered you’d been turned into an insect? Maybe you’d realise it wasn’t a dream and that you needed to do something about it quickly. This is the basis for Metamorphosis, a first-person puzzle-platforming adventure by developer Ovid Works which I had the opportunity to check out while at EGX Rezzed last week.

If the premise sounds familiar, then you may be thinking of novella The Metamorphosis by writer Franz Kafka. This game reimagines salesman Gregor Samsa as he’s transformed into a tiny bug – which is rather inconvenient as his friend Joseph is being arrested for reasons unknown and he doesn’t recognise you in your new arthropodal body. To save him and find the answers you seek, you must embark on a dangerous journey through a world which has turned twisted and unfamiliar.

As anyone who saw me try to play Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy during our GameBlast19 marathon stream in February will realise, I’m terrible at platformers and so Pete took the controls while I helped out with the puzzles. The demo started in an area which looked something like a library or a study, with obstacles made from objects such as books, pencils, bottles and drawers, but the discovery of several notes reveal that it’s some kind of ‘processing’ area.

Of course, to protagonist Gregor the items mentioned above now look completely different in his diminished form. The hand-painted graphics are lovely and the use of close-up details and textures really make the player feel as though everything around them has suddenly become gigantic. When you come across documents such as letters and business cards, you’re able to pan the camera out to easily read them and the words provided give subtle clues as to where you are and what’s going on.

While in its first-person perspective, Metamorphosis turns mundane objects into an expansive obstacle course. Fortunately though this is where being an insect comes in handy and unique movement mechanics make full use of your small body and sticky limbs. Pens leaning on top of books transform into bridges which enable you to reach different levels within the environment, while items stacked closely to walls make for good nooks and crannies to scurry through.

For those who want to explore, sparkling symbols which seem to be collectibles can be found in the darkest corners and picking them up gives you what appears to be a Kafka quote. And for those like me whose platforming skills aren’t the greatest, there doesn’t seem to be any need to worry too much: when Gregor misses a jump and falls, a document flies through the air to scoop him up and deposit him back near his previous location (which nicely ties in with the surreal library location).

EGX Rezzed, video games, Pete, Metamorphosis

That doesn’t mean your character can’t die however. We eventually came to a scene where paper was moving through rollers and being stamped – plenty of obstacles for a bug. Pete managed to guide Gregor through successfully until he reached a set of turning gears, where it was necessary to move from one to another; and a mistimed leap unfortunately resulted in the protagonist getting squished. Death sees you respawning in a relatively close location so it doesn’t seem as though the title will cause players to become overly frustrated.

Can Gregor get the answers he needs? Can he save his friend Joseph? And can he return to the life he once knew? We won’t get to find out until Metamorphosis is released on both PC and consoles in the autumn. In the meantime, you can add the game to your Steam wishlist and give Ovid Works a follow on Twitter.

#MaybeinMarch: LIMBO

Following on from #LoveYourBacklog Week with LightningEllen from Livid Lightning last month, I finally played LIMBO for #MaybeinMarch recently. This game had shockingly spent almost five years in my library since being added on 25 March 2013 so after leaving it in a dark corner for so long, it was time to grab the controller and do something about it.

I originally had this article planned in my head as a retrospective review, but conversations with Gao Li from Gao Li Occasionally Reviews along with The Gaming Diaries changed that. These lovely people joined us on Twitch as my other-half and I worked our way through the shadowy world of LIMBO over a couple of Saturdays – and expressed just as much surprise when we reached the end. It’s safe to say that none of us really knew what to make of it (although The Gaming Diaries herself did come up with a pretty good explanation which I’ll share later).

If you haven’t yet played LIMBO yourself and intend to do so, I’d highly recommend turning away now! The paragraphs below contain discussions about the game’s conclusion so you may wish to come back to this post another time.

Here’s part of the plot description from Wikipedia, which we checked while the credits were rolling on the stream to make sure we hadn’t missed something: “On completion of the final puzzle, the boy is thrown through a pane of glass and back into the forest. After he wakes up and recovers from the pain and shock, he walks a short distance until he again encounters a girl, who, upon his approach, stands up, startled. At this point, the game abruptly ends.”

One of the things I love about video games is having the opportunity to investigate unanswered questions and figure out what the developer was trying to communicate through their project. I’ve therefore been doing a bit of research into LIMBO’s conclusion since and have come across a number of interesting ideas… although all of them are somewhat depressing. This fits my conversations with Gao Li, where we both got the impression that whatever happened at the end of the title was likely not to be happy.

In an interview with Gamasutra published on 24 February 2012, Playdead co-founder Arnt Jensen said: “I get a little upset when people say, ‘It was a stupid ending and I don’t know what was happening.’ All those people who enjoyed the open ending, that makes me happy, because it was supposed to be an open ending. What it means, I don’t want to talk about.” He did go on however to say that someone got ‘very close’ but has never provided an explanation – only that the girl shown in the last scene is the boy’s little sister.

It’s pretty much accepted though that the protagonist is dead at the start of the game. The monochrome art-style and dread-filled atmosphere point to this and promotional material also states: “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO.” Some further Wikipedia-checking reveals that Limbo is the ‘edge’ of hell and home to those who ‘die in original sin without being appointed to the Hell of the Damned’. This could include innocent children who aren’t deserving of Hell but who also aren’t worthy of heaven.

A point of greater contention is regarding the status of the sister. Some claim that she is dead also based on swarms of flies which appear in locations on the menu screen and correspond to the placement of the characters in the final scene. In addition the ladder is somewhat frayed, the grass has become overgrown and several rungs have fallen off the tree, so many fans believe the siblings passed away after falling out of their treehouse. There is another theory worth covering here however!

Just before LIMBO’s final scene, the boy crashes through what appears to be a huge pane of glass and this could symbolise a windscreen breaking – so did he and his sister die in a road accident? Partway through the title the environment shifts from a sinister forest to a more industrial setting, and some have declared this to be reminiscent of a car losing control or flipping over. This theory is a little abstract but does seem as though it could possibly be correct, so I’m not sure which I prefer.

Here’s The Gaming Diaries’ interpretation: “The boy is stuck in Limbo and has to work his way through so all the deaths don’t really matter. I think the girl signifies the end. The boy has crossed the lengths of Limbo to meet her. This could be that she has joined the boy in Limbo and her entrance shocks him, or that she is the start and end for the boy. Either way this results in the end of the game. So Limbo is never ending, the boy can return to the start and go through it again. Or she signifies the true death for the boy and there is nothing after for him.”

We discussed this theory during the stream and, while it did make seem to make sense at the time, several days of pondering afterwards led me to come up with an alternative. What if there was another explanation in which the siblings aren’t dead (sort of)? Here’s my own idea.

LIMBO, video game, black and white, shadows, boy, girl, brother, sister, treehouse, tree, ladder

The promotional material confirms that the boy entered Limbo – but doesn’t state from which direction. Rather than going there after his demise to meet his final end, what if he were going backwards from death to life? Maybe he and his sister were in some kind of accident (possibly a treehouse fall or car collision) and he’s working back from the end to get back to his sibling. The breaking glass and girl’s surprise in the final scene could signify a change in state: the boy has made it through all the trials of Limbo to return to the land of the living.

So now over to you. Have you played LIMBO and if so, what’s your interpretation of the end? A huge thank you and big hug to the awesome LightningEllen for being my #LoveYourBacklog and #MaybeinMarch partner – who knows, maybe we’ll see you again next year for another event!