Video game music can be great, but sometimes it’s fun to pair your wine with some different cheese. In Alternate Soundtrack, Derrick Sanskrit matches a video game with an album that enhances the experience.
[Note: The music video above includes an out-of-context moment that happens very late in Limbo, and the writeup below mentions the ending in broad terms. Frankly, we can’t imagine how these things would “spoil” the game for anyone; we include this warning pretty much so that random internet knuckleheads can’t complain. —Ed.]
Limbo is a game about questions. Where am I? How did I get here? Where am I going? What was that noise? Limbo is not a game about answers, merely the sensation of asking questions, of uncertainty and doubt. That sensation is rooted in Limbo director Arnt Jensen’s own crisis of confidence. Prior to developing Limbo, Jensen left the video game studio IO Interactive—where he had been a concept artist—over dissatisfaction with IO’s corporate culture and bureaucracy. Limbo grew out of his disillusionment.
Radiohead, now revered as one of the great bands of modern rock, released their fifth album, Amnesiac, in 2001 from a place of similar unease. Amnesiac was recorded during the same session as the experimental and divisive Kid A (released in 2000), and the band worried that audiences might not enjoy Amnesiac, or even be able to follow it. Many fans were already upset about the drastic stylistic shift between OK Computer and Kid A. Tense mixing sessions and growing pressure from both the fans and the label almost made Amnesiac the final Radiohead record.
Haunted by uncertainty during their creation, both Limbo and Amnesiac are moving and dark. Completing Limbo involves dismembering animals and drowning captives, among other horrors. Amnesiac is filled with distant sounds of whooshing air and unidentified objects being struck, amid stories of a dank world that is steadily crawling toward death. Amnesiac sounds like despair, and Limbo looks like Radiohead promo art. The two belong together.
“If you’d been a dog,” Thom Yorke sings in “Knives Out,” “they would have drowned you at birth.” This, among many other statements throughout the LP, paints the picture of rejection from a family. Likewise, the boy in Limbo searches for people like himself, only to find fear, hatred, and unmitigated destruction every time he encounters another human being.
There’s a lot of imagery to suggest that the world of Limbo is a damned place where only the vile and wicked remain to suffer, but there are oddly serene moments that suggest this may simply be the waiting room before the boy’s life begins anew. In “Pyramid Song,” Yorke sings, “And we all went to heaven in a little rowboat. There was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.”
Indeed, the strongest theme throughout Limbo is the divide between life and death. Death is a constant in the game—it’s sudden, frequent, and often disturbing. One reading of the game holds that the boy is dead the whole time—are the other people he sees along the way also dead, or are they fighting, flailing for life? Juxtapose this against Amnesiac’s finale, the New Orleans funeral dirge “Life In A Glasshouse.” The minor-key squeals of the clarinet mourn life by flaunting its desperate spontaneity in the face of defeat. Yorke expresses the desire for normality in a setting of rampant paranoia as he barks, squeals, and whimpers, “Of course I’d like to sit around and chat, only, only, only… there’s someone listening in.”
Players still passionately debate the open-ended closing moments of Limbo. We crave answers and pick apart minor details searching for clues. Yorke may have put it best, though, on the eerily organic opening track “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box,” when he said, “after years of waiting, nothing came, and you realize you’re looking in the wrong place.” The answers were never important. What matters is the way we handle the questions.