Alternate SoundtrackVideo

Shades Of Gray: Limbo & Radiohead’s Amnesiac

“I want you to know he’s not coming back.”

By Derrick Sanskrit • July 23, 2012

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.

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25 Responses to “Shades Of Gray: Limbo & Radiohead’s Amnesiac

  1. blue vodka lemonade says:

    Spinning plates, spinning saws, spinning brain because that video was way more engrossing than it should have been because I haven’t slept in a very long time.

    I really like the uncertainty/unease connection, and kudos to whichever gameologist put the video together–the tense, frickety-frackety anxious sound of Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors paired with the spider gave me some deepset heebie-jeebies.

    OK Computer used to be my default soundtrack to playing Barbie Riding Club (I was a weird, weird kid.) It was a weird, somewhat “open” game with a very slow pace and not much to do, but with the right music was a very zen kind of experience–staring between a horse’s ears, headphones on, and once in a while the horse would whinny at an opportune moment during Karma Police and it was as close to being stoned as I could get at 7 or 8.

    • John Teti says:

      Derrick both writes the prose and creates the videos for the Alternate Soundtrack feature, so you can give him full credit.

      The Barbie Riding Club story cracked me up.

  2. caspiancomic says:

    Ooooh, yeah, these work together very beautifully. I’m glad to see this feature coming up so often, it almost always comes up with rad results.

    Limbo was the first game I played from this year’s Humble Bundle, and it’s a game I remember very fondly. I think Derrick’s insight that the game is in a big way about questions is pretty accurate. It takes a sure hand to create the kind of world in which Limbo is set: one with no traditional attempt to explain who the characters are, or how they relate to one another, or where the story takes places, but at the same time establishing of such a powerful sense of atmosphere, and such clear and simple character dynamics, and with such control over the game’s tone, that you feel like the answers, to the degree that there are definitive answers, are lurking just outside your peripheral vision.

    It’s a storytelling method that works particularly well in, and perhaps exclusively in, gaming. A film or novel in which there was damn near no narrative whatsoever, and the entirety of the story had to be interpreted through scraps, set dressing, and flavour text would probably be hopelessly opaque. But in a video game, it allows you to keep your focus on the interactive elements of the experience, and still deliver a powerful story that isn’t so insecure as to steal attention away from the gameplay. Although I’m not 100% anti-cutscene, a lot of games could learn from Limbo’s ability to tell a story with maximum economy.

    • zebbart says:

      A film that works that way for me is Wendy and Lucy. But I agree that kind of artistic experience is a strength of games in particular.

    • hastapura says:

      Shoot you liked Limbo a lot more than I did. It’s got a definite aesthetic but for me the whole thing wore thin after a while. It seemed shallow, and I can’t qualify that right now. I do deeply disagree with the conclusion in the article.

      No, the answers aren’t everything. But deliberate obfuscation and lack of closure can be as pat as an ending which wraps everything up like it’s running down a checklist. See: Lost or Prometheus in contrast to, say, Y: The Last Man. Vaughan offers up a few possibilities in Y but leaves it to the reader to believe or disbelieve whichever they choose. It’s even fine not to offer anything up: one of my favorite movies is Bergman’s Persona and he doesn’t exactly give anything away for free. But the raw material is there for interpretation. Maybe I’m going overboard here but this issue’s been on my mind since I saw Prometheus

      • robert jokeseph says:

        Ugh, Y: The Last Man had a terrible ending. Was that just me?

        It was absolutely excellent right up until about the point when it explained everything.

        I’d have agreed with your general idea (other than the fact that I loved Limbo, but I understand where you’re coming from) but that’s a very, very bad example.

  3. I always thought Tim Hecker and Limbo make a good fit. Granted it’s more for closeness to the original soundtrack than anything else but I think it pairs up pretty well.

  4. HighlyFunctioningTimTebow says:

    Ooh, Ooh! Do Far Cry 2 paired with Godspeed You Black Emperor’s F#A# infinity next!

  5. Francis Psola says:

    No, the answers are important, tool.

  6. Xtracurlyfries says:

    Great feature, and while I love the choice of pairing, I hated Limbo with a fiery passion. Artistically it was incredible, and was the only reason I continued to play (although I never made it to the end). But dying over, and over,and over again is just too boring and irritating for me to want to waste my time on it, no matter how pretty it is. Once you’ve died for the 100th time, all that atmosphere just seems silly and overreaching.

    • caspiancomic says:

       See, I never had a problem with all the dying because the game was so clearly designed around it. You were respawned close by and quickly enough that the meat of the challenge in the game became running into a trap, dying, and then trying to figure out how best to avoid that trap (and the one just like it that was almost certainly waiting just off screen.) It was a lot like Prince of Persia in that way, especially the more colourful reboot- “death” was sort of a slap on the wrist that forced you to experiment and change your way of thinking, rather than a punishment for failure that stopped you dead in your tracks and forced you to start over. Death in Limbo isn’t comparable to death in Super Mario Bros, or anything where it’s a much bigger deal, so I felt like stepping in my fiftieth bear trap wasn’t too irritating.

  7. RTW says:

    I’ve never really been able to get into Radiohead, but articles like this always make me wonder what I’m missing.

  8. You equating Limbo with a nearly discarded b-sides album? For shame.

  9. Basement Boy says:

    Downloaded, but have not yet played Limbo… but for my own alternate soundtrack purposes, I’ve got a huge brooding mass of Dark Ambient in my iTunes for my Binding of Isaac playtime; lotsa Lustmord, Raison D’être, Vidna Obmana, Sephiroth, etc. etc… (not that Isaac’s soundtrack isn’t great, but after a coupla hundred hours, y’know…)

  10. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    Last night, I was grinding attempting to get the Ring of Varda in ‘Symphony of the Night’ while listening to Belle and Sebastian.  That was not a particularly artful pairing.

  11. karen collins says:

    There’s a whole new website dedicated to this concept, called Veemix. 

  12. UninvitedChristopherGuest says:

    I will pair Sega’s Virtua Fighter 2 with a bootlegged copy of Brittany Spears unreleased Basement Tapes boxed set where she does an awesome cover of Beck’s entire Midnight Vultures cd. It’s not as boring as it sounds.

  13. JokersNuts says:

    As a huge Radiohead fan and someone who thinks Limbo looks really cool but have never played it for more than 20min – this article has made me want to download the game and play it with Amnesiac

  14. xterminatorx says:

    Super Meat Boy + Agoraphobic Nosebleed

  15. andren123 says:

    I love Radiohead, but the music doesn’t fit with the game. All the game needs is a very atmospheric ambient soundtrack, nothing else.