Welcome to An Adventure in Small Games, a monthly series focused on games that cost less than $20, ideally less than $10. In this series, Eve Golden Woods will focus on the indie game and what it has to offer the world of gaming. There will be spoilers. This month Eve takes a look at I Contemplated the Sun of Limbo.
April 28, 2016
What do you do when you don’t want to play games? Of course, it’s not just games. This month, everything felt stale to me. Books gave me very little enjoyment, and I found myself sliding back into the groove of old, well-worn favourites, retreading easy paths because I couldn’t bring myself to push for anything new. My own work was similarly frozen, somehow beyond me. My normal enthusiasm for everything just seemed to have drained away.
What do you do when that flat grey wave of apathy hits? I don’t know that I have an answer, but I found myself going even deeper into the cracks and crevices of the alt games community, looking for something sharp, something that would shock me awake.
I Contemplated the Sun of Limbo caught me with a name. Limbo is one of those concepts that always appealed to me: I find great satisfaction in reading about the afterlives different cultures construct for themselves. Limbo, then, is the outermost edge of hell, a space where those who died in infancy, before baptism, and those who died before the birth of Christ reside. They are denied communion with God, but otherwise suffer no torment. Unlike Purgatory, which is a space where souls may strive to be redeemed and enter heaven, Limbo is a void. Nothing changes, nothing grows. Traditional descriptions and depictions of limbo show it as a place of shadows, often with caves and forests as the background, a place of darkness and stillness.
In contrast, I Contemplated the Sun of Limbo blazes. As soon as the game loads the player finds themselves gazing at a blazing, star-filled sky. The ground underfoot is a washed out blue, of a colour and texture that remind me of an iceberg. Around the edges of the small island is a roiling sea, dark red and brown and black, churning at the coastline. The sun itself hangs overhead, a huge ball with a light at its centre. The edge of the sphere shifts, rotating and changing as black patches form, merge together and melt away. A distant ringing sound, like gulls, is heard, and there are faint patches of static under the endless noise of the waves. This, then, is limbo; this absolute bleakness. Quickly, the sun plunges beneath the waves, and I plunge after it, chasing it simply because it is the only named object I can see. As soon as I enter the water the world inverts. I am on an island again, but this one is green and purple, a pattern of techno multicolour. The sea is gone. Strange black lines echo the waves, but below them and above them the same starry field circles, though the sky is now orange and purple. Only the sun is constant. Only the sun is unchanging.
Space, to me, is one of the great pleasures of games. I have a real love of strange physical spaces: old house, mazes, forests and mountaintops call to me. The process of uncovering a space, of being in it and learning it slowly, is immensely satisfying. It takes you out of yourself, reminds you of your relationship to the world around you. I might have been satisfied with I Contemplated the Sun of Limbo’s space alone, small as it is. The colours are striking, the landscape is bleak but visually gorgeous, its low-poly aesthetic full of an unpolished tension. The soundscape is dynamic and satisfying, working with and against the landscape.
There is, however, more to this game. On the second mountain, on the underneath of the world, there is a stool. Three-legged, backless, it sits at the peak, or perhaps the nadir, of the island. You can sit on it. Do so, and something changes. The next time you fall through the ground to the other side, a strange black figure is sitting on the cold white hilltop, in mimicry of the pose you adopted. This is your shadow. You walk up to it, touch it. The shadow shreds, fragments, explodes into a mass of textures and movements that expands rapidly. The foaming, expanding mass of triangles feels dangerous and threatening, at odds with the world around it.
This seems a shadow in the Jungian sense, the part of the self that one rejects or denies, which lies buried deep in the unconscious. Crucial to Jung’s understanding of the shadow was the idea that it becomes more powerful as it is ignored. The game, then, provides a space of confrontation. It feels like a cleansing: here is the worst that the shadow can do. Watch it, be afraid. And then next time, you will be brave. Of course, shadows are cast by the sun, and in a game in which the sun is so central, it seems important to remember that shadows are a consequence. Whatever this shadow is, its place in the game is related to the space of Limbo itself.
Though the game is an exploratory space, it’s also a historical one. Crucial to the game’s structure is the tense of the title—contemplated, rather than contemplate. This is not an ongoing narrative, but rather a recounting, something told after the fact. How personal the game is feels useless to speculate, given the intense symbolism of every part of its design, but what the player is given feels like fragments of memory. Playing the game reminds me of looking through a house as a guest—somewhere I was invited, but didn’t belong. There are strange relics in this game, whose purpose I don’t understand and can’t divine, like the cross that appears on the iceberg side of the island towards the end of the game. I can imagine various interpretations and symbolic readings of the cross, but in and of itself, it doesn’t reveal anything to me. Like a dolmen or a ruined fort, the landscape of the game feels like the remnant of an experience someone else had.
I enjoyed I Contemplated the Sun of Limbo so much precisely because it feels so inscrutable. There’s nothing clear about it, nothing straightforward. It’s a strange impenetrable art object, one that allows me access only to its corners and edges. In a way, that’s a relief. The brevity of I Contemplated the Sun of Limbo is perfect when I feel as apathetic as I have been. It gives me an experience that at once demands little and much of me. It’s a game that’s less about the time you spend playing it than the fragments that remain once you’re done. It resists offering answers, or even guidance, preferring to present you simply with an experience.
At the end of the game, strange versions of the shadow creature dot the island, their bodies a bright-yellow orange, in stark contrast to the shadow’s black. They expand as you touch them, covering the whole island, drowning you in light. Flurries of triangular shapes cut across the screen, and the title of the game appears in small, dense handwriting. I wonder if this is an escape, or a continuation. I wonder if the artist escaped their own limbo. I think I am at last on my way to escaping mine, with the help of small strange games and Jane Austen. Sometimes, what you need is a new perspective, and falling off one island onto another, looking up at the stars, is as good a way as any to achieve it.