Pleasure in LIMBO: A Video Essay, Part I

by

Sky Anderson


Pleasure in LIMBO script, part 1

Video games are an art form made up of visuals, sound, and a mysterious little something we call gameplay. Limbo is the perfect example of these three crafts working together in harmony to create something astounding. – Daemon Hatfield, IGN review of LIMBO

Part 1
LIMBO, the 2010 indie video game, utilizes a unique aesthetic approach in order to create artistic unity and player engagement. This approach, as seen throughout this video, maintains a dark, mysterious, and foreboding mood, combined with interesting puzzles, narrative ambiguity, and a minimalistic musical score. But what makes the game interesting to me is its consistent use of absences or gaps in its visual, aural, and gameplay design which lends itself to interpretation through the lens of Aristotle’s enthymeme, a rhetorical concept that allows for absences and audience participation.

The most popular definition of the enthymeme, at least until recently, goes as follows: an enthymeme is syllogism with absent premises. To understand this definition, you first have to know what a syllogism is. A syllogism is a series of premises which lead to an inevitable conclusion. Take away one or more of those premises, and you have an enthymeme: a jump in logic that requires the reader to fill in the gap. This “truncated syllogism” definition is inspired from Aristotle’s writings on the enthymeme, but modern scholars have taken issue with this interpretation and have demonstrated that the enthymeme more closely resembles nicely turned phrases that are more pleasant to the mind than drawn-out logical arguments. Even Aristotle himself includes passages in his writings that link the enthymeme to enjoyable moments or phrases, thus relating a rhetorical concept to pleasure or entertainment.

In this two part video essay, I intend to demonstrate how both definitions, the truncated syllogism definition and the “nicely turned phrases” definition, allow for an enthymematic analysis of an artifact’s attempts to create enjoyment. In this first video I will examine the video game LIMBO and argue that the game’s artistic construction provides examples of visual enthymemes. The second video will continue my analysis by focusing on the game’s aural and gameplay composition.

As a disclaimer, my purpose is not to argue that Aristotle intended the enthymeme to be used for aesthetic analysis. Instead, I wish to repurpose the enthymeme as a means of describing artistic phenomena in addition to its well-founded use as a persuasive tool. Also, other terms may better describe LIMBO’s aesthetics, but my purpose is to show how the enthymeme is one concept out of many that can improve our understanding of appeals to enjoyment. With the theoretical introduction to the enthymeme in mind, I would now like to focus the remainder of this essay on exploring LIMBO’s visuals. The game’s visuals utilize the enthymeme through the use of a black/white color palette, the reliance on shape and outlines to portray objects and characters, and its shallow depth of focus.

The game’s visual composition enacts the enthymeme by subtracting necessary visual information, thus leaving the player to imagine what the image would be if the missing visuals existed. In a way, the absence of certain visual cues act as missing premises, but the fact that the player is able to distinguish what is occurring in the game denotes access to the visual enthymeme’s “conclusion,” or the complete picture. The concept is abstract, and it is best described by examining instances from the game as evidence for my argument. I would like to reiterate that the examples I provide throughout this video are not necessarily indicative of the enthymeme as it exists as an essential aspect of the game. In other words, I do not argue that the following examples are inherently enthymemes, but instead are instances when the enthymeme might enlighten our understanding about the nature of the game’s artistry.

First, the black/white color palette permits enthymematic analysis inasmuch as it allows for the “gap” necessary for the enthymeme to function, or, in other words, the missing information is color. Everything in the game, including the title, menu, settings, credits, and actual gameplay all utilize a greyscale color palette. The absence of a wider color spectrum allows the player to invest their own interpretation of what the environment and characters, or the diegetic world in general, would look like if presented in our “real world.” For example, most people know what a tree’s trunk looks like, including its textures, colors, and shadows. But LIMBO removes that visual information, leaving the player to interpret the pillars of grey as trees in a deeply wooded forest. The same is true of the grass and ground; assuming that the game is taking place in a forest, the player can reasonably assume that the ground would be a mix of greens and browns, complete with the minute details of grass, dust, twigs, and the like. However, such a conjecture must be made by the player as the game deprives her or him of any such conclusion by itself. In other words, the game’s greyscale color palette requires player participation in decoding the meanings of the environment and characters, a sort of conclusion made with missing premises.

The missing information, in this instance a variety of colors, would be a mild observation were it not for the enthymeme to explain why such an artistic choice would be appealing to players. The game’s dark ambiance adds considerably to the pleasure that can be derived from the game, and thus the enthymeme explains why that may be the case: the enthymeme invites participation through its missing premises (or visual information), and it is enjoyable, or at least interesting, to both know and not know at the same time what the completed picture would look like if given the rest of the information. The enthymeme invites knowing and not knowing at the same time, allowing for an intricate balance that the player must constantly manage in order to participate fully in the gaming experience.

The same is true for the game’s use of outlines for objects and characters inasmuch as the abstract outlines give enough visual information to denote what the game is trying to portray while also denying certainty in that regard. For instance, the following examples represent two moments in the game when the player’s character encounters similar outlines that end up being two different objects, thus tricking the player and adding to the mischievous fun of the game. In this first example, we see the player’s character meeting a giant spider, a prominent antagonist in the first third of the game. The second example takes place after meeting the spider, a moment in the game when the player sees the shape of what appears to be the spider’s legs, but it ends up being a puppet controlled by mysterious children. The fact that LIMBO uses shapes and outlines to convey meanings of objects, environments, and characters reinforces the game’s reliance on the enthymeme: the missing knowledge, the gap or the unknown, introduces player-created premises (such as “I see a spider”) that may or may not lead to correct conclusions (either “it is a spider,” or “it is just a puppet”).

The game utilizes one other visual strategy that invokes the enthymeme, namely the shallow depth of focus used throughout the game. The only item in the game that is consistently in focus is the player’s character, the small boy with glowing white eyes. Much of what lies behind him, and various objects between him and the player, are out of focus for most of the time. A good example of this can be seen in the first third of the game, when the trees and branches in the foreground and background are out of focus, leaving a sliver of focus centered on the character. Again, the shallow depth of field removes visual information by blurring what the player would have otherwise been able to see, thus leading to conclusions about the appearance of those objects. Overall, all three strategies, the greyscale color palette, the reliance on outlines for objects and characters, and the shallow depth of focus, function to create a sense of uneasiness and mystery in the game, and such a lack of information—and the pleasure to be had in it—can be explained, at least in part, by applying the enthymeme to its analysis.

About the Author:

Sky LaRell Anderson is a PhD student of rhetoric and media studies in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. His interest in media and rhetoric began while studying at Colorado State University for his MA degree, and he has since written his Master’s thesis and various conference papers about rhetoric found within films, television programs, and, most recently, video games.