Then and Now: Infant Mortality in Limbo and Heart of DarknessBy Miodrag Kovačević | November 29, 2011 | Features | No comments | Share
Looking at the Wiki page of Limbo, it seems quite fitting for a “Late to the Party” installment. It would be a waste, though, as plenty has already been said and I wouldn’t be able to shake this feeling that I was attention mongering by saying I thought it was just “alright”. However, an observation I made while reading up on Limbo and watching some footage a while back is that it reminded me a lot of Heart of Darkness. After finally being able to play through both games properly, it’s quite interesting to take a look at how child death in video games was handled in 1998 compared to 2010. There are a few more games that had this “feature”, the first one that comes to mind being the old Fallout games, but as both Limbo and Heart of Darkness are platformers with a child protagonist that suffers a brutal demise every odd minute, it might be best to just limit ourselves to the two this time.
Heart of Darkness was released in 1998 by Amazing Studio, but more importantly, Eric Chahi (From Dust and Another World) worked on it. It follows the journey of young Andy who ventures into the Darklands to save his dog, Whiskey. At the time of release, the game was rated E for Everyone by the ESRB, 12+ in Germany, and G8+ in Australia.
Limbo was released in 2010 for the Xbox Live Arcade and for the PlayStation Network and Steam one year later. It was developed by Denmark-based studio Playdead. A nameless boy wanders through a monochrome world, searching for his sister. The journey is full of peril, horrors and is as grimdark as it gets. It was rated T for Teen by the ESRB, 18+ by PEGI and M in Australia.
This indicates that, according to the rating system, Limbo is less suitable for children, but both games feature highly gruesome deaths. Andy can get ripped to shreds, crushed, burned, eaten and can drown, while the nameless boy can get crushed, sliced, impaled, electrocuted and will drown almost the instant he is submerged in water. Let’s take a look at a death montage for both, shall we? Fair warning, they contain spoilers.
You’ll notice the absence of “real” blood in both games. Heart of Darkness doesn’t feature any, while Limbo does contain bodily fluids, but for the sake of comparison, we’ll treat it the same way as green blood in Mortal Kombat II: that it’s censored.
Both games are heavily stylized, so Heart of Darkness does seem rather “cartoony” in its choice of character deaths, but it is still obvious that Andy shares traits with Batman’s parents after each one. The nameless boy’s deaths are a bit more graphic, with limbs flying off or leaving quite the stain when flattened. Both games do contain a mix of timid and highly disturbing deaths, though. The bear traps in Limbo will make you flinch, but on the other hand, getting hit by a box falling on your head or getting electrocuted is far less shocking, so to speak. Heart of Darkness turns Andy into a flare at best, or has a shadow creature devour him at worst.
A key difference between the two games are the aesthetics. Heart of Darkness leans towards a more cinematic Toy Story-esque style, which means it contains both color and sound, something Limbo lacks. Not to mention that Amazing Studio’s title has a more obvious narrative. This drastically different aesthetic no doubt contributes to how we actually experience each death of the child we are controlling. It isn’t just about Andy yelling in shock during each sequence, but the cutscenes themselves have Andy talking to various characters, meaning we get a bit more insight into the actual character, so we’re more likely to care for him.
The nameless boy never makes a sound, but that is the point. Limbo’s audio limits itself to only effects and ambient sounds, which, combined with the monochrome film grain visuals creates a melancholic experience. It is an atmosphere like this that creates apathy towards the nameless boy’s deaths. While both games offer quick transition from death to checkpoint, Heart of Darkness does it because it’s practical, whereas Limbo gets bonus grimdark points because it helps illustrate how pointless even dying is.
Another noteworthy difference is that Limbo was made from the get-go as something that is clearly tragic, dark and melancholic. The motivations for such an aesthetic is a different debate, but we can all see that it was intentional. Heart of Darkness is a mixed bag, because the story and character interaction are very lighthearted, but the actual peril is highly graphic and disturbing, creating a stark contrast with the initial atmosphere, making the player’s experience even more shocking.
It’s interesting how Heart of Darkness wasn’t officially regarded as violent during its time, especially when compared to Limbo. Both games are undeniably brutal and both outperform the depictions of the other in some aspects, yet the older game got a pass, while Limbo was given a higher rating. It’s also worth noting that Limbo doesn’t limit itself to deaths as the shock factor, but some themes themselves, like drowned corpses, had likely also contributed to its rating. On the other hand, Heart of Darkness contains demonic possessions and alien nipples. It’s also peculiar to see how the games that resort to the subversion of the Infant Immortality trope often found in video games are both cinematic puzzle platformers, while today’s mainstream titles, like Skyrim, disable child death (if they even include children in the game at all). Of course, we don’t get a kick out of these things, but given the current attitude of the industry, one has to wonder whether resorting to breaking this taboo has a point beyond shock factor?