Artists are often hit by inspiration when they least expect it. Take Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, who was travelling past a lake on a wintry day in 1972. As a pink light shimmered over the water, she saw something fantastic, “a kind of vision of the dawning light of humanity… I felt something was ignited. ‘This may turn into something,’ I thought.”
What it led to was The Brothers Lionheart, her 1973 children’s fantasy novel about two brothers who are reunited after their deaths in a faraway land. It became a bestseller in Scandinavia. And among those who read it in the ’70s was a Danish kid named Arnt Jensen.
At the time, the future creator of Limbo was living on a farm in Jutland. “My parents weren’t farmers,” he explains, “but they had a small farm with a lot of animals for fun.” Little Arnt, shy and quiet, used to like wandering off into the nearby woods. He’d spend hours following the stream that ran between the trees, often dropping strange insects and leaves into it and following them as the current swept them downstream. “I always had this thing for small animals and parasites – I hated them, even as a child,” he remembers.
Among the trees he felt a mixture of freedom and fear. The silence there was pervasive, and he felt close not only to life, but also to death. “People like The Brothers Grimm, Astrid Lindgren and Tove Jansson [who wrote The Moomins] were responsible for a lot of my childhood memories. They dared to write about death in a much heavier way than people do today.
When Jensen grew up, he joined IO Interactive as a concept artist. One day in ’04, inspiration hit and he started sketching. Like Lindgren on her fateful journey, he felt he was on to something. “I just picked up a pencil and drew a secret place. I’ve still got the drawing, and I put it on the first web page I did. I started drawing it without a character – there’s no boy in it. There’s just a beach and a dark cave that you might want to explore.”
It would be the first of many sketches of this odd monochrome landscape. Right from the beginning, he knew it was a game. Possibly a point-and-click adventure title, he thought. Something low-tech that he could program himself. Like his childhood self in the woods, he saw the process as a solitary adventure, but in this he was wrong – making Limbo wasn’t a path that he was destined to walk alone.
Jensen isn’t a natural interviewee. Shy and hesitant, it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t like talking to strangers, often giving clipped, vague answers. At one point – after being asked to pick a moment from the game that illuminates Limbo’s puzzle design – the phone line to Copenhagen goes dead for so long that we think we’ve been cut off. Instead, Jensen’s merely pondering, considering his answer (which never quite materialises). In his own words, he’s a man who thinks too much. “Yeah, way too much. It takes me a couple of days to decide anything.”
Imagine, then, how he must felt in 2006 when his inbox was flooded by potential business partners. After spending two years trying to build a prototype using Visual Basic, Jensen had made a concept video and put it online. He’d hoped it would help him find a programmer who could breathe life into his vision. Instead, the video went viral. With its monochrome visuals and sense of otherworldliness, Limbo stood out from the crowd. Publishers flocked to the shy Dane.
“I got very scared by all these people contacting me,” recalls Jensen. “I had mail from publishers all round the world. It was a one-man project at the time, and it felt like they wanted to control it and be part of it. I was so scared that people would take it away from me and make it more commercialised.”
Among the emails was a request from Dino Patti. Suave and confident, he’s the opposite of the reclusive artist. Patti had seen the trailer and guessed what Jensen might need – not just from a programmer but from a business partner.