The Road Not Taken

Inside screenshot
Inside is easily one of the best games of 2016, and it deserves a place in any list of the best games of the decade. It’s relentlessly intriguing, almost always preferring subtle, disturbing imagery to spectacle, but still finding a way to top itself over and over again with an even more surprising or evocative scene.

Like Limbo, it’s unapologetically brutal, but unlike Limbo, it seems dispassionately so. That game had the tone of a dark, corrupted fairy tale, and so there was still a trace of sentimentality about the young boy protagonist even as it showed him getting gored by a giant spider or crushed in a bear trap. There’s no sign of sympathy for the young boy the player controls in Inside. He’ll be pursued by faceless men in suits, shot, strangled, have his throat torn out by wild dogs, stabbed by strange cables that drop from the sky and kill him instantly, disintegrated by a concussion blast, crushed, drowned, or pulverized, dozens upon dozens of times. The game simply observes all of this silently, showing the death with hardly a shrug before starting you back at the last checkpoint.

After a couple of hours playing Inside, I started to find the dispassionate silence after the boy’s death to be even more unsettling than the death animation. There’s no one freaking out, screaming “Snaaaake!” over this kid’s body. Part of the game’s oppressive tone is the idea that your protagonist isn’t just alone, but is completely disposable.

It’s part of how Inside manages to be simultaneously beautiful and horrible. Or maybe, like The Road, it mires the audience in a world that’s so relentlessly gray and cruel and bleak that it makes us able to appreciate the profound beauty in simpler things. Or maybe it’s just got really fantastic lighting. In any case, it’s a platformer that rejects — almost violently rejects — the reward structure typical of platformers. For instance, here’s a game that has you repeatedly watch your avatar drown because a section is just a little too far to swim without solving some puzzle first. And then: it grants you a cool submersible that lets you explore freely with no time pressure, and which even lets you start smashing through walls!

Except of course Inside can’t just give you something to make your life easier. Instead, it has to raise the “what in the hell is that thing?!” factor with horrible sea-children who want nothing more than to smash your submersible, drown you, and drag your corpse to the bottom of the ocean. And yet: the sight of their freakishly long hair flowing in the water as you cast your light on them is undeniably, almost hypnotically beautiful.

And it can’t be emphasized enough: Inside does everything it does elegantly and wordlessly. There’s no dialogue conveying the mood of your character or his pursuers. There are no signs telling you where to go. There are no hint systems pointing you to the solutions to puzzles. It just takes your innate desire to keep moving your character to the right to find out what happens next, and then relies on brilliant level design, animation, sound design, and the subtle use of color and lighting, to guide you through to the end. That means that you process everything in the game on a more visual and visceral level than on a verbal one. You find the solutions to puzzles by experimentation. You pick up on the mood and tone of the game by feeling it instead of by having it described or explained. There’s so much in the game that’s still unexplained, open for the player’s own interpretation and projection.

That impresses me so much, after having worked in places where there’s been so much pressure to compromise, over-simplify, and over-explain. Studio heads shitting themselves over the prospect of a player feeling even a moment’s frustration or confusion, and trying to justify it as some kind of artistic accessibility instead of just fear of a lost sale. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a game that simply refuses to explain itself, trusting that players worth pursuing aren’t the drooling simpletons that marketing departments make them out to be. And even better: a game that rejects the notion of the player as center of the universe.

Spoilers

All that would be true even if the game ended about 20-30 minutes earlier, and it had been “about” nothing more than a young boy trying to escape a horrible and beautiful nightmare world. But of course, it doesn’t. It has a young boy escaping into an observation tank in the center of that nightmare world, at which point the game goes absolutely apeshit bonkers.

Even though I started Inside around the time it was released in June of 2016, I didn’t finish it until a couple of days ago. It does such a good job of driving home its bleak mood that playing it made me anxious, and I kept procrastinating getting back into it until it started being mentioned again in terms of game-of-the-year lists. So I’m genuinely impressed that I went so long without having the internet spoil the ending of the game for me.

Usually, even the best-intentioned reviews manage to spoil an experience a little: simply knowing that something is “spoil-able” is enough to make me spend the whole time watching for the twist. Inside manages to sidestep that as well, by virtue of its own stubborn, uncompromising integrity. I’d heard that the end of the game was weird, so after playing through multiple scenes involving mind control helmets, I’d been expecting yet another tedious reveal that broke the fourth wall and confronted the player with the question: who’s really in control here? I’m sorry, did I just blow your mind?!

As it turns out, the ending can be interpreted as a commentary on control and free will. But it’s so, so much better, grosser, and more disturbing than anything I ever would’ve imagined. Any respect that I had for the developers for being uncompromising on the base game is multiplied by 100 after seeing the ending. I can’t even imagine trying to pitch that concept to some of the chicken-shit marketing teams — sorry, “risk averse” marketing teams — at studios I’ve worked at.

I’d be fine with giving a Danish game studio infinite high-fives for having the integrity to make an uncompromising game with an uncompromisingly bizarre and gross finale. But the finale isn’t just bold; it’s really smart as well.

At least, if you buy my interpretation of the ending: the player’s avatar throughout the entire game has been the monstrosity in the tank at the end. The little boy was actually just another of the zombies/golems you encounter throughout the world, being controlled by the monstrosity in an effort to free itself and escape the facility.

It’s not a particularly out-there interpretation. I’ve heard that there’s a “secret cutscene” in the game (that I’ll never see, since it depends on collectibles) that reinforces it, and it’s the same interpretation (more or less) than JJ Sutherland explained on the Shall We Play a Game? podcast. I’m confident that it’s reasonable and makes sense, but I don’t want to be so reductive as to say this is what the game means.

But while I was playing Inside, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated that the game seemed to be running into the wall of what’s possible for a platformer to express — if not in fact for any video game to express. The game was trying all kinds of new bold, mature, and tonally perfect stuff, but there was a dissonance between that immersive and disturbing experience, and all the gamey-ness of a platformer. The limitations of what the player can interact with in the environment. The puzzles that would’ve been almost impossible to solve without having my character die at least once. The repetitive format of entering a new environment and solving a puzzle in order to progress to the next environment. When the game is working so well artistically, the cracks in suspension of disbelief become more and more jarring and grating.

If that interpretation is correct, and the entire game is spent controlling a creature in a tank attached to remote-mind-control devices, then that at least gives my annoyances with Inside a purpose in the fiction, even if they don’t exonerate the genre completely:

Trial and error by dying and repeating

I can’t recall any instance where Inside mechanically requires your character to die before you can solve a puzzle. I wouldn’t be surprised to see speed-runners able to make it through the entire game without dying once. But realistically and practically, there’s no way a player would be able to make it through the game without dying. For the majority of puzzles, seeing the character’s death is what defines the obstacle you’re trying to get past in the first place.

As the puzzles get more difficult, that aspect of the game gets more annoying. It robs the game of any sense of accomplishment, or the player of any sense of real cleverness, when you’re reduced to clumsily trying the same thing over and over until you stumble onto the solution that doesn’t have a small child violently murdered. And of course, each death chips away at the suspension of disbelief, since you’re starting again with information you couldn’t possibly have had otherwise.

Which makes sense if “you” aren’t a little boy, but in fact a gross blob of body parts that is running an endless parade of disposable little boys through a gauntlet of death traps all so you can sit in sunlight for once. That would add a disturbing layer to everything else disturbing about the game: knowing that each new “life” was actually a cut in time. The blob had had to start over with a new little boy golem and re-run through the entire course of the game up to that exact moment.

No motivation except moving to the right

The setup of Inside is incredibly intriguing, and there are still so many richly detailed set pieces left unexplained — for instance, what’s the deal with the concussion blasts that will disintegrate your body instantly if you’re not protected by a metal object? But the game’s refusal to tell you what’s going on — which would be respectable on its own — creates an ever-widening gap between the character’s motivation and the player’s motivation. There were several moments where my forward momentum stopped, and I no longer had any clue what I was even trying to do apart from “reach the end.”

You keep seeing interesting environments, but you’ve got no idea of what you’re trying to accomplish in those environments apart from no longer being in them. So you just keep moving to the right. And as a result, the richness of the game world starts to fade as the game itself becomes more and more abstract. It becomes something like the gap between the art on an Atari 2600 game box and the art in the game itself: it’s no longer evocative or intriguing, but purely mechanical.

Which again, makes sense if the character you’re controlling directly has no motivation, but is simply being pulled through a series environments by some force off screen. You realize there is actually no dissonance there, because the boy has no identity, no sense of purpose of his own, and no interest in anything other than the specific objects that will help him get to the observation tank.

Everything has a solution

This one’s bugged me ever since I played Half-Life 2. In that game, you’re playing as Gordon Freeman, lone savior of humanity against an impossibly huge and powerful alien force. You’re out alone in the wilderness, riding a sweet sweet motorboat that’s jumping over ramps and blowing up tanker trucks and helicopters and plowing through Combine soldiers like extras in a Michael Bay movie. Then you land in a secluded area in which you have to build a makeshift ramp for your boat in order to proceed.

There’s a kind of mode switch here, where you go from purely mechanical or visceral to more intellectual. And if you get stuck on the puzzle, there’s a pacing switch as well. With that switch comes an opportunity to get knocked out of your suspension of disbelief and reminded that you’re no longer a post-apocalyptic action scientist, but you’re a guy at a computer solving a puzzle.

Half-Life 2 has an in-world fictional explanation for a lot of this; in puzzle sequences, you’ll usually find a lambda symbol graffitied onto the wall somewhere. It’s to indicate that the whole scene was set up for you by the Resistance, and not set up for you by somebody at Valve Software. It helps somewhat, spackling over the cracks in the suspension of disbelief.

Inside has a similar strange dissonance, where the game world is bleak and oppressive but the player’s experience is, ultimately, somewhat optimistic. You always know that there’s a solution to every puzzle. Considering the elegance of the game design, the solution’s likely as simple as finding a single object, or simply moving to the left or right at the correct time.

The game has its own narrative justification for that, but it’s retroactive only: you can look back through the story and reason that the blob had a similar sense of detachment as you did while playing, and the same confidence that trial and error would eventually give the right answers. You never had to be in the exact mindset of the boy because like you the player, the blob was never in the same risk of physical danger as the boy.

Which is all fine and clever, but doesn’t change the fact that as the puzzles got more complicated, I felt more disconnected from the atmosphere and mood that the game had done such a spectacular job of building. I was no longer exploring an intriguing world, but pushing a joystick around looking for clues of what the puzzle even was, not mention how to solve it. In adventure games, this was the point players complained that you had to “read the designer’s mind.”

So how much of that is a limitation inherent to interactive entertainment? How do you make an experience that’s driven by the player but relies on an unreliable narrator, or a powerless and desperate protagonist, without its feeling like a trick or a gimmicky twist? How much can the mindset of a player’s avatar differ from the mindset of the player before it breaks the fiction and draws attention to itself?

Shadow of the Colossus took advantage of the weird dissonance created when the player is willingly making his avatar do things that he knows are morally or ethically questionable. Thirty Flights of Loving experimented with the idea of a first-person game that doesn’t play out entirely in real-time, but instead uses cuts and flashbacks — maybe not 100% successfully, but still more successfully than I would’ve expected.

So how much of that disparity or dramatic irony between the protagonist’s experience and the player’s experience is an inescapable limitation of the medium, and how much is an opportunity that game developers just haven’t fully taken advantage of yet?

It’s not a make-or-break distinction; it’d be more like the difference between an outstanding game and a genre-defining one. I love how much time and talent Playdead devoted to making Inside a unique experience, and I hate the thought that it’s brilliantly creepy mood was interrupted even for a minute by the knowledge that it’s just some video game.