Goomba Stomp
Game Reviews

‘Inside’ Story — How Playdead’s Latest Indie Hit Subverts Gaming Tropes

Since their inception, video games have had an obsession with monsters. We’ve mindlessly stomped on them in Super Mario Bros, endlessly farmed them for loot in World of Warcraft, and repeatedly been obliterated by them in Dark Souls, and while there’s nothing wrong with making the conflict between the player and their opposition so clear-cut, it’s always refreshing to have another perspective. In Playdead’s follow-up to their twisted, 2010 2D puzzle-platformer Limbo, the developers have thematically and mechanically improved their game in almost every conceivable way. With a new 2.5D perspective, more engrossing visual and sound design and an incredibly immersive world, Inside is the industry’s current indie darling, garnering acclaim from critics and audiences alike.

As the game was released a week early on Xbox One, I heard a massive amount of buzz about it before finally getting the chance to experience it for myself when it came to Steam on July 7th. While I initially found the game to be slightly disappointing, in the face of the ridiculous amount of hype surrounding it from critics and my own unrealistic expectations set by Limbo’s excellence, the final moments of the game completely changed my opinion of the entire experience and made me realize why it had cultivated such a large following. SPOILERS AHEAD.

Inside2

Before examining the game’s ending, it’s important to set the stage with the main game. Building on nearly every aspect of Limbo, Inside uses similar thematic and gameplay elements such as an omnipresent darkness and focus on environmental puzzles to relentlessly push the player forward. In addition to an equally great sense of pacing and mystery when compared to Limbo, Inside greatly benefits from a more fully realized world design. While I personally prefer the striking, monochromatic graphics of Playdead’s previous game on a purely aesthetic level, the realistic character and sound design of Inside make for a much more visceral experience overall. The brutal snapping of bear traps or impaling strike of a giant spider’s leg in Limbo are completely serviceable and terrifying in their own cartoonish setting, but pale in comparison to the gruesome sight of fully animated death sequences where a young boy is mercilessly drowned by government agents or ripped to shreds by a pack of hounds.

Although a few bland laboratory segments mishandle Playdead’s “less is more” approach to storytelling, the advent of a completely 3D rendered world allows the implementation of more complex background actions, creative lighting setups and dramatic camera angles that simply couldn’t be done outside of a 2.5D perspective. Additionally, this newfound depth lets the developers improve their level and world design, offering inventive new puzzles and sweeping vistas that Limbo couldn’t dream of. Areas that make use of the background, such as avoiding the soldiers in the opening forest or taking shelter from incoming shockwaves make for some of the most inspired segments of any platformer I’ve played in years. As great as these levels are however, the real star of this game is the incredibly complex story seamlessly woven in to the gameplay.

Inside4

Similar to other indie games such as Journey and even big name titles such as Dark Souls, Inside refrains from directly telling players a story, allowing the world and gameplay to speak for themselves. Although the hints that the game gives the player into the inter-workings of the narrative are brief, most audiences will construct a basic idea of what’s going on by the finale. Opening in a dark forest, the player assumes the role of an unnamed child avoiding capture from soldiers. After making his way through a seemingly post-apocalyptic world that is nearly devoid of all life, the boy infiltrates what appears to be humanity’s last bastion of civilization. Here, an Orwellian, fascist government/corporation is using mind-control to enforce complete authority over the remaining population and create mindless slaves. As the boy gradually ventures further and further into the scientists’ main complex, he discovers a slew of abandoned labs, old technology, and deadly, failed experiments. Things escalate quickly as more outlandish sci-fi elements are repeatedly introduced, such as mind-control devices, anti-gravity environments, and underwater creatures. These complicate things further and provide unique gameplay experiences.

Upon reaching the center of the organization’s facilities, the player comes face to face (or whatever the hell the thing has) with the guiding project of their operations, a nightmarish lump of flesh and limbs suspended in a spherical containment chamber that acts as a hive mind for the brain-washed masses. However, when he tries to free the beast, the boy is pulled inside of it, and is assimilated into it as it breaks free of its prison. In one of the most stomach churning moment of the year, the game then shifts to the beast’s perspective, as it runs rampant throughout the lab, screaming in agony and frantically looking for an exit before eventually escaping and dying peacefully outside in a beam of light. While a basic idea of the story can be understood, the threads that lead there are thin enough that the game is mostly open to interpretation.

Inside3

Without uttering a word of dialogue, Inside manages to convey a staggering amount of themes and ideas to the player over its concise 3-4 hour length. By showing all of the government’s heinous experiments first-hand, the game questions the effectiveness and ethics of technology such as telekinetic devices and genetic modifications to make the player skeptical of its own world. Early elements of the story such as the complacently fascist society and the mysterious underwater creatures come with their own ideas and criticisms of things like government authority and the limits of scientific research, but the narrative is primarily concerned with the implications of mind-control and the nature of free will itself. This comes to a head in the game’s final segments, where the innocent protagonist is replaced by a hideously deformed beast that looks as if it came straight out of the third act of Akira. Taken at face value, the ending is incredibly horrific, but extremely simplistic thematically. The concept of a scientific experiment going horribly wrong and creating chaos is done expertly here, but it’s obviously been explored in other mediums, such as David Cronenberg’s film, The Fly, or even Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein. Similar to stories such as these, the base ending appears to have the monster breaking out of his captivity and causing widespread destruction before becoming truly free.

Originally, I was severely let down by the ending, as the image of the tortured creature dying peacefully in the outside world portrayed a strict black-and-white morality that simply didn’t fit with the rest of the game. Luckily, upon replaying the ending (and fervently googling what I had missed) there was a wealth of elements that subverted the typical “science goes too far and creates a monster that causes destruction” trope that I feared was the backbone of the narrative. The one major clue that reveals the truth behind the finale is actually right in front of the player’s face: the diorama that the beast crashes through in its escape. Though I thought it was simply a model of nearby terrain at first, under further inspection, it is actually the exact area that the beast breaks out into in the game’s ending, down to the weather, water and placement of the heavenly sunlight that it lands in. This indicates that the entire “escape” that just occurred was predetermined by the higher-ups. Several other elements hint at this revelation, such as the scientists’ indifference to the child’s presence during the beast’s awakening, and the overt trap that players fall into when the creature is being baited (rather obviously) into another containment unit. The ramifications for this secret are significant thematically, and are even expanded upon in the secret ending, but what really elevates this game to the next level is its use of mechanics to tell a story.

Inside1

The perspective change from the boy to the blob is more than just a gruesome transformation thematically. From a gameplay viewpoint, it is one of the most jarring mechanical transitions in gaming. Consider the time that the player spent as the protagonist. For roughly 3 hours, gamers controlled a defenseless child with limited movement options, no intrinsic powers and no way to defend himself, naturally causing a strange relationship to form. Players have to protect this kid and work around his limits to progress through the game and see the story through to its ending.

From the second that the hive mind is reached, the developers begin to work against player expectations. Even before its actual escape, the game shocks the player by luring them into a false sense of security, having the creature consume the protagonist in the midst of unshackling the monstrosity; not on the first or final lock, but in the middle, right before the last mechanism. Suddenly, this relationship is completely destroyed, as the perspective switches to that of the creature that Inside has secretly revolved around. In an instant, the player is introduced to characteristics that directly contrast all prior experience with the game, such as invincibility, the size to effortlessly destroy the environment, increased strength, and the power to kill. The tone is completely altered, as quite slow and methodical stealth/puzzle sections are replaced by scenes of the player blazing through the complex to the screams of the innocent people that comprise their own character, while obliterating everything in their path.

Uninterested audiences could be forgiven for thinking that a completely different title was being played, as the slow and calculated maneuvers of the boy are replaced by the unsettlingly quick and fluid movements of a monstrosity that can traverse the environment with ease. All of the rules imposed on the boy are completely altered, and the player’s mindset must rapidly change accordingly, beautifully mirroring the thoughts of the child as he becomes part of the hive mind. Although the experience is somewhat terrifying, it is almost cathartic to break free of the prior constraints that the game had put on the player.

This freedom is exemplified in the cafeteria and office segments, in which the player enters what looks to be more of a 3D space with destructible elements, and kills the director of the facility. Although these sections don’t actually offer the player any more freedom then the rest of the game, they appear to empower the player, and serve to fit the overall narrative, especially when considering the secret ending. Playdead also managed to incorporate certain aspects of the main game into this finale (such as puzzle solving) by reframing them from the perspective of a hulking beast. At several points in the escape sequence, the player will have to hide from, intimidate, or threaten humans to solve puzzles that are very simple objectively, but feel very fresh in context. Games such as Left 4 Dead and Evolve may advertise that they allow players to assume the role of “the monster,” but none have as much narrative weight behind them. The final puzzle has the creature brute force its way through a wall, sending itself hurtling down a cliff towards its first feeling of “freedom” while ironically taking all control away from the player and ignoring their input. However, this freedom may not be what it seems.

Inside5Inside’s alternate ending is a huge part of the story, but is likely to be missed by most players. By deactivating the mysterious mind-control orbs that are hidden throughout the world, the boy can enter a secret bunker in the opening farm that changes everything we know about him. At the end of a dark, lonely hallway, a mind-control headset is hung from the ceiling, attached to a swarm of cables. By unplugging a nearby set of wires, the machine goes dark, causing the protagonist to go limp, assuming the position of the mindless drones that plague the rest of the world. While it seemed suspicious that the boy’s motives were left completely vague, this is a common trope for video games, as even Playdead’s prior project had a main character that started with no backstory. By showing that the boy is yet another pawn of the hive mind, the game essentially breaks the fourth wall and questions player agency itself, asking why gamers are so willing to embark on any mission given its context as “a game.” Having the boy under the monster’s control actually accounts for a few unexplained components of the game, demonstrating why the boy was being hunted to begin with and why the water creature eventually assisted the boy as he grew closer to the hive mind.

This ending also reinforces the idea that the “escape” in the normal ending is actually pre-planned by the people in charge of the experiment, and possibly implies that this whole process has a cyclical nature, in which cognizant humans repeatedly venture inside the complex to join the hive mind. Just as in the rest of the game, whether these people are doing it willingly or against their wills is open to interpretation, but this ending suggests that the only true form of freedom comes from not participating in the undesired action at all, whether that be the hive mind’s involvement in humanity’s oppression or the gamer’s role in the linear entertainment we consume. With a perfect marriage of gameplay and story, Playdead created an awe-inspiring ending that recontextualizes the entire game and turns the typical role of “the monster” on its head to subvert player expectations.

****

Thomas Loughney wrote a crazy article about how Inside relates to Marxism on Gameinformer, but I like that this game can inspire such weird discussion:

http://www.gameinformer.com/blogs/members/b/666musicman_blog/archive/2016/06/30/inside-explained-spoiler-review-plot-analysis.aspx

Delta Bot’s video on the alternate ending showcases the idea that the game takes place in the same world as Limbo better than any other piece I’ve seen:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GT9jAv-fo6E

 

In Case You Missed It

‘Super Mario Maker 2’ Review: Made With Love

Harry Morris

‘Far Cry: New Dawn’: A Post-Apocalyptic American Dream

Christopher Underwood

‘Muse Dash’ Review: A Gorgeous Melody of Anime Aesthetics

Brent Middleton

‘Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled’ Breathes Life Into an Abandoned Franchise

Randy Dankievitch

‘The Sinking City’ Review: A Great Old Time

Tim Maison

‘My Friend Pedro’ Review: Bananarama

Alex Aldridge

‘Rage 2’ Review: Fast, Frantic Fun at the End of the World

Christopher Underwood

‘Cadence of Hyrule’ Review: Rhythm Heaven

Kyle Rentschler

‘Gato Roboto’ Scratches the Metroid-Lite Itch

Patrick Murphy
Share
Tweet
Reddit
Share
Email
Pin
Pocket