Playdead’s Inside: A dialogue review

Inside (Playdead 2016).

This summer, Playdead – developer of the critically acclaimed Limbo – released their much anticipated second game, Inside. Researchers in the Games and Transgressive Aesthetic have played the game, and we present here our impressions of the game – as a dialogue between project leader Kristine Jørgensen and PhD student Kristian A. Bjørkelo.

Kristine: I actually didn’t know much about the game before I started to play. I knew Playdead had released a new game called Inside, but that was about it. What I expected was an indie game, probably in the same mood as Limbo, which it in many ways is. My anticipation that this would actually be an uncomfortable or profound game was however raised when I encountered this screen when looking it up on Steam:

Bilde1

So is Inside uncomfortable, profound? It appears that we are mixed in our opinions about the game.

Kristian: I knew the game was coming, and had really enjoyed Limbo. But I sort of forgot about it. It wasn’t until a recent Facebook thread reminded me of it, where none other than Tim Schafer was referring to it as gross.

Gross? I thought to myself, I like gross! So, I downloaded it the moment I got home. And set aside an evening to play it. Was it? Gross… no, not unless you consider body horror gross. And I guess most people do. I was more intrigued by the game and the concepts it was trying to communicate. It could, however, be communicated a lot clearer. And it could definitively have pushed against my boundaries a lot more.

What the game is about

Kristine: You cannot really understand the game without understanding the aesthetics of it. You are a boy and you are fleeing. You run through the forest, followed by flashlights, dogs and people pursuing you in a car. Compared to Limbo the game has a greater sense of realism, at least in terms of social realism: There are no monster spiders here and the immediate feeling of the game is that it reflects some of the realities for refugees in Europe today. But the game move onwards to other topics such as totalitarianism, identity and control, before moving into more existential issues – if we say more we may spoil the game, but suffice it to say, this is also where a sense of realism breaks.

The color scheme is mostly monochrome and in the rare situation in which colors are used they are bleak. The inclusion of a faceless avatar-protagonist is here doubly fitting. Not only does it suggest that this could be a representation of anyone, like many faceless avatars imply. The faceless avatar-protagonist also fits nicely with one of the topics explored in the game: totalitarianism. Here society is totalitarian and people are literally faceless robots exploited for a higher (although unclear) purpose.

Like Limbo, the gameplay of Inside is modelled after sidescrolling 2D platformers, and in particular the beginning plays like a runner. Enemies are meant to be outrunned, or outsmarted. Much of the gameplay is also dominated by puzzles, solved by manipulating items, or more importantly, putting on helmets that allow you to control the faceless robots.

Kristian: The primary theme to me was one of instrumentalism, and there’s something about it all that points back to us as gamers and to gaming conventions. The games gives you no explanation for what you are to do, or why. You just do, by rote. It is what you do in these games, unquestioning. Moving from left to right, moving objects, standing on top of things and manipulating, or reacting to, the environment as you move through it. You might even say you are being played by your expectations from the game and by genre conventions.

I found the beginning and the ending most thought-provoking. The first few puzzles establishes the instrumentalist mentality of a puzzle game (or a platformer, or an adventure game for that sake), where you first identify what part of the environment you can manipulate, and then you manipulate them. First you lure a cluster of chicken into a farming machine in order to bring down a crate, later you knock out a pig in order to push it around and stand on it to reach higher. And this (ab)use of animals is just a foreshadowing of how you later use braindead humans in the same manner throughout the game. It may not be soul-shattering, but it left me with an ugly taste in my mouth. To me the game was trying to tell me something about how we play games, how the conventions work. The fact that we are playing a character who play these empty-vessel humans sort of brings that point home. Yes, there’s a theme of identity and totalitarianism in this, but there’s also instrumentalism. The fact that we use anything, and anyone, to solve our puzzles. To quote Bernard in Day of the Tentacle:

“Sometimes I do stupid stuff, and I don’t even know why… as if my body were being controlled by some demented, sadistic puppet-master…”

Kristine: I’m shocked that you say the chicken died! When I figured out the puzzle, my first thought was that I had to grind the chicken in the machine, but then they appeared to move as if nothing happened after having been through the grind, so I thought it was an air machine that carried the yellow furballs into the air.

Well, I realize that I’m probably suppressing the hard truth now.

Atmosphere, theme and discomfort

Kristine: Well, I guess whether the game is uncomfortable or not is where our opinions diverge. I did not find the game very uncomfortable.

However, there is no doubt that the game has a gloomy atmosphere, and that the way the game starts in medias res – in the middle of things – creates a sense of confusion and immediate drama. The game indeed creates curiosity and anticipation. Aside from the atmosphere, which may not be so uncomfortable as it is sombre, there are episodes that has the potential of creating moments of discomfort. Rotting pig carcasses are infested by worms, which you at one point must interact with. The humans you meet are either anonymous hostiles, or only uncanny shadows of what it means to be human. Towards the game’s dramatic climax, strange experiments are revealed that include the player in different ways that are both thematically disturbing and affect gameplay in new ways.

Kristian: I found some of the themes subtly uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable doing some of the stuff I had to do, and the ending was pure body horror. My issue with the game is connecting the dots. What does it all mean? I see the outline of some motivated message, without actually being able to pinpoint it. So you might say there’s a level of intellectual discomfort here as well.

So is it worth playing?

Kristine: Well, it depends what you are looking for. While the first half of the game was interesting due to the novelty of the game and the fact that I still was familiarizing myself with the game mechanics, I got bored, part out of lack of challenge, part because of repetitiveness. The puzzles were not very hard, but still hard enough to make me go to the Internet to solve them. But at that point I was already losing my patience with the game. As I browsed through a walkthrough, however, I learned that I was only a couple of scenarios from completion, so that motivated me to endure the rest of the game. And that was no mistake, as the most interesting part of the game happens in the last couple of scenarios.

Kristian: It’s not a very exciting game, not until the end at least. If you’re looking for platforming action, you’d do wise to look somewhere else. I approached the game as a meditative experience, playing it in on the Xbox, sitting on my sofa, while drinking whisky. So to me it was well-worth playing and an interesting experience, as well as a great break from playing endless open world RPGs. Now I just want that eerie soundtrack to be released. In particular the track from the stage where we have to survive shock blasts from explosions in the distance…

About Kristine Jørgensen

Professor in Media Studies at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen. Project manager and principal investigator of the Games and Transgressive Aesthetics project.

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