Thursday, September 8, 2016

Mind Control: Playdead’s INSIDE

Note: This review contains spoilers for INSIDE.
This review is for those who have played INSIDE to completion. If you haven’t, then the following paragraphs – in which I praise this awe-inspiring achievement in design, gameplay, and storytelling and discuss my ideas about what it all means – will make little sense, and will likely ruin for you a game that I’m already considering among my favourites of 2016, and possibly ever. Consider yourself duly warned. (And if you haven’t already, please pick up and play INSIDE at the earliest opportunity – it’s in 2D, it uses two buttons, it’s only about 6-total-hours long, and it only costs $25 across most platforms. No excuses.)

Playdead’s previous puzzle-platformer, LIMBO, used its simple monochromatic visuals and its cartoonish, almost Burton-esque character design to tap into the realm of childhood nightmare, whisking away your conscious adult mind and conjuring darkness and loneliness and things that go bump in the night. It was an arresting experience centered around the division between darkness and light – what you can and cannot see – that offered heaping helpings of atmosphere and visceral chills, and while its puzzle-solving mechanics (pushing blocks, throwing levers, climbing ropes, etc) sometimes disconnected me from the flow of the experience, it was an incredibly promising start for the Danish indie developer. Instead of trying something totally new with their next game, INSIDE, they doubled down on the same puzzle-platforming structure they established in LIMBO, refining its simple elements and polishing them to a high gloss. INSIDE is the ultimate realization of the atmospheric puzzle-platformer; the genre pushed to its best, most beautiful, most clever, most emotionally devastating form. It’s perfect.

INSIDE’s genetic material is clearly distilled from early titles like the unforgettable Out Of This World (Delphine Software, 1991), which used similarly basic visual design and expressive animation to create evocative representations of an alien world, the creatures who lived there, and the threat they posed. INSIDE has the benefit of decades of advancement in gaming technology, meaning that while it remains restricted to a 2D, left-and-right plane, Playdead was able to create utterly stunning background environments that are enormously atmospheric and carry heavy narrative payloads through scale and depth and colour and shadow. Like Out Of This World, INSIDE is primal and scary, and not because things jump out at you, but because it’s so effective at making you feel like you’ve really been swallowed up and dropped alone in a vast, hostile world. You begin the game running through the forest, as the unnamed boy, and right to the end of the game, you pretty much never stop. Puzzles that crop up along the way are obstacles to be dealt with in desperate agitation, so that you can overcome them and continue running. You are made to feel as though there is always something rushing up behind you, or waiting just ahead (or below), so that moments of safety and respite are few (and deeply precious).

The puzzles themselves are evolutions of LIMBO’s basic push-this-pull-that mechanics, simplified (like when there’s nothing to do in a room but push a box off a ledge) or made more complex (like the multi-step backtracking puzzles that lead to the game’s secret collectibles) wherever necessary, but always remaining in service of both the internal logic of the environment and the overhanging tone. Many paths forward are only reachable through careful timing and precise jumps, which seems too obviously endemic to the platforming genre to mention, but which is reinforced here by that mood of desperation: you must make that jump, or you’ll fall in the water, where she is waiting for you. You must hit that switch and immediately run left, and if you’re a second too late, those rolling barrels will crush you. For a game that contains no dialogue, no interface, and no onscreen text, INSIDE communicates a lot to you about what needs to be done – sometimes through quiet and subtle environmental details, like the yellow cables that hint at secret areas, and sometimes through the terror that comes with trial and error. When you fail to make those jumps or solve those puzzles in time, and the boy is killed – by a fatal fall, by a slavering dog, by a man catching you, by spinning factory equipment, or by a girl in the water – Playdead does not shy away from the gruesomeness of his demise. This isn’t achieved through splatters of blood and gore, or by his cries of pain, but rather the opposite: all you get is the brutal silence when his life is cut short, and the horrifying wordless cruelty of a person strangling him until he goes limp, or a dog snapping his neck with its jaws. After a few attempts, you are galvanized to be as quick and efficient as possible in every situation, because you’ve seen what awaits you if you fail.

INSIDE carries this brutal honesty through to its overarching storytelling, too. The game is seemingly set in a bizarre dystopia, where governmental control has led to massive sprawling factories and subterranean labs in which human beings are horrendously experimented upon, confined in cages, and reduced to what appear to be reanimated albino corpses, marching in single file for inspection (and forcing you to march along with them, pantomiming their zombie-like rhythm in one Orwellian nightmare sequence). It’s clear as you progress that “those in charge” have unlocked the technology for mind control and physical manipulation, allowing the boy to control those around him like grotesque puppets that will help you solve puzzles and keep going. But as vivid and laser-focused as this visual and environmental storytelling might be, it raises more questions than it answers. Who is this boy, and what is he running from (other than the innate horror of this fictional reality, of course)? Who is controlling this system, and to what end? What is the source of this technology, and what is it really capable of? Is anyone else out there, other than the boy, who is willfully pushing back against this great and terrible machine?

This, of course, is where we talk about the end of the game.

INSIDE has one of those wonderful sci-fi twist endings which reframes the entire experience that precedes it, arming you with shocking knowledge that makes you want to go back to the beginning as soon as the credits roll. The “blob” – there’s really no other word for it – adds a level of Akira-esque climactic shock to this already-captivating story, when it consumes the boy and you take control of it instead. This final sequence is much longer than I would have expected, moving right past the initial shock value and prompting a roller-coaster of emotion from me: horror at the blob’s appearance (and its origins, which aren’t so mysterious as to prevent you from grasping what must be the obvious truth), then profound sadness at its confused and painful rampage through the facility, then a strange sympathy and attachment to it, as I solved puzzles and became familiar with its monstrous (and somehow bizarrely charming) animations. My heart melted when I threw a pneumatic box up to a lab worker and he activated it for me so I could hit a switch and proceed to the next room. I became enraged when his help was revealed to be part of a larger ruse to trap the blob again. I felt such a thrashing confluence of emotion during that final escape, when the blob comes to its rest in the warmth of the sun at water’s edge, that I just sat there and stared while the credits rolled. But then, in the spirit of the best sci-fi twists, I began to consider what that ending might have meant for the game I had just played.

My initial theory was that – taking all the game’s mind-control scenarios into account, and the boy’s ability to run, jump, think independently, and eventually manipulate others without the use of technology – it was the blob’s influence that was driving the boy forward, drawing him inexorably closer to itself so that it could absorb him and, in the words of the Borg, add his distinctiveness to its own. Perhaps the boy was the subject of experimentation too, and managed to escape his tormentors – carrying his unique supernatural abilities with him. This psychic connection between the boy and the blob would explain his tenacious need to continue pressing forward at all costs, even unto the belly of the beast, when any normal boy would find a dark corner and cower. This might also provide a reason for why “the man” would be hunting him so relentlessly, and why he would be so quickly singled out for falling out of step with the mindless masses – he might not just be a valuable asset, but a dangerous one.

But even if you’ve finished INSIDE, you may not have found the secret additional ending. Your reward for “collecting” all the game’s secrets along the way – those weird, ominous globes emitting glowing light that are fed by those distinctive yellow cables, whose cores you rip free in an act that feels akin to unplugging someone from the Matrix – is a room next to the blob’s chamber, where an oversized globe is waiting, feeding tendrils of yellow cable to all its tiny brothers. If you shut it down after deactivating all the previous globes, the LED board in the room’s background will go dark, indicating that all connected globes have been shut off – except for one. At first, I thought this was an error with my savefile or my Playstation account; I knew I’d already found and deactivated that earlier globe, so that LED should have gone dark with the others. I reloaded that area (the cornfield at the game’s outset, which disguises a hatch in the ground) in a huff, not realizing that I was being deliberately led back to that secret hatch, where a rounded vault door flanked by a non-operational lever had been suddenly activated. To wit, I solved a puzzle that granted me access to the room beyond, where I pulled the plug of a mind-control helmet – attached by many cables to the floor – and the boy went suddenly limp, followed by a cut to black that returned me to the title screen.

This added an entirely new layer of meaning to the game for me. This is pure speculation on my part, but what I suspect that ending means is this: the helmet I deactivated in that secret hatch represented the connection between me, the gamer, and the boy I controlled. When I pulled the plug, I cut off my ability to “mind control” him, which prompts an immediate end to the game experience. Playdead broke the fourth wall to suggest the meta-connection between me and the character I was literally controlling. And who knows – maybe it was meant to suggest that the blob was not only controlling the boy, but me, too? If its psychic power allowed it to manipulate all the other test subjects in the facility, including the boy, why not extend that manipulation to the player themselves, who is driving the game forward without a clearly stated objective or any contextual information? After all, when the blob is lying on the beach after its climactic escape, you lose the ability to control it, and can only watch as it lays there. It could be dead, of course – but maybe we’ve succeeded in fulfilling its purpose, and it no longer needs us, releasing us from its influence so that all we can do is watch its final moments.

This is the sort of extraordinary, emotionally-charged experience that Playdead has created in such a short game with so few simple tools. The power of INSIDE to evoke fear, to prompt action, to stump you and make you feel viciously clever, to fill your mind with questions and to encourage you to answer them with your own interpretations, is a power unmatched in gaming. As a designer I am stunned at the game’s beauty and craft and the sway it held me in, using such deceptively simple trappings, and as a writer I’m floored that Playdead did it all without showing me a single word. 2016 has seen the finale of Uncharted, the phenomenon of Pokemon GO, and the return of Dark Souls, among many other amazing releases – and none of those experiences are as pure and perfect and complete as INSIDE.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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