I was very happy to hear that the game Inside, created by Danish studio Playdead, has been nominated for numerous Baftas. In fact there are lots of great games in the running for Bafta awards this year – No Man’s Sky, Abzu, Forza Horizon 3 and The Last Guardian all deserve high praise – but Inside is the one that really stands out for me. Playdead has created a work of art that takes video games into fresh and even uncharted cultural territory. Chris Charla wasn’t exaggerating when he took to the stage at E3 and called it a masterpiece.
Inside has many things in common with its predecessor Limbo (released 2010): it’s a 2D puzzle platformer set in an eerie world of few colours, in which a lone figure, a young boy with few distinguishing details, navigates a hazardous environment. The story is not well defined – There’s no obvious quest or treasure dangled before your eyes – although a narrative eventually emerges. Both Limbo and Inside embody a minimalist philosophy of game design, with little obvious story, an austere visual style and ambient soundtrack, a simple control scheme, and uncomplicated (yet often devious) puzzles. To keep moving is the only imperative at first. The sinister characters that appear and the dark events happening in the background suggest that something is very wrong with the world. What emerges is a dark mystery.
Inside progresses through various different environments: You start in the forest, pursued by hostile guards and their dogs, then move through farmland, sheds, hangars, and eventually make it into an industrial city. In the city there are factories, alleyways, flooded basements, and weird machinery. It reminded me of the early scenes from Stalker, where the group are trying to sneak through derelict factories into the Zone.
The population of the city exists in a zombie-like, hypnotised state, shown marching in line with heads and arms drooping as if their minds are being controlled by an external agency. And so the narrative starts to take hold that you are on a mission to the heart of a totalitarian regime.
The frame of action is restricted to up, down, left and right. However, everything is presented in a way that has depth and appears to be three dimensional. This “2D action in a 3D world” is a conceit that makes Inside feel more like theatre than anything else: An actor pacing about a limited stage, in front of a background set that is out of reach. For sure the action in the foreground, on the stage, and in the background are interlinked (for instance when the dogs are set loose), but the protagonist never leaves the stage except to move onto the next scene, which is another stage. In this way Inside is like a play that hops between dozens of sets, and in each scene a quandry is posed: how to reach a ledge which is too high, how to dodge sonic blasts, how to break open a door.
My favourite scenes are the one with the chicks near the beginning – those poor chicks! – and the ones involving the mer-woman, the most terrifying character of all. I also really liked the dark humour of the “testing” scene, in which the boy drops into a line of people that are being scrutinized to see if they follow orders. As the line shuffles forward, those inside a marked area have to jump or turn around at the ordained moment, or risk being speared and dragged away. It has the air of a playground game (“Simon says: ‘Jump!’”), except the consequences of failure are horrific! And why have the people in masks brought their children to watch? Do they find it amusing? Occasionally the boy will discover a helmet that lets him control other characters so he can open heavy doors or reach high places, and we get to see first-hand the frightening mind-control technology that the regime has perfected. Watching the people run around at your mercy is a gruesome and unsettling experience, lurching out of their cells and cages and moaning whenever they fall down or get hurt.
After passing through the industrial city, things change. Eventually the boy enters what looks like a research facility with cameras, test cubicles, and microfiche viewers. Instead of being pursued by guards in masks, the boy is simply ignored. People look like normal office workers, and barely acknowledge him. It seems he has made it into the heart of the regime, but rather than a military dictatorship it resembles a kind of scientific bureaucracy. It all seems so banal, with cafeteria chairs and office desks. Has the rise of science and technology distanced the elite from morality so much, that the bulk of the population can be enslaved without anyone caring?
Everyone appears to be rushing towards something important, something they all watch through a viewing window high up above a vast chamber. The boy makes his way inside, and there discovers a hideous… thing… a writhing blob of human body parts connected to the scientists’ machines.
From this point on, questions give way to action. After freeing the organism the boy is captured and subsumed by it, and the player now controls the blob instead of the boy. You break out of the chamber, crushing and killing any of the scientists that get in the way, and destroy the laboratories and offices where they work. The organism scrabbles around on unsteady feet, struggling to balance, wailing and groaning loudly as it smashes through windows or falls down shafts. Eventually, you find a way out and it rolls down the side of a hill to rest, peacefully, in a grassy field.
In terms of the narrative the game has set up, the mission to penetrate the heart of a totalitarian regime, the game concludes by throwing you into absurdity. Have you been successful? Is this a truly a rescue? Will the nightmare go on for everybody else? What about the boy? Is he dead? With Inside, video games have moved into the realm of absurdist theatre.
Absurdism is the idea that there is so much stuff out there in the universe that to try and understand it is ultimately futile. But because humans are humans, we try to make meaning of what is around us, and these ultimately doomed efforts are, at core, absurd.
The puzzles of Inside are all scenes from an absurdist play – There is the appearance of purpose, as the boy mills around on stage pushing boxes about. There is even the appearance of logic, as a set of actions leads to a conclusion, such as reaching a lever. But the meaning or story remains obscure – there is little insight into the hidden logic behind it all. The play reaches its grand finale when the boy is eaten by the blob – just when you thought you had the narrative figured out, in fact you understood nothing. Imagine watching it on stage!
A hidden or internal logic that remains beyond your grasp is, for me, one of the hallmarks of absurdism. Simple nonsense would defy logic altogether, while absurdism turns logic into an impossible game of hide and seek. The limits of human understanding are a theme of Stalker too – the invisible traps that must be navigated in the Zone are beyond the ability of scientists to understand, while at the centre of the Zone lies a great enigma: a room that will grant a person’s innermost desire.
Perhaps the best thing about Inside is that it sent me back to my library to rediscover the stories of Russian writer Danil Kharms (1905-42) – amongst which my favourite is Fedya Davidovich, about a man who inexplicably steals the butter in front of his wife, only to run off and sell it for nothing. Many of Kharm’s pieces involve the trials of ordinary people faced with the impossible, much like the deadly puzzles faced by the protagonist of Inside. The contradiction of living in a world where life is impossible, where all freewill has been drained by a totalitarian regime, can perhaps only be expressed by the absurd.
Unless, of course, you unlock the hidden ending.