For some reason, we like to compartmentalize the various facets of games when we discuss them. We say we love Final Fantasy for “The Story,” though the JRPG gameplay is tired and tedious. I personally loathe the interface of Europa Universalis, although when understood, I have heard it conveys world history more richly than any book ever written. But a good plot cannot be played, because it’s already told. And historical representation can only suffer from smoothing out its more jagged complexities. I find it difficult to talk about one or another aspect of a game individually because I only experience it as a whole. It’s admirable to aim for an objective summary of what’s going on under the hood, but I think we ask too much of ourselves in doing so. We can only describe what we experienced, and in video-games, that experience is always the sum of many parts.
To be fair, it’s much easier to find the seams in some games than others; when lore and dialogue texts are clearly written by separate departments, or when cliche genre sequences are awkwardly shoehorned into triple-A titles, it’s hard not to see a game as simply a bundle of components. My experience with such unfocused projects is generally negative. But games that bring it all together - where sight, sound, and interaction all combine to tell their story in one voice - these are the games that stick with me for years. INSIDE is one such game.
A spiritual successor to 2010’s Limbo, INSIDE is a post-apocalyptic fairy tale explored through linear platforming puzzles. You play the role of a little boy who must evade capture in his quest to penetrate through to the deepest heart of the city. It is hard to reveal much more than that without spoiling the game’s articulate tension and gut-wrenching reveals, but suffice to say I found it impossible to leave my chair until the credits rolled. I’m calling it now: INSIDE is a game that people will discuss for years to come; in its 2-3 hour duration, it does more to advance literature than most wide-release films. There’s no question as to how it won its grant from the Danish Film Institute, mandated to “strengthen computer games as a culture-bearing medium.” The game bleakly pits individual freedom against collective efficiency at various orders of magnitude, manifesting in the minor epiphanies of the puzzles themselves. All at once, the game unpacks tensions about the Holocaust, corporate expansion, class division, and free will in post-industrial society - all without uttering a word of language.
In other games I might balk at a lack of so-called “content.” You perform no task in this game more consistently than holding down the RIGHT key. But the character and feel of INSIDE is refined to the point of permeating everything, from the gentle bob of the sidescrolling camera, to the clip-clop of the little boy’s shoes, to the washed-out pastels of the Nordic forest, such that it’s difficult to focus on such trivial shortcomings as a “lack of content.” This is what comes of committing 6 years of development to 3 hours of gameplay. Truly, this is game as story.
I will be exploring much more of the underbelly of INSIDE’s meaning and themes in the coming weeks - but for the time being, please accept this introduction as my enthusiastic request that you go and play it.
INSIDE: Modern suffering writ gorgeous in a 2D puzzle platformer. Available on XBox One and Steam. A 3-hour story with a secret ending.