What Playdead’s INSIDE is about is open to interpretation. One of the things I think it is about is the drive toward totalitarian control (of individual beings and groups and classes and even of life itself as a biological phenomenon). Without uttering a word INSIDE gets at the most despicable trends in advanced civilization. An ambitious and successful undertaking. Playdead offer not only an evocative but also plausible depiction. You can easily imagine this stuff happening soon enough if you put your mind to it.
But what is really disquieting is that this trend is reflected in the drive toward mastery which Playdead are close to achieving over the material they put together and called INSIDE. They aim to control the substance with which they work in a totalitarian fashion. I love minimalism and a less is more approach but with them it’s so tightly wound it feels morbid and bizarre.
But there is hope because Playdead also mess up in a major way near the game’s very end.
There’s too endings to INSIDE: the standard ending and the secret ending that is hard to get to. A few months ago I finished the game with the former. I thought to myself OK, this is what I get, it’s not a good or bad ending, it’s just understated. But it’s in fact more than that. Or less than that. It’s not enough to top off what comes before it.
Even given the game’s obsession with control and restraint, the ending comes after a pretty crazy and dynamic finale and kills that finale’s pacing. I’m sure that this was intentional, like most anything in INSIDE. Thing is it just was not very good.
A few days ago I replayed the whole game and worked to get the alternative ending. I was hoping for it to satisfy and offer some closure. Boy was I naive. First Playdead had me work hard in all the wrong ways.
INSIDE does not only challenge you to disconnect all of the yellow cable thingies to get that ending but also work out some details of codewords and so on that will require you to jump around already completed puzzles by loading levels anew and taking yourself out of the game to some kind of meta level. It was a chore that went against the otherwise very good rhythm of the game. It threw me in the headspace for hoarding–something completely absent from Limbo, Playdead’s previous title.
Not cool. I mean I get what Playdead were trying to do now, but I still dont value it too highly. We are supposed to remember we are playing a video game. Relax Playdead, I never forgot I was.
When the alternative ending happened and effectively kicked me out of the game in a sense, the game returned you to the very beginning and this muddled the message of the ending. The situation became so confusing that I actually didnt believe the meta-commentary that that ending constituted was it. I thought there was more so I played the game from the spot where you disconnect the final yellow cable thingy to the very end, only to get the standard ending again. Then I thought something would come after the credits rolled. Nothing did. I missed the point and only realized what it was as I looked for it again and reflected back on it later. It is bad when a point like that gets lost. Players have notoriously complained about this and with good reason.
I think INSIDE had Playdead try and be too smart for both their own good and that of their otherwise neat game.
There is also the problem already pointed out by one of the heads at Frictional Games, the folks behind SOMA and Amnesia. This problem is a deep one and has to do with the very logic of the gameplay at the heart of both Limbo and INSIDE. It’s that they make you learn through dying. In fact the games are notorious for the many deaths you’ll experience through your characters over and over again. The problem is that this cheapens the meaning of each one and also therefore of your character’s life. What are you really losing when you die a million deaths only to restart a very recent checkpoint? Really little.
But the crux of the problem for Playdead is that the deaths are inscribed into the core of learning the game. In other words you are expected to die lots before you even figure out the way forward. This is bad in the sense that it makes you learn through dying as opposed to learn so as not to die. This goes against the dynamic of the primal animal experience of all of us. In SOMA and some other titles you feel like your characters’ lives matter and you take really good care not to kill them. By comparison the boy in INSIDE feels expendable by extension of his consecutive lives meaning very little.
I don’t know if Playdead see that as a problem but I think they should. The problem is all the more important in that it is central and not peripheral to the games they make. It’s not cool to be tired of dying.