My friend Matt and I were discussing the meaning of Inside, Playdead’s atmospheric puzzle game. Like its predecessor, Limbo, Inside is a masterclass of subtle storytelling in games. There’s no dialogue or narration: the story progresses via ambience, stunning design, and menace. The player is trusted to form their own narrative interpretation. For example, initially, I thought the boy in red was running to escape a cruel Orwellian environment. Imagine my surprise when the boy, having infiltrated a laboratory, dives into an armoured chamber to free a living mass of human body parts. Then that same lumpen mass absorbs the boy and now I’m controlling a raging tower of flesh known affectionately on the internet as the ‘blob monster’. My wife was not best pleased when she returned to the room to find the plucky young lad replaced by an angry ball of limbs. “Mark, you unstick those people right now,” she said. Easier said than done.
So after the raging blob trashed the scientific complex, escaped through a wall and tumbled down a ravine to lie motionless beside a sunlit river, we were all left with a question. What the proverbial was that all about?
At first, I thought the boy might have been trying to free his parents who may have been part of the experiment… but there’s no evidence to suggest that. I couldn’t believe there would be enough emotional motivation for him to risk his life for a principled stance against bioengineering.
Like Limbo, the game feels heavily allegorical and we can’t read it purely at face value. Is it possible that the game actually represents a psychological journey? The boy in red was an archetype in a human psyche, perhaps on a quest to liberate some buried part of itself. The raging ball of humans works well as a symbol of the archaic, animalistic parts of the human mind. The boy perseveres through great odds with focus through many trials. He connects with this buried anger, allows it to break out of the prison that has been created around it. All of its pent up rage is felt and expressed as it trashes the dilapidated, fascistic world that has created and contained it. Eventually, its energy released, it settles beside the river in tranquil sunshine.
Of course, we can interpret any heroic quest as a psychological journey but perhaps the title of the game, Inside, may be a special encouragement to do so here. I haven’t seen the secret ending, which may give the story a different spin. Certainly the theme of control raises an interesting question. The boy controls lobotomised slaves via the brain-hat-thing, we control the boy via the joypad… who controls us!? Perhaps the blob monsters buried deep within our own psyches! I’ll leave you with that chilling thought.