Written by the wonderful Drew Beyer // Uploaded and Edited by Andrew Busch
(Note: the following contains minor spoilers for Playdead’s Inside- I tried to not spoil anything, but it’s hard to talk about a story without giving things away)
It’s so late at night some might say it’s early in the morning. My friends Andrew, Ian and I run through a labyrinth of metal and machinery terrified, desperately trying to escape the strange men who hunt us for reasons we cannot understand, only imagine. We’ve narrowly escaped getting shot, drowned, mauled by dogs, crushed by gears, and being dragged to the depths of ink-black water by a strange mer-boy. As long as we can run, we’re alive. As long as we’re alive, freedom seems like a possibility, no matter how distant.
Except we’re simultaneously completely safe. In reality, the three of us sit around a 32-inch LCD TV somewhere around North Center in Chicago, eagerly watching Ian play through Playhead’s newest small-child-in-a-cruel-uncaring world simulator, Inside. The three of us all meld into a small boy with a red shirt, lost and alone in a world that wants nothing more than to end our life. That’s the only context the game gives us. We don’t know why we’re running, or what we’re running from, only that to not run equals gruesome death.
Because of this, Inside quickly becomes a masterclass in interactive storytelling, effectively communicating everything the three of us needed to know in order to deeply invest in our character and his journey despite never hearing him speak or even knowing his name. He’s just “the boy” to us, but he’s our boy and so we feel as if we’ve personally failed with each new detailed death animation we stumble upon. Inside provides practically zero context- the only thing that separates our boy from the legion of other humans that populate the world of Inside is a red shirt, but the genius is that’s all we need. The red shirt clearly indicates that the boy is special, he’s our boy, our avatar in this world that seems only superficially like our own.
We have just as little context for his plight, as well. We slide down a hill and immediately start running right because there’s nothing else to be done- the boy can’t go back the way he came, and nothing happens if we stand still, so moving right must be the correct option. Shortly thereafter, we come across men dressed in what looks like riot gear, with lights and dogs. We don’t yet know what will happen if the men catch us, but we also have no desire to find out. Nothing in the game tells us that the men are our enemies- there’s no dialogue, no sign, no warning- but we nevertheless agree that we shouldn’t get caught in the light.
But we do. Ian’s not careless- Playdead changes the rules. We keep running right, waiting for the lights to pass until we come across a long straight stretch of terrain. We drop down to it and try to book it across. Our boy runs as fast as his little legs can carry him, trying to outrun whatever fresh horror waits for us- only to get caught in the lights of a van in the background. We freeze. We’ve been seen. We keep running- and get shot. We watch our boy die, all of fears about the men suddenly becoming horrifically real. We no longer have a fear. We have a problem, a problem to solve. We can’t outrun the van, and the van means death. We reach the straight stretch again, and notice a little alcove to the left of where we drop down to the straight stretch, so we hide. The van passes. We learn.
All of this happens within the first five minutes of the game, devoid of any expository dialogue or even one of those fancy audio logs that are all the rage these days. We understand everything we need to understand about the world and our relationship to it because of the mechanics of the game itself. The men kill us when they catch us, and while the game provides no rationale, our trio wastes no time brainstorming one. We invent context for why the men want us dead, coming up with a series of explanations for why we’re running each more terrifying than the last, filling in the lacuna provided by the game. We invest in our boy’s plight because we are actively co-authoring the game along with Playdead.
The power of Inside’s storytelling comes from Playdead’s absolute trust in the principle of “show, don’t tell,” taking it a step further into the territory of “do, don’t show.” Inside dictates nothing to the player, never taking control away in order to make a point. If Ian had played the game perfectly, we would never see the men brutalize the boy. We’d miss a major dimension of Inside’s story- but we don’t, because Playdead is savvy enough to change the rules at the opportune moment.
Each member of our merry trio fixates on a different element of Inside’s world. I focus my energy on the brain-dead other people we find. We keep amassing armies of “boys” to help us solve puzzles, which our boy controls through a strange mind control helmet. Again, the developers never explain the helmet. There’s no text, no arrow that introduces it, just a puzzle that can’t be solved into you jump into a helmet and learn that it gives you the power to control other people. Potential explanations and implications swim through my head as we play- does our red shirt mean we’re special and can use the helmet? Are we escaping whatever process turns people into these mindless drones? All possible answers to a question Playdead poses through their game mechanics.
Ian finds solace in a small submarine, commandeered by our boy in our ever-evolving crusade to go right. We’re not even sure what going right entails- we’re motivated by limited options instead of a concrete goal. Ian needs the sub to move right, so he steals it, but what starts as a means of advancement transforms into a personal attachment. Ian revels in the freedom provided by the sub, marveling as he breaks through decaying walls into massive, hollow chambers. Beneath the water, Ian relaxes and allows himself to slow down, enjoying the pace of the sub accompanied by some calming piano. But soon enough, we find dry land to our right, and Ian gives up his sub without minimal hesitation. Nothing tells him he must other than the promise of moving right. That’s the rule. Right means new developments in what might be a narrative. Right means puzzles. Right means continuing to experience the journey of the boy.
Andrew’s fascination is perhaps the most unusual. Eventually, our boy stumbles onto a mer-boy in the murky depths of the submerged hulk. Andrew immediately takes a shine to the boy- and then he viciously murders us, drowning our boy in the black water. Yet Andrew does not view the boy as just another problem- in his mind, the mer-boy is looking for a friend. The mechanics of the game dictate that the mer-boy is the newest iteration of our obstacle against moving right, but Andrew interprets the boy’s action differently. There’s no dialogue, no suggestion of a sympathetic backstory. Andrew characterizes the mer-boy because he wants to, not because the game tried to. Every time the mer-boy appears, Andrew gets excited. He invests in the mer-boy, even though on an objective level the mer-boy is an obstacle rather than a character.
Perhaps the most crystal-clear example of the power of this style of storytelling came near the end of the game, after a wonderful twist, which really must be experienced instead of described. Mostly because you’d probably not believe me if I told you. We open a hatch in what we think is the heart of the complex we’ve been delving into, and flames greet us. We’ve found a massive incinerator, belching flame from the heart of this great machine.
All three of us let out an audible gasp. Is this the end? Do our travails end with us feeding ourselves to the fire for purposes unknown? To what end? To power the machine? To escape the men?
Turns out we’d be right if we weren’t so wrong. The incinerator is actually a means by which to solve a puzzle, but all three of us genuinely believed we were about to watch the boy we’d struggled so hard to keep alive burn to death. We’re utterly wrong about the importance of the incinerator, but we respond viscerally to the idea despite not discussing it at all. We didn’t have to say anything to one another- we call came to the same assumption at the same exact moment. I’m not sure Playdead intends for their audience to interpret the incinerator in the way we did, but that doesn’t change the fact it was a masterful example of the power of interactive storytelling. We interpret the facts Inside gives us in completely the wrong way, but we share a powerful moment of emotional connection nevertheless. Ian, Andrew, and I still talk about how we felt thinking we were about to sacrifice the boy weeks later.
We invest heavily in our boy and his adventure because Inside invites us to co-create the story, providing a skeleton through game mechanics and imagery which we flesh out. Inside tells an evocative story by letting the player interpret the mechanics as they wish. It is entirely possible to play and enjoy Inside on a purely mechanical level, completing the puzzles for their own sake and finding the secrets to get the trophies. At it’s heart Inside is a masterpiece of game design, a brilliant puzzle-platformer enhanced by the player’s investment in they story they tell themselves through the mechanics. Playdead wisely refuses to force their narrative on a player, instead leaving the story up to interpretation and focusing on the interactive nature of their medium. Like an excellent poem, Inside holds up perfectly well when taken as a purely aesthetic experience, but leaves itself open for deeper interpretation if the player decides they want a narrative experience as well as a mechanical one.