INSIDE - Nothing Means Everything
Ambiguity is a strong tool, when it's used correctly. It's frustrating for me to see writers often rely on it as a crutch to get out of thinking, or to put it less bluntly, defining their subtext, rhetoric, or meaning. It's important to understand the difference between being ambiguous, and being obtuse. Being ambiguous is not the easy way out; when thought of correctly, ambiguity is much harder to pull off. Ambiguity requires the writer to be aware of all the different ways a moment can be read, and to ensure that every other moment in the narrative is in place for that interpretation to be correct.
There's a television show that I recommend a lot. It's called The Leftovers. Seriously, watch The Leftovers. To sell it, I use a subplot from the second episode of the first season. Using the show's elevator pitch - one day, 2% of the world's population vanishes and we pick up three years later - as a springboard, I detail a day in the life of Mapleton sheriff, Kevin Garvey. He's having a bad day, and is toasting a bagel in the police station kitchen. It rolls slowly to the back of the conveyor belt, and begins to tip off so that it may drop to the bottom belt and pop out ready to eat. Except that it doesn't roll out. Kevin notices this, but is too busy continuing the argument he's having with the Mapleton mayor to seriously address the missing pastry.
This same mayor, he encounters later in the day (after the bad day continues to be bad) at the psychiatric hospital his father is staying at. As they pass, he asks if she took his bagel, before dismissing the question. His conversation with his dad goes worse than everything that came before. While he initially appears stable, he eventually succumbs to abusing the inaudible voices whispering to him every second of the day. This is especially traumatic for Kevin, who appears to be exhibiting some similar symptoms to his father's condition.
Unsure of how to proceed, but with the knowledge that maybe just one of the inordinate amount of mysteries at his feet can be solved, he stops at home in the early hours of the morning to grab his tool bag and storms into the police station kitchen. He tears the toaster out of the wall and slams it on the table. He furiously but meticulously pulls each screw out of the machine's back panel, and throws it to the floor. He reaches his hand deep inside the machinery, fumbling frantically for something, anything, to give him even the smallest, slightest sliver of hope. His hand stops moving. His eyes twitch. His hand recedes from the toaster to show the charred black pastry, completely intact. With no mystery left to solve, Kevin slumps back in his chair and stares at the wall.
Holy shit, did that moment destroy me. This is a world where if your keys go missing, there has to be a part of you left wondering if those keys are ever coming back. This is a world where people are grieving 140 million people they're not even sure are gone. How can you process loss when you may not have actually lost? To me, that's what the bagel represented, and it was everything. To you, it may just be a bagel, and it is nothing. What's important is that we're both right.
People often balk when I recommend The Leftovers with the above pitch, because it sounds too much like Lost. It becomes harder for me to convince them when I add that Lost's Damon Lindelof is the co-creator of The Leftovers. But the core difference between those two shows is the core difference between obtuseness and ambiguity. Lost often felt like information was being withheld from you because the show was unsure of what it meant. The Leftovers is full of meaning; it just isn't willing to tell you if you're wrong. Your powers of semiotic inference are crucial to your enjoyment of the show, not only because the show doesn't show its hand, but because it's simultaneously been designed to confirm every one of your crackpot theories. What matters most is that you have a theory.
My brow was permanently furrowed throughout Playdead's Inside. From the moment it began, I was trying to solve a mystery through symbology alone, as it's a game almost entirely without words. Gnawing at the back of my mind was the thought that maybe the mystery wasn't looking to be solved, or that perhaps it wasn't a mystery at all, but that would routinely be quashed by the new puzzling little detail presented to me. Over its duration, I was left wondering if it was a dissection of the idea of a messiah, a scathing critique of martyrdom, a promise that fascism will eventually be thwarted by the oppressed, a rallying cry for revolution, a meditation on control through a corporate consumerist lens, a meditation on control through a gameplay and player lens, or a series of questions about what it means to be alive. I'm still left wondering. A part of me thinks it might be all of them.
There's a puzzle in the game's second half that required me to push a crate off a ledge to a ground too far beneath me to see. It was nothing out of the ordinary for a puzzle platformer. The contents of the crate weren't unfamiliar to me, either: a collection of grey humanoids that I had previously seen out the front of the humongous industrial complex I was now working my way through, parading uniformly in front of, I presume, prospective buyers and their families. I'd also experienced another facet of their capabilities with the illuminated helmets I could don in some parts of the facility to control them. My legs, suspended above the ground based on where the helmet hung, would swing back and forth as the humanoids obeyed wordlessly, shambling in whatever direction I was flailing in above. Their limbs moved strangely, as if there were electric pulses jolting their bodies in a series of directions, instead of bones and muscles. When deactivated, or when I wasn't wearing the helmet, they would either stand comically slouched, as if their spines had a dramatic, unnatural curve, or they would crumple to the floor, as if they were deflated.
These grey humanoids were in the crate. I didn't want to push it off the ledge. To me, the game had yet to make a strong enough case that they weren't, in fact, human. Foolishly, for a second, I allowed myself to believe this was the first time the game was asking me to be violent towards them, as if controlling their actions was anything other than perverse, invasive violence. It wasn't even the first time the game had asked me to enact physical violence, as I'd previously used a piece of machinery in a barn to suck a group of baby chicks into the bale of hay I needed to progress. All but one of those chicks survived; a little yellow blob laying motionless as the others gathered around me, cheeping incessantly, oblivious or unfeeling towards what I'd just done to them. The game, too, exuded an air of apathy towards my actions. No music cues, or cutscenes, or unique camera movement accompanied my deed. It was expected that I would continue on, now that the road ahead was clear, so what was I waiting for?
I didn't want to push the crate off the ledge because I didn't know what would happen to those inside. Symbolically, the game is reinforcing this by leaving me unable to see the floor. For me to envision how far down I would be pushing them, I would have had to have gone to the right, descended the scaffolding I'd climbed to get to this point, and head outside. But even if I'd done that, I wouldn't have been able to see the crate above me. No matter what, there would be a grey area of distance between the object and the objective. I wouldn't know what would happen until I made it happen.
I pushed the crate. There was a pause - an eternity in my mind - before I heard it connect with the ground and crack open. I knew, based on that length of time, this was a drop I could not make myself and survive. To see the consequences of my deed, I would need to journey back the way that I came. Through that journey, I was consumed with anxiety over what I'd done. Was it murder if, as far as I knew, they weren't sentient? If I put a hole in a jellyfish, is it considered cruelty? This feeling was magnified by my assumption that, like every other morally questionable action I'd taken part in up to this point, the game would not pass judgement on me. It would expect me to keep going, now that the puzzle was solved.
The humanoids were fine. It seemed they were somewhat invulnerable. As I emerged from the entrance to the construction site, they were picking themselves up off the ground. Prior to entering this area, I'd managed to break one of the mechanisms holding up a mind control helmet, which had not malfunctioned upon being severed. This meant that I did not need to be suspended in the air in order to control the humanoids. Instead, they would gather around and move with me, as they proceeded to do. Lost in the huddle, two smaller legs and brief flashes of a red shirt amongst a sea of blobby grey, I didn't see the single casualty of my deed until we were moving to leave. One of the humanoids clearly found themselves at an awkward position at the point of impact. Busted and broken, they lay in a heap at the foot of the crate. I paused, and considered, the implications of this, but like the chick, the game was left wondering why I wasn't moving. Was there something wrong? I couldn't answer.
We started to move away, myself resigned to continuing to feel like a terrible person unable to articulate why, when the busted body moved. I stopped and observed, as the humanoid used every bit of strength in the parts of its anatomy that weren't pulverised to catch up to myself and the group. This was now a different situation to the chick. Something was happening. It was here that I was reminded of the reason I was gathering all of these humanoids in the first place, which was to get a certain number of them, dictated by an above digital display, onto a weight that would open a path to the next area of the game. Was this broken body a necessary object for that conclusion? If so, how was I going to get it there? The other humanoids made no motion to help their fallen comrade. My attempts to grab and drag the body like the innumerable crates before it also proved fruitless.
In the end, the position this body would have filled was filled by myself. The broken body was far away at this point. It moved too slowly for my patience. It may have gotten caught on something it couldn't crawl over. It may be caught on that ledge, forever wriggling and convulsing lazily, trying to reach me for the sole reason that I was wearing a helmet it was drawn to. I didn't care anymore. I'd done what I needed to do, and the game was beckoning me forward. The other humanoids didn't follow me. They'd served their purpose. I didn't need them anymore. I hopped up and out, leaving them behind. Perhaps forever.
Should I have been so callous and unfeeling towards something that only mere moments ago I was considering the implications of potentially destroying? You play the game and tell me, buddy. As far as I've been made aware, these things don't exist without someone to control them. Even during the aforementioned parade sequence, I was within this facility. It's not outside of reason to believe they were using the same technology I was currently using to activate and control the humanoids as they marched in perfect unison. There was likely a person in business attire, behind a wall, in a cubicle, staring at a monitor, suspended above the ground, swinging their limbs uniformly to put on a show to the oblivious consumers. If I don't cry when I get a new desk lamp and chuck the busted one in the bin, why should I cry if one of the machines has broken, or if a whole mess of machines have lost their purpose? Why should they matter if their only purpose is to be controlled?
During this moment, this was not a quandary I experienced for the character that I was playing as, for obvious reasons. The small child experienced emotion for one, panting heavily as the danger got closer and they grew more exhausted. The small child was the subject of great attention to anyone who came within their path, either as something to gather around or as something to capture or kill. The small child wore a red shirt, something no other character in the game did. The small child clearly existed independently, and existed for a purpose higher than mere control.
At least, that's what you're led to believe before you meet the giant flesh monster. You move right for the majority of this game. It's a standard platformer like that. You're situated on the left, and the camera frames you as such, meaning that there's a whole lot of what could be on the right. So, you move right. Eventually, you reach a part of the game that appears to be the everyday area for employees of this facility. Prior, you were moving through environments either still in construction or totally abandoned, in some cases flooded. Here, machinery is operational and people appear to be working. Or, at least, they were moments ago. Now, they're running, to the right. They're falling over themselves, sprinting past the empty chairs set up in front of various glass boxes showcasing what appear to be the biological experiments you'd observed in prior rooms. Some of the people appear panicked. One runs right past you, and for the first time in the game, doesn't attempt to capture you. They just keep running.
You eventually find what it is they're running towards. It's a big tank, filled with water. Like sardines in a tin, the employees of the facility huddle around the glass perimeter of the tank, staring in silence. You can do the same. As you cut through the crowd, one of the employees stares down at you, for a little too long. Clearly, this person knows you, or of you. But whatever is happening in that tank is too damn interesting, and their gaze eventually falls back to the water. Try as you might, and though the child can presumably see the tank's contents, you the player cannot. That's because you're not supposed to. The noun of the sentence matters not, for the verb is all. To it, you must go.
Eventually, you find yourself above, around, under and into the tank. What's inside is arguably more disturbing and actually Lovecraftian than all of the faux-Lovecraftian beasties you were dreaming of during your journey. What awaits you in the tank is a pink, gooey, oval-shaped blob, with hands, arms, legs, and feet - too many to count - poking out in every direction: a giant flesh monster. There are four cables plugged into the giant flesh monster, which bear a resemblance to the technology you'd used to control the humanoids. Wordlessly, you know that they must be removed. Removing one of them triggers a sonic wave that sheds you of your clothes. Removing the final one triggers the giant flesh monster to absorb you into itself. And then, using the full potential of your combined strength, you shatter the glass of the tank, sending glass, water, and onlookers flying. And you move left.
You will never see the child again for the remainder of the game. You will never know if the child died upon being absorbed, or if the child is now in dominant control of the giant flesh monster. At this point in time, there is only one more thing about the child you can mentally chew on: up until absorption - perhaps even still - the child may have been under the control of the giant flesh monster. You start the game by sliding down a rock wall you cannot climb back up. You're in a relative state of safety here, and yet you continue to move right. There are ample other locations presented to you in the background of the game that you are unable to pursue, for they are not to the direct right of the (relatively) straight line you're following. What’s more, this path is not a logical one, if you consider your surroundings. You are not travelling a well-worn path - often you are carving your own - and yet you move with purpose. When you reach the giant flesh monster, that's the end of the line. That's the flag sticking out of the ground to let you know you've made it to your destination. And yet the child doesn't reflect pensively on their journey to liberate the giant flesh monster from its prison at any point of the game. The child just moves right, because the child is following orders. And now that the destination has been reached, you're left wondering who it is that you're now playing as.
"A-ha!" I hear you cry. "But I the player am in control of the child. Regardless of whether the story says that the giant flesh monster controlled the child, it is I who led them there! It is I who is, and always will be, in control."
A fair observation, but if that were so, why do you feel so empty as the credits roll? After you've been through the emotional roller coaster of wreaking havoc on the facility and the people that bore these monstrosities, after you've allowed yourself to believe that a select few of them were aiding your liberation only to attempt to trap you, after breaking through the last wall, rolling down the hillside, slamming through trees and rocks like an unstoppable juggernaut, only to come to a stop mere inches away from the water's edge, the ocean symbolising escape, symbolising freedom, why do you feel so unsatisfied? Like this isn't fair?
It's because if you really were in control, you would have made it. You wouldn't have accepted just shy of your mark. You would have considered the energy it would have required to muster your battered and broken body those few inches more over the line as an acceptable price to pay for the result. You didn't, though. You didn't because you were being controlled, and the thing controlling you had decided that this is where the journey would end. That is, until the credits have finished rolling and the game starts at the beginning again.
The ambiguity forces you to wonder what it may have all meant, and whether there is any clue you may have missed, or something new awaiting you this go around. It's nigh impossible that you made it through the game without stumbling upon at least one of the secret orbs. Looking kind of like two enlarged mind control helmets fused together, there are a series of orbs throughout the game that you can find and dismantle. You don't really question why. It's a game, of course it has collectibles. As a result, you justify your desire to play the game again immediately as a way to finish rounding up the orbs you'd missed. You're supposed to. After finding every orb, a hatch in the cornfield unlocks. If you descend it, you will find one last spherical orb to disconnect. Doing so appears to deactivate the child, as they fall to the floor in a position identical to all of the humanoids you'd felt justified treating as less than human for the game's entirety.
It is here that the true meaning of your dissatisfaction is made clear. You see, you were not controlling the child. Like the same argument that you made to me that you were the one who led the child to the giant flesh monster, I can now make that the child was the one who led you to the final orb. To the child's own liberation. From control. From you. The child knew you'd get them there if it was gamified. Find all of the orbs! Get the super secret ending! It's so fun! It was nothing but a foil over the real goal of helping this child die, because a life in chains isn't a life worth living. But perhaps this goes further. We've already broken the fourth wall. What if it wasn't the child controlling you, but Playdead? What if they were doing it in tandem? The child can't be that well-versed in player skill atoms, game feel, and architectural design for a virtual environment, no, they must have had help. People who could cover up the goal. People who could turn it into art. Why? That doesn't matter. What matters is that you can now see the strings. So, what are you going to do?
Of course, you don't need to go that far with Inside. You could decide instead to get stuck on the clear import that is placed on the child and thread that needle. Beyond the stark red shirt against a sea of muted blacks, greys, and whites, the game consistently throws up signs and signifiers to suggest that you are different. From the moment the game begins, people in the forest are looking for you. If they catch you, they either shoot you with a dart or choke you out. Eventually, they send out dogs, who tear you to shreds if they reach you. Why are they looking for you?
It may have something to do with your ability to lead. The chicks gather around you, even after you've murdered one of them. The humanoids, granted, only assemble around you once you're wearing the severed helmet, but after the underwater creature finally gets its hands on you outside of your bathysphere, it doesn't kill you as you thought it was trying to do all those times prior. It imbues you with the power to control the humanoids without the helmet. You can now control them just by being around them, except at that point, control may be the wrong verb. At that point, it's more appropriate to say that you're leading them.
Are you, therefore, some sort of messiah figure, out to liberate all that are like you but lack the insight and ability to liberate themselves, before permitting yourself to retire? Was the giant flesh monster your cross, your symbol of pain and love and forgiveness to your creators? Was the time spent hunting and gathering the remaining orbs your three days behind a rock? And was pulling the plug on the final orb your ascension? Your reward for your harrowing journey? Your sweet, eternal slumber, free from pain? Even then, you cannot shake the sensation of control, for even Jesus took orders. He and God may have been different shades of the same colour, but God was still the shade calling the shots.
Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. I probably am. In terms of summing this up neatly, seeking one final clarifying detail, I did, and still do, draw a blank. I don't know what this means. I don't know what it's saying. I only have an idea of what it might be talking about. This all reminds me of a moment I shared with David Lynch. He was present for the opening of a showcase of his work at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, and sat with film critic David Stratton for an hour to discuss his entire body of work. Of course, if you know anything about interviews with David Lynch, this hour was spent with a series of pointed questions followed by a series of hilariously evasive answers. At the end of his filmography, discussing Inland Empire, Stratton asked for Lynch to open up about what the film meant. Lynch attempted to evade the answer as politely as he had up until now, but Stratton wasn't going down without a fight. Pressed to give a little bit more than that, Lynch appeared to flip a switch, and got fucking real for a second. I don't remember this verbatim, so please forgive my paraphrasing. To hear it in person was truly magnificent:
"When I'm dead, which I will be at some point, you won't be able to ask me that question. When I'm dead, there will only be the art. That's forever. The art holds all of the answers, and whatever you think of it when you experience it is the right way to think. If you loved it, you're right. If you hated it, you're right. That's all."
People often mistake Lynch's ambiguity for obtuseness. It's a little hard not to when his cute reflections on his work appear to paint the picture of a man who doesn't put a lot of thought into his creations; a man who is weird and absurd for the sake of weirdness and absurdity. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Lynch injects meaning into every single frame of his work, and he knows every single way that it can be read. He's just putting the work on you to find out which meaning speaks strongest to you. Rest easy, though, for like Lynch says, you'll know most of what it means based on what you feel in the moment. And you cannot forget that feeling, for that is what will drive any deeper digging you choose to do.
What makes Inside work only as a game is that it's all too easy to recognise a Lynch film as obtuse and disengage, for it is, largely, a passive experience (I say that as a games critic, mind you. Were my film critic hat on, I would likely rail against that statement). Inside makes you implicit in its content. Like it or not, if you want to keep going; if you want to keep feeling satisfaction for solving another puzzle that's been superbly polished so that you always try, fuck up, then immediately know what you need to do differently this time; if you just want to know what it all means; you need to push that crate off the ledge. And you need to make the long journey down to the pile of humanoids, and you need to think about the implications of your actions. You need to...but on the other hand, you don't. You can just push the crate and carry on. You can just look at Kevin Garvey's burnt bagel and say, "It got caught in the back of the machine. That's what machines do. It's a bagel. Sort out your priorities; people are missing." You would be right to say so. But so am I.
When it comes to effectively ambiguous experiences, what it is doesn't matter so much as how it makes you feel. The loss in The Leftovers can never be explained, because the show isn't interested in explaining it. Rather, it seeks to turn over the rock and look at all the different ways inexplicable loss can emotionally obliterate the human race -- in this case, the 98% that remain untouched. Similarly, Inside isn't interested in explaining itself, because it would much rather hold itself up as a smudged ink blot and ask what you see. Everything could be nothing. Nothing could be everything. Trust your gut, and it will lead you to the truth. The truth that is right for you.