[Originally published June 30, 2016]
Playdead is very much like the games they make – quiet, intentioned, and driven. Their last 6 years have gone towards the creation of Inside – the follow up to 2010’s Limbo. It’s an extraordinary title; I have quite a few things to say about it, but they all require spoiling large parts of the game. This is your one and only warning: this is a Spoiler Review.
With Inside, Playdead breaks out of the realm of 2D. For any other studio, this might not mean much, but the added dimension lends itself well to Playdead’s unique brand of haunted world building. Inside is a game of foregrounds and backgrounds – visual cues bouncing back and forth, each informing the other. You still move on a flat plain – a binary of left and right – but the kinetics of the world stretch far beyond the brief glimpses afforded to you. It’s not much, but what’s there is profoundly Marxist – industrial anxieties, organizational theory, an enslaved working class, etc. Inside is a visual representation of Marxist thought – the narrative progressing from one idea to the next, in what may be video games’ greatest retelling of Marx’s writings.
The game begins by a farm, with masked assailants – later revealed to be this world’s bourgeoisie – rounding up the proletariat to be enslaved – literally, mind controlled – by the industrial structure of the city. It’s clear from the starting point that the proletariat are farmers, living in small, spread out communities – evidenced by the long country roads, and, well, literal barn. This is where Marx begins – much of his earliest writings concern themselves with the organizational living patterns of human beings, and how these patterns influence behavior/trade/economics. It’s rather dull stuff, but – fortunately – it’s not where Inside invests much of its visual real estate.
Your avatar – a boy in a communist-red shirt – passes by a farm destroyed by the grotesqueries of industry. Bloated, misshapen pig corpses rot in the mud, poisoned and polluted. They’re abnormally large, possessing the uneven girth of artificial hormones – the sign of industry’s demands. This is a Marxist reading of industry with the context of modern history. Marx himself was no anti-industrialist – he saw the industrial revolution as a turning point in solving the problems of class, as it resulted in the creation of the proletariat class. Unfortunately, we now know that – undeniably – industry has entrenched the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in their respective groups, and actively hinders the solutions to class. Inside expresses this belief through no subtle means.
The proletariat of Inside’s world – construction workers, miners, etc. – are turned into brainless hive-mind zombies. They’re not hungry for flesh, but they’ve been so worn down that their lot in life seems concrete. Your Boy plays Marxian Figure, freeing them from their cages, controlling their minds with strange, hypnotic helmets – one of the examples of the games many puzzles. Inside – and Limbo before it – owes its puzzle style entirely to Érich Chahi’s Another World – another side scrolling indie puzzle-platforming with a world-based narrative. Another game about backgrounds and foregrounds. Chahi left a legacy of inconsistent puzzles, striking visuals, and strong 2D storytelling. Inside has inherited parts of all these pieces of Chahi’s legacy.
The puzzles are visual, often physics-based in nature. They are occasionally brutal, and rarely bad. Once or twice, they’re awful, but – for the most part – Inside succeeds as a puzzle-platformer. Its visuals are dull and grey – lacking the colorful vibrancy of Another World – but that’s fine, because it fits the tone at play. Its storytelling is brilliant – clearly – but this is where Inside truly separates itself from Chahi’s seminal work. Another World has a clear narrative, with goals and motivations and characters. These key narrative components are entirely absent from Inside, and that’s part of what makes it so brilliant. It’s a game composed entirely of symbolism.
In addition to the Marxist parallels mentioned previously, the game continues to dazzle with its presentation of Marxist thought in the broad scope of history. At one point, Your Boy – your beautiful, Marxist boy – seemingly drowns, mirroring the period of academic thought when Marx was seemingly dead, irrelevant. Of course, the popularity of Marxian analysis has resurfaced, and so does Boy.
By the way, have I mentioned that there’s no dialogue? That Insidecommunicates all of these extremely specific parallels purely through the gameplay and visuals?
I have not. Playdead’s command over this visual medium is astounding. It is visionary. Please purchase this game so that they may continue to dazzle us with their prowess.
The game’s climax is more of a question than anything else. In an upsetting, surreal turn, Boy becomes sucked into one of the bourgeoisie’s sick experiments – a gargantuan, undulating, Kronenbergian conglomerate of meat, flesh, and limbs – emanating moans of perpetual agony. I think there’s a lot of ways to interpret this – it could be a reductive metaphor for the exploitation of the proletariat at the hands of the bourgeoisie. It could be a representation of surplus capital – a high-concept mass that serves little, if any, purpose, and ultimately harms the proletariat. Maybe it’s just a statement on the horrors of Capitalism.
The list goes on.
Continuing with the ‘Marx Figure’ trajectory, your presence within said conglomerate allows for its escape. From here on out, the game turns into a delightfully fun monster movie – Godzilla v. Hedorah, but minus Godzilla. Your creature takes a tumble, and the game’s final seconds ponder over the possibly lifeless form that lies before you. Like I said – a question. Is this an escape? What was the cost? Like so many other parts of the game, Inside leaves its ending up to its players.
I’ll freely admit that I’ve been a bit dramatic in my characterizations of capitalism, though I would identify my rhetoric’s tone as a symptom of one of the most vicious Marxist critiques I’ve seen in gaming. It’s veryheavy handed, but it’s refreshing to see a symbolic critique that’s so well considered. Gaming has always loved to play David to Capitalism’s Goliath – we’re the underdogs, fighting against the exploitative evils of capitalism– when, of course, Gaming is Goliath. That’s why our freedom fighters look like, well, this guy:
Inside is a fun, occasionally frustrating puzzle-platformer, but it’s going to be remembered as a triumph of visual thought – a simple game elevated by its knack for implied narrative. The Marxian invocations don’t hurt either. I wouldn’t consider this ‘reading too deep,’ especially in the face of its deeply Marxist iconography. It’s a high-falootin’ indie game about a boy in Red fighting against the Industrial Exploitation of a Proletariat Class at the hands of The Bourgeoisie. It doesn’t get more Marx than that.
Now, I’m going to do something that I hate – but that I find necessary in this circumstance – which is pull a complete 180 and tell you now, so close to the finish, that this game probably isn’t about Marx at all. It’s not about any one thing, really. Though it’s visuals and themes are clearly inspired by Marx – and thus lend themselves to a Marxist reading – this is a narrative of many pieces. Like it’s fleshy conglomorate, it’s a collection of dozens of interpretations and themes, each informing the other. My views are just one part of the greater, globular picture.