Inside and it's Parallels to Game Development [Spoilers for Inside and the Secret Ending]
By jazzylament 6 Comments
The following will contain spoilers for Playdead's Inside and it's secret ending.
While much can be said for the surface level narrative of Inside, I have become more engrossed in a theory that Inside is in fact reflective of game development as a whole. This notion was ignited after viewing the secret ending, where it is that the boy is being controlled from the very beginning. The secret ending is pretty clear that without the machine hooked up to those monitors, the boy goes limp and inert. To me, this breaks the theory that the blob is controlling the boy.
The One Who is in Control
So in that case, what is the machine?
I believe it's us, the players. It's small machine hooked up to a few monitors, in a small room. It's not a hulking monstrosity, and it's got multiple cables, as if it is controlling multiple characters. The fact that it's necessary to collect everything in the game and then solve a very niche puzzle in order to even see the ending rationalizes it too. Once we are done with a game, 100%, all that's left is for us to unplug and move on. The cleanest evidence however is the most simple one:
We know the machine controls the boy, and we are the ones controlling the boy. The machine controls the boy, therefore we are the machine.
Beginning with this discovery, we can then go back to the beginning and see how elements of game development surface in various moments throughout Inside.
The Forest of Pre-Production
When making a sequel, or pseudo-sequel we see games fall back on existing mechanics, and then iterate and build upon these mechanics, rather than starting from scratch. It is not by accident that both Limbo and Inside start in a forest, and share similar mechanics. The first puzzle one solves within in inside, is the same as the one in Limbo. Walk right, drag an object, climb up and over an obstacle. This is the beginning of formalizing the new experience that Inside will create that will set itself apart from Limbo. Note that in these early portions, the prevailing theme is one of a hunt, or a search, where the masked men use flashlights and dogs to hunt down the boy. This I believe is meant to evoke the search of ideas and concepts that make up the Pre-Production cycle of development.
By the time the boy reaches the barn, we have already seen a few sequences that have set Inside apart from Limbo. We make a long descent into a lake, but there is no boat for us, but an introduction to an important mechanic in Inside, swimming. Similarly, the encounter with the possessed pig recalls the parasites in Limbo which forced movement, and the evasion and baiting strategies record for negotiating the encounters with the large spider. The pig is even defeated with a similar technique: grabbing onto it's weak point, and pulling, until it is ripped out. Yet, Inside immediately uses this as a literal stepping stone (the pig being the stone) to unveil another new mechanic: the mind control helmet.
The chicks that begin swarming around the boy once he passes the cornfield before this sequence could represent the birth of these new ideas and concepts. This is most telling when they are actually used in puzzle, sucked up into a machine and used topple another stepping stone for the boy. Conceptually, this embodies the gathering of ideas, organizing them, and utilizing them to fulfill a set goal.
Moving past the wide outdoor environments, further into the constrained factories and research centre, elements of core development and showcasing surface. Another early sequence where the boy falls into the line up of drones and has to jump and spin to keep up the guise could refer to per-release game previews. The several people watching this performance this are the many people who are watching the game and evaluating the performance. It's important to note, that these people are also masked and anonymous, similar to how internet and twitch viewers are. The fact that you are so harshly punished for not performing to spec represents the severe performance anxiety that can come of showing off the game to such an audience. Another key point is that the boy is not welcome here, he has not been assimilated into the game yet, and is considered again to an outlier and promptly removed from the stage if he does not perform correctly.
What part then do aquatic monsters and submarines play, for example? Are they representative of the period where games go quiet, while everyone is hard at work and play testers are picking apart the work? This would be a likely interpretation, as the puzzle solving elements of dealing with the creature does invoke methods of playtesting, namely repetition, trial and error, and AI manipulation. Additionally, while in the submarine, the mechanic of breaking through barriers is frequently used an repeated. This is not unlike the sensation during development when milestones are reached, mechanics are implemented, and other 'breakthroughs' are reached. Sometimes, during this work, developers will surface briefly, unveiling a portion of the game before promptly submerging into their work. And what of the new life the aquatic creature gives the boy? A spur of inspiration? The drive developers feel to inject new life into the game during troubled development? Perhaps. These are the elements I am most unclear on.
Of Blobs and Devs
At last, finally, we reach the "dark project" itself (the blob). I believe that this is in fact, the game itself. All the researchers are the people that invested in and developed the game, shaping it and forming it. The game is portrayed as a human blobby mess because, well, that's what making a game feels like sometimes. So many people collaborating together, all these different pieces coming together that it is a miracle that it all sticks together, and actually works surprisingly well together. Everyone has role and needs to be flexible to adapt to shifting conditions.
Eventually, the game is released, and the developers lose control, and it's free to go into the hands of people. Sometimes the devs step in and help it get where needs to go, opening a door, or a hatch, but for the most part, it's on it's own, now in the hands of the player. After a rocky launch, it's out in the world, ready to be absorbed and contemplated. This is why there are so many people simply watching; so many people had their eye on this game, and now more than ever, more people are watching games as well as (or rather than) playing them.
The Sacrificial Lamb
I thought it very interesting that the CEO of the corporation in the game stands in front of the blob and the window. He seems afraid of it, but he doesn't move, and also cushions the landing, sacrificing himself. This could represent either a cathartic moment with regards to publishers, or representative of how indie CEO's put a lot on the line supporting a game, and unlike the employees, can't run away from a project they have created.
A Look Inside
Contextualizing the game in this manner, the game comes together as a rather cohesive package as an allegory to the anxieties regarding game development. A game project is not an easy thing to wrap ones mind around, and I feel that Inside manages to capture the darker emotions that developers experience during a project. In this view, the title is instantly rationalized as well. There is a particular detail that sufficiently gives the game it's thesis as soon as it is launched. It's not simply Inside, but "Playdead's Inside".
And Playdead's Inside is exactly that.
Author's Note: Thank you for taking the time to read through my theories! I'm still in the process of piecing together the different elements of this fascinating game (what about the big pulse on the bridge? Marketing perhaps?), and will likely be updating this blog as I uncover more. I'd love to hear more from others on viewing the game under this lens.