One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
Dystopias are a dime a dozen these days; dystopias starring children doubly so. INSIDE isn’t the video game version of the latest YA trilogy, though, and its dystopia is decidedly more grim and hopeless even than Katniss’ gladiatorial arena. The game’s world is deadly yet impersonal, its dilapidated rural and industrial backgrounds depict a world that is in its last throes. Yet, strangely, it is also one of the most beautiful video games worlds I’ve ever seen.
INSIDE‘s beauty isn’t the busy, overdesigned aesthetics of so many games; it is sparse, atmospheric, and tactile. There is a grain to the image that belies its artifice, there are motes of dust floating in the light, and water has rarely looked better in the medium. As much as the technical accomplishment, though, INSIDE‘s world comes alive thanks to its mise en scène, which is up there with the most evocative films, yet in its elliptic quality calls back to the stage, though a stage replete in puddles, mud and detritus. Like so many dystopias, this one is decidedly anachronistic in its details: as you navigate the boy in the red sweater past industrial behemoths and foreboding laboratories, you pass the likes of microfilm readers and discarded video tapes. Whatever is killing the game’s world has had a long head start.
While the aesthetic pleasures of INSIDE could work in other media as well, once again it’s the act of navigating the environments by means of someone else’s body that makes this a decidedly different, more intimate experience from watching a film. This is an underdiscussed quality of video games: there is a definite element of empathy to controlling someone else, making the player more acutely aware of that person’s physicality and vulnerability. As you walk the boy from left to right, you flinch when he is spotted and hunted by dogs – and it feels like you’re punched in the gut the first time the boy ends up dead because of you. And there are so many deaths in INSIDE: drowned in a puddle by the henchman of whatever regime tries to maintain control in this world, vaporised by the mysterious blast weapons they are testing, or – most often – falling to your death and landing in a crumpled heap. INSIDE skirts sadism, but the two foremost emotions it and its many deaths evoked in me were pity and fear. Pity for the boy lost and alone, and fear of what else this world holds for me.
As a game, INSIDE is neat but slight, a puzzle-platformer that takes mere hours to finish. As an aesthetic experience, a tour of a dying world, it is unique, gorgeous and insidious. For those few hours, you breathe its dust, you soak up its constant damp, your skin is drained of colour by its pale light. And with every death you fail to avoid, you leave a little something of yourself behind, a trace that you were there once but aren’t any more, like joy and hope and life. INSIDE‘s depressing beauty is considerable, but is one that is firmly set in the past tense.