Inside accomplishes the extraordinary feat of telling a story without dialogue. Through realistically placed puzzles within the context of the game, it doesn’t tell you how to think or feel, but gives you the freedom to explore those things on your own–a complete contrast to the heavy-handed dystopian regime that goes beyond controlling the minds of the locals.
As well-crafted as the narrative is, it’s difficult to interpret, for its experimental–advant-garde, even–style takes us out of the comfort of having every plot point and character detail laid out for us. But, Inside couldn’t be told any other way. In a sense, we will all bring our own narratives to this game that will influence our interpretations; one of my favorite writer-memes has to do with the disparity between analyzing someone else’s work and what the writers actually meant. “The curtains were blue” could symbolize the main character’s depression, or, according to the writer, the same sentence just means the curtains were blue. That’s the risk we take analyzing interpretative works, but it’s not any less fun, and I hope it’s fun for the writers to hear all the crazy theories players have of their game.
SPOILERS AHEAD – Do not read if you have not finished the game.
What Inside does to create its emotional effect is take two hard themes, with differing imagery, and make them appear consistently throughout the entire game: innocence and control.
I couldn’t help but see my character, a boy in black pants and a red shirt, visually similar to the girl in the red coat from the film Schindler’s List, who was a symbol of innocence. While I don’t feel Inside can be directly–or even indirectly–compared to the content of that film, the way in which the boy was hunted by men made me feel the character’s innocence and frantic impulse for survival. Taking cover behind a tree, the scene of people standing motionless inside of a box van reinforces that–someone shuts the door on them, hops in the driver’s seat, and then takes off through the forest. The sound of twigs and dirt grinding under the weight of rubber and steal is a discomfiting moment. Those people are innocent, too–whoever they are, wherever they are going.
Having a child as the main character is the most direct symbolism of innocence in the entire game, and makes it all the more shocking when you die; I was strangled to death the first time, shot the second, and mauled by dogs the third. There are more ways to die than that, but each time can be just as nauseating as the first. Since the game begins with the boy jumping down from a ledge in a heavily wooded area, I assume that he has been trying to escape these people for some time and that the player starts right in the middle of the boy’s story. We don’t know where he came before this or how he managed to escape.
Eventually, you’ll find your way to a factory where there are people marching in synchronization, perfectly spaced, never missing a beat. Who is this regime that wields so much control? Why are they hell-bent on strangling you with their bare hands if they catch you trying to escape? What threat do you pose? It’s natural, compelling even, to search for answers to those questions, however far-fetched our theories take us.
Inside gives no answers, though. Inside those factories, those people are controlled with fear, regardless of how much their minds have been numbed. There are guards in the corner, ready to pump bullets into any one who falls out of line. You–the boy–are being closely monitored by a robotic spotlight that will alert the guards if you do not walk and jump and pivot at the same time as everyone else.
Control is the most heavily pressed-upon theme throughout the game and is represented a few ways. The factories are one way, but another is with the helmets that allow you to take control of the workers–literal, direct mind control. (Anyone else getting A Clockwork Orange vibe?) While these helmets are essential to solving some of the more complex puzzles, it’s an interesting juxtaposition to have the main character struggling to keep control of his situation, yet force him to control others to prolong his survival. “Taking control” is nature of nearly every game mechanic, so to layer an extreme Totalitarian philosophy on top of that kind of makes you feel like a bad person for taking advantage of their predicament. How do you rationalize it? Is it okay because they are a lost cause and you have a chance to get out alive with your free-will intact?
But you get your “savior” moment. After you have passed through the factories, through much of the underwater sections, and made your way to the research facility, you’ll encounter a gross, inhumane experiment: a human blob. Protruding from and going all the way around its fleshy sphere are limbs that have the ability to move independently from one another. It’s suspended in a huge water tank by four large cables that pierce through its peach skin. As you release it from captivity, it sucks you into the middle, making you an indistinguishable part of the human mass. You are now the blob, and you are ready to make your escape, smashing through walls and rolling over anything and everything in your way. You are in control.
The characters in Inside are not individuals, but rather groups of people that represent a collective mentality. The human blob is symbolically no different than the monotone people moving through the factories, and no different than the slumped individuals waiting for you to bring them to life so they can follow you around like chicks to a mama duck. All three represent a different aspect of control and complacency. The warehouse people and the workers seems to be made complacent by the “government’s” mind control tactics. The government will kill the boy if they catch him because they cannot make him complacent.
What throws me for a loop are the creepy, Samara-from-The-Ring-looking water trolls. This is a loose speculation, but perhaps the same research facility that created the human blob created these creatures, but they mutinied and escaped? I’m not sure, but what they remind me of most are mermaids, and mermaids are not–according to folklore–seashell-wearing princesses that want to win the affection of a human man. Merman lore goes back to the Babylonian era, to Ea, God of the Sea (aka Poseidon, aka Neptune), but the earliest image of a mermaid could be the ancient Syrian goddess, Atargatis who watched over the well-being of her people.
But to the Greeks, these mermaids were sirens (part bird, human, and fish) who lured sailors to their deaths with their ethereal singing voices. That sadistic aspect of mermaids eventually entered European mythology–a pervasive ancient belief that every land animal had a counterpart in the sea. Many notables throughout history have claimed to have spotted a mermaid, from John Smith to the crew of Christopher Columbus, but some of those sightings were probably manatees.
These water trolls in Inside behave in a similar manner to these mermaids in ancient folklore. What’s interesting is that the last one you encounter does not kill you, but gives you the ability to swim underwater, which definitely comes in handy when you release the blob. However, I am unsure how this mechanic fits in story-wise. Why would one of the water trolls turn you into one of them instead of killing you, like the ones did before? Is it just a convenient way to progress the story, or is there actual meaning behind it?
As you explode through the wall and roll your way to the shore, coming to stop near the water, freedom tastes sweet for a moment. The water reflects the sun’s rays like a case of jewels. The grass moves from an ever so slight breeze. But you are still a part of the blob. Your exhausted limbs sink into the sand and as the camera stays still on your shape, it’s enough time to ask, “Now what?” How would you survive as a blob? Where would you go? What would you do? If there was a semblance of society left, they would surely reject you and brand you as a monster. You’d live out the rest of your existence in hiding and surely die alone, assuming you can die. Breaking out of the research facility is a false happiness.
But there is another ending–a secret one. You’ll have to find all the hidden water mines and deactivate them. Doing so will reveal a door in a room underneath the cornfield that can be unlocked by entering the correct harmonic key, and on the other side of that door is a large electric plug. Pull it out and the game ends.
I take this ending a few ways, one being a metaphor a single person being a catalyst to stopping a corrupt government, and the other being much darker: suicide, either a literal suicide for the main character or a metaphorical suicide for the world killing compassion and humanity. The interesting thing about this ending is that it’s the only point in the game where you can make a choice. You can choose to pull the plug, or not. The rest of the game is solving puzzles in order to progress forward; you have to solve those puzzles. But, you have to get through the game first to make the choice to pull the plug. It’s a catch-22.
While I normally shy away from narratives that are too abstract, Inside is grounded in enough contextual clues for anyone to come away with their own interpretation. This was just my interpretation, and I would be happy to know yours.