This article is part of our new experimental series, Backlog Club, where we (Nintendo Life!) Pick a game that’s likely to be on our list of “games we should get around to playing”, and then we (NL + you!) spend the next month playing that game. This is the halfway point, the Part One of two, where we stop for a minute to check in with the game, and how much we’re enjoying it.
For the month of October 2022, to get in the mood for Halloween, we’re playing Inside! Part Two will be about its companion game, Limbo …
It’s halfway through October, and that means that it’s time for climbing out of my summertime wardrobe of shorts and sunglasses, and into my autumntime wardrobe of jumpers and seasonal depression. It also means that it’s time to get into the mood for spooooky things. Because of Halloween. I’ve never particularly understood why people want to make themselves feel scared, because I have anxiety and feel that way no matter what the season, but hey! I love to join in with things.
So this month’s Backlog Club choice is a fun, spooky twofer: Playdead’s Limbo, and Playdead’s Inside. Although these two games are not (as far as I know) narratively linked, they’re practically brothers – both are about children going right and meeting lots of horrible things that want to kill and eat them. I actually played a bit of Limbo, but then there was a spider, and I got scared and stopped. I think that was within the first five minutes. I am a baby.
But, weirdly, although Limbo is one of those games that people just seem to sort of own on every platform, even if they don’t remember buying it, I can’t find my copy. It’s probably buried on a PS4 or an iPhone account somewhere. No matter! I will just play Inside first, and Limbo later, closer to actual Halloween.
Here is your spoiler warning – this article talks about the entire game. Go play it, it’s only a few hours long!
I know! Inside begins with a boy running away from dogs and searchlights. He has probably done some sort of crime, because he is constantly under threat of murder for the entire game – we know he’s escaped and the ominous forces that lurk in the game’s shadows want him back, but clearly not that badly, because they’re more than happy to let him be crushed, mauled, exploded, and drowned by a horrible underwater lady.
The boy, evading said ominous forces, manages to infiltrate an ominous laboratory / factory that’s also doing a bunch of crimes, this time against humanity. They’ve created zombified workers that are happy to fling themselves into pits and against walls, solving puzzles by brute force and probably not getting hazard pay. Eventually, the boy meets a [REDACTED], and from there, things get really … gooey? Squelchy? I don’t know if there’s a word to describe … that.
Journalists, as I’ve discovered, bloody love the motifs of mindless workers and the magnetic mystery of the [REDACTED] in Inside, because there are roughly ten billion thinkpieces on What Inside Means. That’s the thing – Inside refuses to tell you, with no dialogue, no in-game lore guide, and only the sparsest of environmental clues. Even those are up for interpretation.
I presume that the designers knew what they were making, and weren’t just sitting in the Playdead office saying “hahaha let’s add a bunch of baby chicks here that you have to Pied-Piper into a big machine and then they get brutally murdered so you can solve a puzzle, and it doesn’t mean anything at all, it’s not even some kind of foreshadowing, hahaha. ” No, even the weirder stuff in Inside has a Point and a Purpose, but it’s all just academic, anyway – it doesn’t change how the game plays out.
Except, in one way, it does. You see – and this is going to get mega-spoilery, so be warned – Inside has a secret, alternate ending that you can only access if you’ve finished the game, and seen the ending with the [REDACTED] on the [REDACTED]. You’ll then have to find a bunch of hidden bunkers, and destroy the glowing orbs within. So far, so video game, right? You know the drill: destroy the things, run right, get the secret thing. Maybe it’s a Warp Zone. Or you get to unlock the ability to play as Inside Boy’s tall brother, who wears a green shirt instead of a red one.
Haha! No! It’s actually a meta-textual commentary on player character agency, you fool! You have been tricked! Nyahaha!
In the secret ending, the Boy pulls a gigantic plug. Why? Because that’s what you do in games. If a game says “Press A to interact” then you do it. Because interacting is fun. No questions asked. But in Inside, when you pull that plug, you … lose control of the Boy. He slumps over, either dead, or zombified. You, the player, were on the other side of that plug. You idiot.
But there’s more. In the normal ending, the Boy is drawn ever rightwards, eventually towards the [REDACTED]as if the [REDACTED] were controlling him. Even though the Boy is not mindless like the zombie-people we see at several points, he is still mindless. He goes right, because that’s what you do. He goes right, because you know what games want from you. And you, the player, do it, unquestioningly, because that’s just what you do. You’re the zombie. Or you’re the [REDACTED]? Uh. I don’t know. No one knows.
It’s both refreshing and infuriating to play a game that tells you nothing. I have no answers, only theories and questions. But my takeaway is that Playdead’s Inside is trying to tell a story about agency and control, in which you are left questioning what it means to puppet a character around, making them do whatever you want, getting them killed over and over again because you ‘ re not paying attention.
There’s no real “good” ending to Inside, either. The [REDACTED] ending feels unfinished, ambiguous, even pointless – there’s a feeling of “oh. Now what?” that you’re left with at the end. You didn’t win anything, you didn’t save the princess (unless the [REDACTED] is a princess, but there’s no textual support for that theory), you just caused a big mess and now you’re outside, good job. You don’t even know what the [REDACTED] is, or why it wanted to be free, or what being free even means for something that … lumpy.
The hidden alternate ending can be taken as either good (you freed the Boy from the puppetmaster!) Or bad (you turned the boy into just another zombie!) But what that means for the player is once again ambiguous. Are you a monster for using this Boy to achieve your own aims? Were you genuinely trying to help him? Has unplugging him freed him, or damned him? No one knows!
So, for me, Inside is a game that pretends to be about what we see on screen, a tale of the player assuming that the ends justify the means, only to be disappointed and horrified that the ends don’t make sense at all. But actually, Inside is a game that, much like modern art, is more about how it resonates within the viewer than it is about what the art itself looks like. It’s not what we see on screen, or what we do during the game, but it’s about how the player is left feeling afterwards. Are you a monster? Is the boy free? Is a [REDACTED] not entitled to the sweat of his … lumps?
There are no true answers. Only the question, “why?” And, of all the questions, that’s the most important one. The one that should have no true answer. The “why” is subjective. The “why” is for you to answer. And it’s absolutely okay for the answer to be, “I don’t know.”
Okay, that’s what * I * think about the ending to Inside. But what do you think it means? Does it matter? Are we all in a simulation? Tell me your thoughts in the comments. Or don’t. You control your own destiny … probably.