They’re looking for you, little boy. The masked men just released their hounds. You run. The bloodthirsty dogs close the distance between you and a cliff. Just as the dog’s teeth lunge for your foot, you jump off the cliff. Let me pause right here. You have no idea what’s at the bottom of this cliff. You’re completely at the whim of the game designer. Knowing there’s no other option, you simply trust the creator.
Why does the game want you to trust it’s sense of control?
You safely fall into a deep reservoir. You’re forced to remember that Inside’s world hates you as you resurface, as masked men with flashlights wait for you to resurface so they can fill your your tiny delicate body with bullets.
There’s no conspiracy about it: everything is out to get you. If you didn’t jump off that cliff, those dogs would have ripped you apart. But somehow there’s providence: a benefactor ensuring that you always had just what you needed at the moment of greatest need. Someone is looking out for you and asking for your trust.
When I was a kid in 1995, “God Is In Control” dominated Christian music charts. We even sang this song in church. Even as a twelve year old, I remember feeling uncomfortable singing this in a world full of broken hostility. Fast-forward to now: Christians are pretty divided on the idea of God being in control: is God specifically crafting everything (good and bad) as part of a deeply-strategic game design? Inside steps into this question, assuming that an unseen and benevolent creator is gently providing exactly what the boy needs — when he’s desperate enough for it (of course). Some might say that this is the core tension of faith.
Faith is something earned over time, so in the course of Inside’s four hours, there’s clearly a work of trust being built based on having just what you need at the right time — often veiled in wolf’s clothing — or in one case, pig’s clothing:
You take another leap of faith after making it into the farming district—this time off of a barn and into a stack of dead pigs. You head for an industrial building only to see one of the dead-looking pigs get up and charge directly at you. There’s a moment where you can jump and narrowly evade the swine. As a jumping matador, eventually you taunt the pig to bang its head into a wall. You pull-off what seems to be it’s tail (which you discover is actually a parasitic worm that is still wriggling). The pig turns docile and lets you push it wherever you want it. I put it under a glowing yellow bowl that hangs from the ceiling, climb the pig, and jump up to the bowl. My head fixes into it.
I dub this the “brain bowl.” My body goes limp and the hunched-over men in the back of the room stand a little taller. I try to move to the right as my body stays locked in, but I’m now moving the mind-linked men. I jump, they jump. When I want them to lift a gate, they use their combined strength to do so. I use this mind control device to get what I want: progress. As I detach from the mind-control device, I leave the brain-bowl-controlled men in the room and press on.
On my second play-through of the game, I was much more attentive to the sheer number of leaps-of-faith in the game. Typically game designers keep those kinds of jumps to a minimum, where you only jump if you know for sure that you can make it: as a sign of trust that you can anticipate your ability versus the world. But even in Inside’s first hour, I had over five instances where I just learned to trust that if I fall where the game is leading me, the author will catch me.
The most iconic moment in the game arises when you fall through a faulty floorboard and drop (safely, I must add) into a room of mind-controlled humans, where you must now pretend that you too are under control. A camera fixes on your position as masked men, women, and children watch to ensure that you and the others don’t step out of line. You have to read the controlled people to know how to obey this deadly game of Simon Says, but it’s precisely here that I felt that the “God” of the game tells you the most about where you’re at: in between the hostile and benevolent forces. You’re falling-in line with what this world needs you to be.
Game designers often say, “a gameplan never survives first contact with the player.” And I think this means that when you playtest a game for the first time, players will naturally test every rule until it breaks the game. A creator has to build their game in a way that ensures that players stick to the things the designer wants them to do: in a sense, it’s a controlling relationship.
Inside takes that creator-control relationship and enunciates it as a carrot-on-a-stick. It says, “yes, we all know the world is broken, come over here: I’ll keep you alive.” But by then, we’re completely at the whims of that creator. And when we look back and wonder how we became so trusting of this creator, we can see it’s simply because we picked up the controller and chose to play their game.