How ‘Inside’ Manifests the Literary Uncanny in Video Games
Playdead’s Inside is often considered in terms of its role as a puzzle-platformer, as art, and for its minimalist storytelling. These three laudable elements of the game intertwine themselves into a unique and unforgettable experience. The experience of playing the game itself, however, hasn’t been exhausted in the conversations about ludonarrative. In literary terms, Inside succeeds as a captivating narrative because it presents the player with the uncanny. The uncanny drives through Inside’s narrative architecture.
The uncanniness of Inside begins from the game’s first screen. The title disappears to reveal a dark forest, with wind whispering through the woods. The wind is disturbed by the sound of rocks, and suddenly a small boy slides down some rocks and into the screen. This boy feels familiar, and his red shirt lights up the dark and otherwise monochromatic atmosphere. And so the journey begins.
Noticing the elements of this first screen, things are peaceful, quiet, the colors are simple, the shapes are geometric and complementary, etc. The choice to have you play as a little boy also implies innocence and moral goodness; we want our hero to succeed. All these aesthetic clues, however, are misleading in terms of Inside’s role as a narrative. In terms of the uncanny, the player is introduced to a psychological state of simultaneously feeling familiar and unfamiliar with the game’s atmosphere. The atmosphere seems at once peaceful and quiet, yet dark and menacing. This ambiguity produces an unsettling feeling that quickly reveals this game to be eerier than the visual context led on.
Inside anomalized my expectations for its narrative almost immediately. The game’s graphics deceptively appeal to the more peaceful indie gamers like myself who are foremost concerned with narrative and secondarily concerned with complex and challenging gameplay. This is a naive assumption, for this game is soon to force you into areas that you wouldn’t go unless you were personally surviving a horror film.
The visual context of Inside is immediately undercut by tension and violence. While the unsuspecting player might reasonably interpret the art style to indicate an ambient game, the game’s first sequence involves a spooky set of tail lights as a few silhouetted men load up the back of an eighteen-wheeler truck before driving off. Your character, the boy, hides in the shadows with bated breath. You might notice yourself holding in your breath too, for fear of being caught.
The menacing truck moves on, leaving the boy free to explore further. Almost immediately, the boy encounters two people wielding flashlights, circling some sort of boiler chamber that connects up a pipe into the forest canopy. Again, the key is to sneak past very carefully, allowing the boy to silently topple an empty refrigerator and climb up out of danger’s way. Only, the boy drops down further onto a barricaded road where the eighteen-wheeler looms in the distance.
This pattern of safety, danger, and stealth recurs until a scene where the boy must wade through a waist-deep creek, illuminated by flashlights in the distance. As the game has taught you up until this point, if you are just careful and quiet, then you will escape. But about halfway through this creek, the silence of the forest is broken by the hostile shriek of dogs barking. This game is no longer about stealth, but survival.
Inside proceeds to teach you the penalties of exploring. Unless you’re some kind of superhuman and intuitive gamer who can infer the consequences from a few stray flashlights, you’re going do die–brutally, and early on.
Part of the uncanniness of Inside arises by the tension between your character’s role as a little boy. Despite all the innocence implied, you’re callously shot dead at the soonest opportunity by the early game’s non playable characters. Even if you’re too quick for their flashlights and bullets, you’ll soon find yourself sprinting in agonized desperation from the drooling mouths of feral attack dogs. This game believes, wholeheartedly, in the survival of the fittest. And you better be ready to survive.
After being chased by dogs and repeatedly shot at, your character adapts to the hostile constraints of the world and learns how to adeptly sneak past such violent obstructions.
Soon, your character finds himself in a desolate farm where he can surreptitiously advance through the corn fields, where he can escape, and – if the player is attentive – where he can overturn some crucial bonus material for the kind of player who will later attend the lore components of the story’s design.
The setting of the farm is another moment of the uncanny permeating the world of Inside. For a farm usually signifies growth, homeliness, and honest work. The farm of Inside looks abandoned. The crops of the corn field aren’t inviting, as they might be in daylight. The persistent rain of the scene makes everything shine with an unnatural eeriness. And then you enter the barn, where parasitic worms have taken over the bodies of pigs, zombifying and enraging them to attack you. Every aspect of what should define a farm is undercut by decay and decrepitude.
Even the plot structure of Inside adheres to the uncanny. Depending on the narrative persuasion to which you attribute the game’s lore and eventual conclusion, Inside either evolves or devolves as a narrative. The case for evolution is evidenced by the trials and skills that the boy has to undergo and achieve; the boy grows as the story demands more of him. The case for devolution, on the other hand, is evidenced by the massive uncertainty and moral compromises that the boy must make along his journey.
Seen in the incandescent light of the uncanny, Inside could be something of a horror film, but also something of a self-discovering journey. Inside presents itself as a half action-adventure, and half puzzle-platformer. But to lump the story in with those sorts of games fails to do those genres justice, for Inside doesn’t comfortably nest itself within either genre.
The fundamental reason why Inside stands well outside of other ludonarratives is because of how the story unfolds. Like a tightly wrapped burrito, Inside eventually becomes too full for its own good, spilling out everywhere. The game simply becomes too much, especially considering what the game’s intro (tutorial) signs you up for. At the game’s beginning, you’re dealing with simple stealth mechanics. By the game’s climax – not necessarily the ending – the story draws on a number of strategic mechanics that may alienate non-gamers with the level of skill involved.
By the time the boy reaches the farm, you should feel comfortable with survival as a plot direction, but you might find yourself uncomfortable with the world-building elements of the game. From abandoned machines to innovative technologies, the world of Inside never quite feel like one precise time period. The game is likely set in the future, as the world has constructed solo submarines and mind-control helmets (more on those later). But so much of the technology – lighting, in particular – could have been dated to the early 20th century. Though we may get some semblance of where this story takes place, we never can pin down quite when.
After escaping the farm, the boy makes his way into an abandoned city. We see another eighteen-wheeler, just like the one from the first scene in the game, loading up what look to be zombie-like creatures into the trailer. The boy sneaks past, making his way across the rooftops of the city. Soon, we see marching lines of these zombie creatures, heads lolling off one direction or the other, but all moving precisely in unison.
The boy continues on until a flimsy platform gives way, dropping him right into the factory where these zombie-like creatures are being tested.
The factory scene is one of the most brilliantly executed moments of the uncanny within Inside because of how much you have to mimic the mind-controlled characters. It’s as if you, the player, symbolically mind-controls the boy in the same way that these factory workers are mind-controlling these docile bodies across the testing facility. If the boy doesn’t behave in exactly the same way that the factory intends, then a security robot will skewer you in seconds. You have to temporarily give up your character’s identity in order to preserve it.
Mind control becomes a main fixture of Inside’s puzzle structure throughout the rest of the game. These glowing mind control helmets appear with more and more complexity, to the point where the boy is controlling the minds of bodies that are controlling the minds of other bodies, etc. In fact, one of the most complex puzzles in the game takes places where the boy has to control upwards of twenty bodies at once. This returns us to the same idea from the factory: maybe the player is symbolically mind-controlling the boy.
As video games are so often lauded in terms of their capacious relationship to player agency, the idea of a narrative challenging or subverting the expectation of control in a game feels innovative and unique. We often take for granted as players that we are exerting our agency – not only as players, but also as avatars represented in the characters we control. It’s not uncommon to feel as though our characters do in fact have agency in the same way that we do. But Inside seems to resist this easy assumption by how heavily it leans on mind control as a plot device.
One of the most mind-bending moments in Inside happens underwater, when the boy discovers a single-person submarine and steals it. This submarine is easy to control, the underwater aesthetic is peaceful and beautiful. But something is off. As the boy solves these underwater puzzles, we get brief glimpses of some underwater creature. Some people describe this creature as a kind of mermaid, but it acts a lot more like a grindylow from Harry Potter: a pale-green underwater demon that attempts to drown our main character.
This grindylow contends for the most uncanny representation of a character in Inside, only behind the game’s final character. This grindylow chases you throughout some of the underwater chambers. It floats peacefully, hair moving about with grace. But as soon as you turn your submarine’s spotlight away from the grindylow, it aggressively hunts you down, grabs onto the glass of your submarine and breaks it, drowning you. While this grindylow seems innocent, its violent action immediately transforms it into a main source of fear for the character.
To stop there with the analysis of the grindylow would be incomplete, however, as this sea creature has a second act soon in the game. As the boy continues, this grindylow eventually succeeds in drowning the boy. In a slow descent, the grindylow drags the boy’s body to the seafloor – presumably dead. But there’s a brief exchange where the grindylow actually transfers its ability to breathe underwater to the boy. Your character chokes out some bubbles of air, and you realize that he’s not dead after all! Returning to the uncanny, is this grindylow character to be feared or respected, thanked or rebuked?
The boy continues on until we hear a rhythmic boom every few seconds outside of a warehouse. The boy opens the warehouse door to a bridge, where we quickly learn where this mysterious boom has been coming from – somewhere distant outside. From the boy’s perspective on the bridge, these booms are sonic pulses that have the impacting force of an AC-130. These sonic pulses rip apart buildings, bend metal infrastructure, and, of course, tear your boy’s body limb from limb. We never quite get an explanation for what on earth these pulses are for, where they’re coming from, or who built them.
Eventually you reach the research facility, the destination that all the boy’s efforts have been aiming towards. Are we going to finally obtain some answers? Are we finally going to know why this boy is on this quest? Are we going to learn the secret motives of the factory owners who test mind control on docile bodies? If you haven’t caught on by now, this game wouldn’t fall into the literary tradition of the uncanny if we had easy answers.
The boy explores the research facility, gathering a cohort of mind-controlled bodies that assist in opening up forbidden areas. The boy runs through sublicles, labs, testing rooms, arenas, and all sorts of glass-walled office setups that share a panoptic sense of shared consciousness. That is, it seems as though this whole facility is a hivemind with a single objective. There is a kind of groupthink implied in the architecture of the building, even by the way folding chairs are set up alongside certain displays.
As the boy reaches the very center of the facility, we get hints at the game’s final volley: the escape. The boy reaches a glass tank where dozens of scientists have their noses pressed in on the glass, observing some kind of miraculous specimen inside. As you approach, some scientists will outrun you to get a better look. The boy sneaks around the tank, using staff machinery and electricity to suck himself into the tank itself.
When you’re sucked into the tank, your clothes are stripped off your body. We see a naked little boy, no longer garbed in red – as though identity has been lost. You no longer stand out from the environment. Instead, your pale skin glows in a fresh way that suggests rebirth. And, in this tank, you see an amorphous creature made up of flesh and bodies – perhaps best described as chewed-up sentient bubble gum.
This creature, known as the Huddle, is hooked up to machinery that is lit similarly to the mind-control helmets. You decide to free this imprisoned creature – whatever it is.
Your character’s identity is completely swallowed in the final scene. Upon freeing the Huddle, it immediately absorbs the boy into its already overcrowded body. It pulses its way over to the glass from earlier, where scientists still have their eager noses pressed in to see. The Huddle’s many arms grasp a fixture on the glass and begin pulling, which quickly shatters the glass. Water absolutely floods out onto the platform, killing some scientists and causing some to run away in panic.
Free at last, the Huddle begins its escape towards the outside world. Scientists scream as you plunge through glass walls and corridors, ripping iron bars off elevator doors and breaking elevator shafts due to its weight. The Huddle flattens some people, its six legs propelling its flubbery body across cliffs and up walls. Rabid dogs attack the huddle, but they seem almost laughably insipid now. These once terror-inspiring creatures yelp impotently as you escape their jowls.
In a final plummet, the Huddle smacks to the floor below like silly putty, causing the innumerable bodies trapped within to cry out in pain as its limbs are blown off. Are we to feel sympathy for this murderous creature?
And here’s where everything changes for the way we interpret the story. A factory worker sees the Huddle recovering after its fall and hurriedly unlocks a door for its escape. Whether this action was motivated by fear or something more calculated is not exactly clear. Could there be confederate workers within the research facility that have been planning the Huddle’s escape?
Again, in the next room, a man opens a trapdoor for the Huddle to squeeze its unnatural body shape through. The Huddle lights a box on fire and causes a door to open; facility workers look on, arms folded, in the distance. The next room features about four or fixe workers helping the Huddle swing its way up to a ledge, creating an exit for the creature. The Huddle throws a timing box up a ledge to two workers, who activate it and throw it back down, allowing the Huddle to open yet another door. At this point, the evidence is almost overwhelming (if you’re paying attention) that the facility workers are working in concert to help this creature escape.
But then another twist: Dangling from the ceiling above is the final box that the Huddle needs to escape. It reaches, stretching its many bodies upwards in vain, only to have an unexpected trap door open up beneath it. The Huddle plunges into water below, and we see a few silhouettes of onlookers from the factory above.
The Huddle strips walls off the underwater facility, emerges, and then barrels through a wooden wall. This final act is the last moment of player agency in the game. And you might have even forgotten about the little boy in the red shirt at this point.
The Huddle descends down a craggy mountainside, stocked with pine trees from earlier, and slowly rolls out into a grassy field. The Huddle comes to a stop in a beam of light. We see the sparkle of the sea beyond, the promise of a brighter, more colorful world beyond. We hear the subtle waves crashing against the shore. The camera slowly zooms out, watching the Huddle breathe its first breaths of free, fresh air. The credits begin.
Inside illustrates the uncanny in two primary ways: uncertainty and familiarity.
Inside is a fundamentally uncertain story. We are dropped into a forest with no real sense of who this boy is, what his motivations are, why we should care about him, and so forth. We don’t ever get a clear sense of why these silhouetted men and their rabid dogs are hunting this boy. There is no explicit backstory to the mind-control helmets, or the sonic pulses from the bridge, or the grindylow underwater. Even by the story’s end, it is uncertain what this Huddle creature is and what it was created for. Nothing is certain by the game’s end, and that is one of the main fixtures of the uncanny: we are exposed an abundance of information but never quite escape the threats and monstrosities throughout Inside’s story.
Inside is also a very familiar story. We’ve all played games or read stories of characters escaping danger, overcoming insurmountable odds, going against the establishment, etc. The fact that the red-shirted boy (and the rest of the characters) doesn’t have a detailed face also allows us to project onto the character. Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay on the uncanny illuminates how this projection is actually a canvas for our repressed selves, how creatures like the Huddle are actually already embedded somewhere in our fears and fantasies. The game conceals much from us, but offers just enough to allow interpretation to flourish around the lore and narrative.
When the uncanny is mentioned in discussions about video games, it most often refers to Masahiro Mori’s notion of the “uncanny valley,” a term most commonly describing artificially intelligent robots. The uncanny valley is a place between perfectly realistic and not-quite real. Mori’s examples of the uncanny valley include things like corpses, zombies, and prosthetic limbs, not to mention lifelike robots.
And this applies very well to the discussion about realism in video games. For the more graphics improve, and video games are judged in terms of their ability to represent human facial expressions accurately, then the uncanny valley becomes narrower until the point of vanishing entirely. It is supposed that we will eventually no longer see video games as “so good that they look fake.”
But the kind of uncanny that characterizes Inside is theoretical rather than visual. Returning to Freud’s 1919 essay, “The Uncanny,” Inside feels like a version of this world – and simultaneously feels entirely fictive. Ultimately, the uncanny elements of Inside’s narrative center around one theme: death. “There is scarcely any other matter,” writes Freud, “upon which our thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the very earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so completely preserved under a thin disguise, as that of our relation to death.” Notably, the ‘discarded forms’ that are ‘completely preserved’ under a ‘thin disguise’ sounds a lot like the Huddle, this assemblage of various bodies and forms that are kept under watch, maintaining some illusion that these scientists and researchers are perhaps working to conquer death.
Above all, Inside introduces a way to talk about identity in terms of the uncanny. The complicated and unclear relationship of agency between player and character, and how that very agency is undermined by the presence of agency-stripped mind-controlled bodies, is a provocative instance of how video games tell stories unlike any other medium.
Blake Guthrie (Twitter: @BlakeGuthrie) is a columnist for Epilogue Gaming. He hosts the Ludonarrative Podcast (Twitter: @LudonarrativeFM) and Need For Nuance (Twitter: @NeedForNuance). If you like Epilogue Gaming’s work, you can support us by following on Twitter at @EpilogueGames or subscribe to us for as little as $1 a month on Patreon. For more of Blake’s work, check Epilogue every other Friday.