Playdead’s Inside: what was THAT about? [spoilers]

My friend Matt and I were discussing the meaning of Inside, Playdead’s atmospheric puzzle game. Like its predecessor, LimboInside is a masterclass of subtle storytelling in games. There’s no dialogue or narration: the story progresses via ambience, stunning design, and menace. The player is trusted to form their own narrative interpretation. For example, initially, I thought the boy in red was running to escape a cruel Orwellian environment. Imagine my surprise when the boy, having infiltrated a laboratory, dives into an armoured chamber to free a living mass of human body parts. Then that same lumpen mass absorbs the boy and now I’m controlling a raging tower of flesh known affectionately on the internet as the ‘blob monster’. My wife was not best pleased when she returned to the room to find the plucky young lad replaced by an angry ball of limbs. “Mark, you unstick those people right now,” she said. Easier said than done.

The theory

So after the raging blob trashed the scientific complex, escaped through a wall and tumbled down a ravine to lie motionless beside a sunlit river, we were all left with a question. What the proverbial was that all about?

At first, I thought the boy might have been trying to free his parents who may have been part of the experiment… but there’s no evidence to suggest that. I couldn’t believe there would be enough emotional motivation for him to risk his life for a principled stance against bioengineering.

Like Limbo, the game feels heavily allegorical and we can’t read it purely at face value. Is it possible that the game actually represents a psychological journey? The boy in red was an archetype in a human psyche, perhaps on a quest to liberate some buried part of itself. The raging ball of humans works well as a symbol of the archaic, animalistic parts of the human mind. The boy perseveres through great odds with focus through many trials. He connects with this buried anger, allows it to break out of the prison that has been created around it. All of its pent up rage is felt and expressed as it trashes the dilapidated, fascistic world that has created and contained it. Eventually, its energy released, it settles beside the river in tranquil sunshine.

Of course, we can interpret any heroic quest as a psychological journey but perhaps the title of the game, Inside, may be a special encouragement to do so here. I haven’t seen the secret ending, which may give the story a different spin. Certainly the theme of control raises an interesting question. The boy controls lobotomised slaves via the brain-hat-thing, we control the boy via the joypad… who controls us!? Perhaps the blob monsters buried deep within our own psyches! I’ll leave you with that chilling thought.

The Chalk Path – poetry PDF

The Chalk Path - front cover

My latest poetry pamphlet is now available as a free PDF. In The Chalk Path, Joe, Hugh, and myself turn our attention landward from the coast. The poems are drawn from walks over chalk downs, train rides beside white horses etched into hillsides and, in contrast, the bright red sandstone of my Mercian homelands.

Read it online

You can read The Chalk Path here. Please share it with your friends if you enjoy it.

Here’s one of mine from the collection:

PILGRIMAGE OVER CLENT

Red soil. Brown grass. White sky.
A glimpse of Harry-Ca-Nab,
the devil’s hunting man. Keep running.
Through mudbeds of slipping-danger.
Through the place of martyrs, St. Kenelm’s.
Here’s one known to me. I bow my head before
climbing into the cradle of these hills.

At St. Leonard’s, further along Kenelm’s pass,
I find the grave of Eliza Baylie,
unknown to me, her woven cross
symmetrical, upright, organic stone.
The good we’ve wrought becomes nature.
Chapel, trees, and stones are buried in fog.
Eliza’s cross marks the beginning of a hill
we once measured in bpm,
ears pounding with the body’s song,
where my heart stops me again.

Geese creak in the mist above.
Clouds curdle as they’re raked
like ghosts through evergreens. Rain thickens.
Ca-Nab’s hounds are close. Keep running.
Over the rise, leaving a pattern but no prints.
Carry the poem. Kiss the soil with each foot.
Let the hill carry you home.

 

Blurb

An experiential exploration of movement within the landscape, taking you beyond maps to the cries of buzzards, the feeling of chalk dust on fingers, and the glimpse of a white horse.

As always, the cover painting is by Hugh.

You can also read our previous poetry pamphlets in PDF form: The Inner Sea and The Tide Clock.

All feedback welcome in the comments or to mark@markdcooper.com.

Failure

titanic-mould-loft-design

The ship’s design pictured is the Titanic. The cross-section is drawn at full scale and the length at quarter scale.

I visited the Titanic exhibition in Belfast recently. The timing couldn’t have been better as I’ve been reading Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, about how we learn from failures both catastrophic and small. The ‘unsinkable’ ship that went down on its maiden voyage is a prime example of the gap between our expectations and the complexity of the real world. One of the striking quotes in Syed’s book outlines how progress is largely bought with failure, and in safety-critical areas, with blood. There are starkly important areas where black box thinking and a related concept, marginal gains, can be applied. Syed contrasts case studies from aviation, medicine, and the criminal justice system to name a few.

The importance of feedback

Syed has an interesting metaphor for thinking about failure and feedback. Some disciplines offer instant feedback on whether you’re on the right track; others permit you to flail around without ever knowing. He likens it to practicing your swing on a driving range in total darkness. How would you ever know to adjust your technique? How would you improve? He quotes a statistic that says trainee psychotherapists “obtain results that are as good as those of licensed ‘experts’.” The reason for this, Syed argues, is that psychotherapists have only indirect access to their patients’ inner experience, and few therapists track long-term outcomes once a client relationship has ended. This means they have little opportunity to revise their judgements based on real-world feedback. Another example: apparently, people learn to steer cars much faster than boats because the effect of steering on tarmac is immediate where as the action of a rudder is delayed. So in any number of disciplines the question becomes how can we give ourselves more immediate feedback?

I wonder if the same problem faces meditation teachers, and how it might be overcome – perhaps through standardised questionnaires, as some therapists have advocated for. In meditation, many teachers encourage an attitude of playful exploration. A large part of the practice seems to be trying various approaches and inquiries, and seeing for yourself what the outcome is – classic trial and error. We call it meditation practice for a reason perhaps. One conception of how this works might be that meditation reconnects you to the feedback mechanisms of body and mind. After all, you are the most sensitive, subtle instrument at your disposal. The non-linguistic right hemisphere of the brain is constantly processing thousands of datapoints and expressing these through the body as feeling, intuition, emotion. If you’re wary of becoming a quantified self (as opposed to an unquantifiable one), take heart. In my view, as sensate human beings we are already data-driven so wearing a fitness tracker is like putting legs on a snake, to use a metaphor from zen: unnecessary.

Some feedback is hard to face, of course. And this is where the problem of cognitive dissonance appears. To accept that we have made a mistake may imply some uncomfortable facts about ourselves that we do not want to see. It’s very hard to accept that you have made mistakes when it comes to parenting, for instance, but that admission could fuel future growth. This is how children themselves learn, after all. Every tumble and setback is part of an epic process of trial and error that leads from sitting upright to cartwheels and handstands. We are failing and learning all the time. Following Syed’s logic, perhaps one of the deep problems in depending on unhelpful strategies to cope in life is that when we go to excessive lengths to avoid failure and pain we also turn away from the mechanism that will spark future growth. As always, it probably pays to know where a compassionate balance lies.

Creativity

Syed emphasises that creativity is a response to a problem in a specific time and place. While we often buy into the idea of lightning bolt of inspiration, it is engaging with a well-defined problem that turns us into a conductor for the muse. Inspiration often then strikes when we step back and switch off, or when we are jarred into an epiphany by criticism, paradox, or an unusual connection. Syed, like others before him, claims that such a creative epiphany can almost always be characterised as a connection of ideas from previously separate conceptual categories. He also believes that true progress often requires both a paradigmatic shift and compounded marginal gains. Optimising existing processes may get you to the top of a particular hill while the mountain remains unclimbed.

Craft improves through failure. Sometimes exclusively so. This is the learning mechanism at the heart of practice. For example, every author begins by writing badly. Over the years, style, ability and judgement develop as we innovate around now familiar pitfalls. Every failure tells us something new about ourselves, our craft, and the world. Even an experienced writer will produce a bad first draft. In a sense, with each new project they should be trying something they have never done before. We wouldn’t call this a failure but it’s essentially the same: an iteration. Bad dialogue can be replaced. Awkward plot points can be straightened out. Instead of stigmatising failure and falling back on blame, applying the same mindset to other areas of life could be similarly fruitful.

With this mindset, there’s less resistance to thinking about why I haven’t managed to complete a novel, as I said I would two years ago. The idea, I think, is not to allow self-blame creep in but to analyse contributing factors compassionately. In the case of the novel, after trying for a few weeks I felt it was simply not the time, and not the right idea. I’d been cranking out words and projects of all kinds and had a unique opportunity to slow down, enjoy life, and let things happen by themselves.

If I undertake another long writing project in the future, I’ll know what I’m getting into a bit better, and where a few more of the pitfalls are. I hope that I’ll take Syed’s advice and get feedback early on to motivate myself and improve the work. In fact, he uses Pixar as an example of iterative story writing. The animation studio’s writing teams often end up drawing 125,000 storyboards or more. While I don’t think I can pump out quite that many iterations, I could start writing some scenes and character sketches on this blog and seeing what folk enjoy.

Every poet has a long career of being rejected from magazines and crashing out of competitions. Often, no feedback is provided. This is understandable because of the huge workload and time pressure editors and judges face. However, just think how helpful even a line of feedback could be to developing writers. One of my poems, ‘Vardøger‘, was rejected from Poetry Review with a one-liner that they really liked the first three stanzas but not the rest of it. They were right. I cut the poem down and submitted it in the Poetry School/Nine Arches Press Primers competition, where it was probably my strongest shortlisted poem. Perhaps in the future I’ll be more tenacious about asking for feedback.

Back to Titanic

But what of the Titanic? What was learnt from that? Well, not only were serious design flaws brought to light – the inadequate rudder, flooding compartments, lack of lifeboats – but regulations governing safety at sea and responding to ships in distress were overhauled. Probably not every lesson that could have been learnt was. As humans we often take the most efficient approach to problem-solving by doing things the way we’ve done them before. As a friend of mine says, “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

Failure is inevitable but Black Box Thinking argues that embracing setbacks liberates us from future mistakes. It frees us to learn from failure instead of turning from the pain of it and being doomed to repeat it.

Dharma Dudes

Dharma Dudes - No Thyself

I haven’t had much spare time lately what with work, moving house, and spending time with the kids. It’s been busy, exciting, rewarding and all that. Did I mention busy? But a couple of weeks ago I felt the unexpected urge to sketch some comic strips about meditation and related issues. Here’s the first, there may be others to follow.

154 contemporary poets respond to Shakespeare’s sonnets

154 Shakespeare's Sonnets, Live Canon

Helen Eastman of Live Canon has edited an anthology of 154 responses to Shakespeare’s sonnets. I contributed a response to sonnet XXV, titled ‘Perseids’. It is a testament to Helen’s energy and organisation that this happened at all. They say working with poets is like herding cats. Can you imagine trying to marshall 154 of them to finally decide whether or not the penultimate line needs a comma?

Not only is the book filled with inventive contemporary poetry it has lovely production quality too. And there are one or two decent turns from W.S. himself.

You can buy 154 from Amazon or buy it directly from Live Canon.

154 Shakespeare Live Canon Mark D Cooper