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.

Shigeru’s Cave

i.

When Shigeru was twelve, he found a cave
no one else had explored. The other boys
avoided that part of the wood. Their base
bordered the hillside near a soldier’s grave
now used as a bookmark for civic grief
but Shigeru went on deeper forays
into the forest. He staged one man plays
under the teeming emptiness. He tried to carve
murals in loneliness and what was slight
became whole, wider than the cave itself.
Even the dust made shadows when he lit
an oil lamp and ghosts rose to a swarm.
Their dreams were parables in low relief,
unknowable but easy to transform.

ii.

Shigeru blew out the flame and black verbs
gathered the unlit part of their burden,
climbing like fireworks with each blink, hidden
like smoke wrapped in a darker sky. Suburbs
called him from beyond the wood, offering bribes
of long stillness when the clearing was done.
A blind thief arrived. He made his den
out of insults, heartbeats and rubies.
He polished their blood-beauty like you would shoes,
counting them over decades, relieved
to find company in his own echoes.
For all the thief’s effort his only prize
was a hundred smooth-dull stones. Shigeru breathed
from the forest, smiled and opened his eyes.

iii.

The silence became floodwater, so bright
it glittered between branches yet so dense
it pulled the cave inside out and blindness,
regrets and blessings tumbled free. Black roots
erupted from the ground. Bare branches wrote
poetry in their scrawl against a wilderness
where swallows flew. Shigeru watched them dance.
Small deafenings and tensions came apart
as he stepped into a larger, deeper cave.
Meandering home and late for his tea,
a schoolboy paused for a minute and gave
his hands to the slow part of the river
to feel its cool alignment with the sea;
a darting, unexpected scale; quicksilver.

 

‘Shigeru’s Cave’ was shortlisted for the 2014 Live Canon Poetry Competition and appears in the competition anthology, available from Amazon. It was inspired by the formative experiences of Nintendo game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto.

Shigeru’s Cave shortlisted for Live Canon 2014

Poetry news! ‘Shigeru’s Cave’ has been shortlisted for this year’s Live Canon International Poetry Competition. It’s a series of three Italian sonnets imagining one of the fathers of modern gaming, Shigeru Miyamoto, as a kind of schoolboy hermit exploring Platonic territories. Miyamoto is (of course) the creator of the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda games. Much has been made of his formative, solitary childhood playing in woods, caves and streams in the hills behind his family’s suburban home. Shigeru himself suggests a mysterious link between these early experiences of nature and the playful, tactile exploration that characterises his game design. The poem was inspired by this article in The New Yorker.

Ye Olde Minecraft

My son and I took it upon ourselves to play Minecraft the old fashioned way: with wooden blocks. I put the Minecraft Beta soundtrack on the gramophone and the room took on a new aspect, that of a subterranean domain perchance akin to Plato’s fabled cave. I immediately embarked upon an ambitious scale replica of The Tyn in Prague. My son, being an eightmonth babe, cares not for building but instead lifts each individual block in turn, be it red, yellow or blue, and places it in his mouth for further inspection.

As I was about to complete the second spire, a chubby arm reached out and dashed both towers, and nor was my lad content to leave but one brick resting upon another. With my project so thoroughly levelled, the precocious imp looked up at me as if to say, “Father, hast thou not read Solomon? All human endeavour is folly, indeed, vanity”. I had no reply for my young demolisher other than to begin the project again, this time on firmer foundation.

Strange caverns

The most ordinary locations in computer games often take on a life of their own. I’m thinking of the empty school in Silent Hill, rain on the windows in Gone Home, a back alley in The Secret of Monkey Island. There’s an insignificant window in the mansion of the first Resident Evil where text appeared to tell you that a dog could be heard howling in the distance. For some reason, that felt more lonely and vaguely threatening than any realistic sound effect.

Digital hinterlands have our full attention in a way their real world cousins usually don’t. How often do you admire the way rain looks on a window, or consider the unlikely narratives that might burgeon in an unprepossessing alleyway? And of course, intrepid players are rewarded with secrets, and occasionally glimpse the cracks and joins overlooked by developers. Growing up, we’d spin these flaws into the fabric of the game: veering off the road and driving through blurred forest textures; walking for an hour in repeated landscapes; In Quake II, rocket-jumping into the skybox and crawling above the level; In The New Zealand Story spending hours trying to find a way into a void we’d dubbed ‘THE BLACK’. It became a search for the mundane in extraordinary worlds.

Should you blow the dust off your old machines, you’ll find strange caverns eerily unchanged even after many years, when you yourself are outdated and blockier to look at.

Oddomtolun: the doomed city

A friend and I played Dwarf Fortress over Easter. It’s a terrifyingly detailed game in which very simple graphics depict a complex Tolkien-esque world of unimaginable depth and geekiness. It looks so inaccessible I didn’t think we’d be able to install it. Dwarf Fortress is a reminder of what computers really are. They’re not shiny fashion accessories or creative workstations, they are time-eating goblin warfare simulators. Forget user experience design, forget bevelled phones with one button. What you want are copious menus about militias, minerals and mushroom farming, each four screens deep and with 26 options assigned to keyboard letters.

Despite a near-vertical learning curve, Dwarf Fortress is popular. If there’s a reason for this it’s because the game generates stories. Your fortress will inevitably fail and in a spectacularly bizarre way. Over the course of the weekend we were attacked by a hyena and saw many of our caravan die of starvation or thirst. The worst of it began when a corpse turned up next to the kitchen. A purple miasma contaminated what little food we had when the store room continued to be used as a makeshift morgue. Not bad going given that it took four hours for us to decide that the blue part of the screen was sky, not water.

Since some of its elements were brainstormed using narrative, it’s not surprising that Dwarf Fortress creates memorable experiences. One of the creators will write a short story which they both then analyse to pick out elements that might be fun. It seems like a very creative way to develop a game. It’s a long-term project and there’s no pressure to keep the graphics up to date or follow trends so they’ve a free hand to add depth and interest. For the brave, a Dwarf Fortress starter pack is available here.

Oddomtolun:

Oddomtolun

A general history of Oddomtolun:

ballad of oddomtolun

Philosophising The Stanley Parable

stanley parable 1

I spent all of last night exploring The Stanley Parable. If you haven’t played it, I’d recommend doing so before reading on.

The Stanley Parable is a computer game that does something no other artistic medium could do so well. Early in the game, you are presented with two identical doorways. Before you can decide whether to choose the door on the left or the door on the right, the narrator tells you (in the past tense) that Stanley walked through the door on the left. Wary of authority, I took the door on the right and the narrator began hours of cajoling and threatening as he tried to persuade me to follow the game’s storyline as he envisaged it. Of course, you soon realise that defying the narrator is the narrative of the game.

There are a few philosophical concepts that The Stanley Parable evoked for me. I’ll list them here.

Free Will

The Stanley Parable raises interesting questions about free will. Whereas most games provide the illusion of free will and shepherd the player’s progress, this one  makes your lack of free will explicit. The game gives you no choice  but to violate its narrative if the meta-story is to progress. Perhaps the only way we can exercise free will within the game is in the order we choose to explore its narrative branches and various endings. This is a troubling question:

Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. But there is a paradox here that vitiates the very notion of freedom – for what would influence the influences? More influences? None of these adventitious mental states are the real you. You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm.

— Harris, S. (2012) Free Will. New York: Free Press.

(As it happens, I think Sam Harris overstates the requirements of free will. No one would reasonably argue that having acted according to one’s own will depends on total knowledge of everything that has ever influenced you).

The Eternal Return

Nietzsche said that a successful life is one that you’d be happy to live over and over again, even if that meant living with the consequences of your choices for all eternity.

“What, if some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh… must return to you—all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine!’”

— Nietzsche, F. The Gay Science.

The game restarts in Stanley’s office no matter how you die or how the previous storyline ended. Even though Stanley and the narrator are doomed to repeat the story ad nauseum, you can make different choices and a strange sense of progress emerges between dead ends. 

Samsara

In Buddhist metaphysics, samsara is the cycle of suffering, death and rebirth that ensnares all beings. The Buddha’s achievement was to release himself from samsara by attaining nirvana (which literally means blown out, as a candle is blown out). Nirvana is said to be beyond all concepts, including life and death, being and non-being. After treading and retreading Stanley’s maze, I was desperate to find a way to break the cycle so that the game could reach a definitive end. Even death is no release, because progress in exploring the narrative often depends on dying and restarting. The need to achieve nirvana – both freedom from control and freedom from freedom itself – seemed urgent and appealing. In hindsight, I could have turned the computer off at that point.

In the narrative branch known as The Zending (presumably a reference to Zen Buddhism) we arrive at a starfield where blissful lights dance. The narrator begs us to stay here rather than continue in the endless hamster wheel that has become Stanley’s life. He says that he, the narrator, finally feels happy. We soon realise that however pleasant this might be, it is not a true release. The situation is set up so that the player will inevitably choose to restart the game by grimly jumping from a staircase several times.

Consider the following lines from The Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s teachings, in light of the narrator’s exhortations for Stanley to let go of his narrow worldview.

“If you want to reach the other shore of existence,

give up what is before, behind, and in between. Set

your mind free, and go beyond birth and death.”

— The Dhammapada (2007) Translated by E. Easwaran. 2nd edn. Berkeley: Nilgiri Press.

The narrator’s promise to show Stanley something beautiful if he (you) would only follow instructions reminded me of these lines of Rumi:

“One of the marvels of the world

is the sight of a soul sitting in prison

with the key in its hand.”

the stanley parable

Jumping out of the system

Without spoiling too much, the narrator realises that a human is controlling Stanley when Stanley makes a choice where none was offered. Here’s Douglas Hofstadter talking about intelligence as an ability to observe patterns and step outside of a task.

“Now let me be very explicit about what I meant by saying this shows a difference between people and machines. I meant that it is possible to program a machine to do a routine task in such a way that the machine will never notice even the most obvious facts about what it is doing; but it is inherent in human consciousness to notice some facts about the things one is doing, But you knew this all along. If you punch ‘1’ into an adding machine, and then add 1 to it, and then add 1 again, and again, and again, and continue doing so for hours and hours, the machine will never learn to anticipate you, and do it itself, although any person would pick up the repetitive behaviour very quickly…

It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it has done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns. Now I said that an intelligence can jump out of its task, but that does not mean that it always will. However, a little prompting will often suffice… Of course, there are cases where only a rare individual will have the vision to perceive a system which governs many peoples’ lives, a system which had never before even been recognized as a system.”

— Hofstadter, D. R. (2000) Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. 20th-anniversary edn. London: Penguin.

This is what, I think, zen koans try to achieve: they prompt an ‘exit from the system’ of logic and conceptual thought. On that note, I’m about to put my feet up and exit this blog-system but I have a question before I do. Is it intentional that the one ending in which the player loses control of Stanley is referred to as The Freedom Ending?

Something to think about. Or not. The choice is yours.