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 Hero’s Inner Journey

This morning I belatedly saw a connection between two ideas I’m interested in: the hero’s journey and attachment theory.

The hero’s journey is a fundamental narrative that’s claimed to be at the root of all stories. It was proposed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in books such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The theory goes that in every quest the hero progresses, or fails to progress, through a series of common stages: the call to adventure, initiation, mentoring, journeying beyond the bounds of their world, trials and tests, ordeals, defeats and victories, and a final return to the world with a boon. Campbell and others have proposed various heroic archetypes who undertake this journey. Campbell noted that these heroes are frequently orphans or those whose parents are conspicuously absent. For modern reference points, think of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins.

Attachment theory is a widely accepted psychological model of human development. Developed by John Bowlby and others, it emphasises the importance of parental, particularly maternal, love and connection for the healthy development of identity. This connection should be neither abandoning or engulfing: ‘good enough’ is best. Bowlby was sent to boarding school aged seven during the bombing raids of the Second World War. It was a terrible time for him and he would later investigate the psychological effects of separation on infants and young children. Bowlby found that children with unmet emotional needs carried them into adulthood. As adults we then try to satisfy these needs through certain behaviours and strategies – some healthier than others.

Could it be that the hero’s journey is fundamentally a quest to resolve a deeply rooted childhood fear of abandonment? Do our mythical heroes respond to the call to adventure because of the desire to resolve an unmet need for connection? Notice that nearly always, the hero undertakes a project for the good of society and returns to society – if he or she can – at least briefly to bestow boons. Similarly, the quest nearly always involves mentoring, a kind of reparenting, in which the hero participates in a special bond with a teacher who initiates (or births) them more fully into previously hidden ways of the world. I was encouraged to make this connection by hearing therapist Mark Epstein talk about his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, in which he reinterprets the Buddha’s journey in light of his mother’s death one week after his birth – Epstein describes this as almost a passing detail in the canon, but perhaps a crucial one.

Perhaps these stories resonate with us so deeply because – regardless of how well we were parented, and how fully our emotional need for secure connection has been met – we all carry unresolved needs. Life, then, is the enactment of the hero’s journey as we find a mode of living, connecting, being in the world that enables us and those around us to identify and meet those needs in mutually constructive ways. This is indeed a heroic quest requiring much courage and fortitude.

The Girl Who Didn’t Exist

It’s common for children to have disagreements with their parents. However, it is not so common for them to disagree about whether or not anything exists.

So begins the latest fable to be compiled in The Book of Almost Truths. ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ follows the journey of a young girl sent to the woods by her parents to live with a cranky sage. Under his guidance, she learns a valuable lesson about what it might mean to be alive.

The story was influenced by Buddhist sutras and philosophy, and inspired by the jacket of Edward Conze’s translation of ‘The Diamond’ and ‘Heart’ sutras, which shows a large stone Buddha head seemingly growing out of a tree.

Read ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ here.

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