Some games stay with you. Long after you’ve put the controller down, weeks and months after the end credits, it lingers. Maybe it was the graphics. Or the storyline. A boss fight. An ineffable quality you can’t quite put your finger on.
But it persists. The kind of game that makes you think “holy fuck,” long after the fact.
When your dad brings home a NES in the early ’90s, and you first meet a zippy Italian plumber with a penchant for flagpoles.
Huddling ’round a friend’s TV watching some guy in a Gi shoot fireballs from his hands. Shoryuken indeed.
When you repeat two levels of Japanese curio Kurushi, ad infinitum, because those are the only two levels on the demo disc.
Embarking on a gleeful rampage in GTA-paean Hotline Miami.
Or, when you guide Joel and Ellie through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.
Whatever it is, you can point to it. Even if you can’t quite explain why it affected you so much.
Because, like movies and art, novels and music, a video game has the ability to move you; to take you beyond the medium. Transcendental. But, unlike other mediums, you’re literally part of the experience.
Before I’m accused of pretension, I think I’m preaching to the choir here. It isn’t a stretch to talk of ‘transcendental experiences’ and ‘video games’ in the same breath. After all, that’s why you play games, right?
Sure, if you play enough games and often enough, you’ll encounter your fair share of sub-par shooters, limp platformers, and identikit sports titles. Not every game can reach the lofty heights of transcendence. Nobody has ever had a transcendental experience with any iteration of FIFA.
All the sweeter then, when you do land on a gem. A higher-plane of Gamedom. Games that go straight into your Top 10.
And that’s exactly where INSIDE went after I finished it two weeks ago.
Released in 2016, INSIDE is Playdead’s follow-up to Limbo. Ostensibly, it’s a 2D puzzle-platformer, much like Limbo, with a few basic commands; move left or right, jump and push/pull.
There’s no dialogue, directions, or descriptions either. You might be thinking none of this sounds like gaming nirvana, and I understand your concerns.
But over the course of a three-hour playthrough, that’s exactly what it was.
Welcome to the Machine
We take control of a nameless, faceless boy, running through the woods for reasons never explained, pursued by men, cars, and dogs.
The parallels to Kafka are unavoidable. A 20th century titan of existential dread, Franz Kafka was peerless in weaving tales of absurd predicament, subjecting his characters to fates of gross caprice; often at the hands of shadowy agencies with inscrutable motives.
And so we take our own Josef K through his trial here, without understanding why we’re even running.
The game itself is an A to B affair: progress involves leaping over logs; timing runs to avoid spotlight searches; manipulating items to climb on, before advancing.
Eventually, we swap the woods for a barn, then go deep into the bowels of an industrial complex replete with rooftops, subterranean mysteries, and underwater environments.
And what environments. Backgrounds are beautifully rendered. Greys dominate, with splashes of vibrant colours acting as relief. The attention to detail is extraordinary; dust motes shimmer in light, feathers float through the air.
The sound effects are no-less impressive, either. Spare and effective, the visual and aural dovetail to creepy perfection.
And that’s the overall impression here: creepiness. By making the game dialogue-free, Playdead immerse you in this world along with the no-name protagonist.
The puzzles are varied, although they riff on a few similar ideas: moving stuff so an area becomes accessible; timing runs to avoid capture or vaporization; timing swims to avoid underwater demon-dolls.
Deaths are frequent, but fair. They’re inventive, too. From death-by-dog-mauling, to vaporization off a sonic boom, Playdead’s creative team can never be accused of blandness.
And because the puzzles are just this side of challenging, we’re never removed from the immersive experience Playdead lays on.
You encounter the weird and the wonderful as the boy does, without explanation, or any idea of a denouement.
It’s still possible to infer some things, though. One obvious motif is escaping. Mind-control is another, as you manipulate droids in different parts of the game to aid progress.
But in the absence of an official explanation, theories abound as to the real nature of the game. What does it all mean? What’s the subtext?
Some think it’s a simulation; that our boy is doomed to a Sisyphean fate of restarting the same journey through the complex, without end.
Another likens it to a ‘commentary on the vanity of social media-fueled modern society’ and a ‘voluntary abandonment of individualism.’
Whatever your take, there’s no denying the game’s power to engender debate.
I didn’t think that deeply about its meaning, beyond the Kafkaesque obviousness. For me, the feel of the game was its own reward, without having to ascribe meaning.
And that’s the point here. When I first took control of Mario nearly 30 years ago, I was in the game’s thrall. I was sucked into a world awash with colour, koopas and mushrooms, looking on in rapt amazement.
So even though as a child I lacked the capacity for abstract thinking, it didn’t matter what it meant; it was an experience.
An experience I’ve been lucky to feel many times since. The type of experience that sits alongside the best books, the best albums, and the best films in its ability to move. The type of experience that makes me pity those that write off video games as ‘just for kids’. If only they knew.
That ability to move, that more-than-the-sum-of-parts brilliance, then, is precisely what transforms INSIDE from a mildly diverting three-hour gaming experience, to a Top 10 title.
And nowhere is that Mario-moment magic felt deeper than in the final section of INSIDE.
Because INSIDE’S ending is inexplicable. The ante is upped, the weirdness intensifies, and you move through the paces slack-jawed at what unfolds before you.
I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say it is the perfect sign-off to a gaming masterpiece.
So perfect, in fact, that I haven’t felt this way about an ending since David Chase called time on The Sopranos.
And I’m still thinking about it now. Two weeks after I put the controller down, two weeks after the end credits. It lingers.