'Inside' the Lie of Ambiguity

by Nick Dinicola

20 September 2016

Inside is too literal to be expressionistic, but too vague to be a narrative. It's so ambiguous that it fails to be anything.
cover art


US: 7 Jul 2016

All art means something. A work of art doesn’t have to tell a story, it doesn’t have to evoke an emotion, it doesn’t have to comment on society or politics or the human condition or anything like that, but it still means something. There’s still a reason that it was created. All art is made with an intent. It communicates something to its audience. Otherwise, why bother even making it in the first place? When a work fails to communicate its ideas, when its meaning is so obscured as to become impenetrable, then the work becomes meaningless.

Inside, the latest game from Playdead Studios, is one such work: A game that evokes a lot of emotions and a lot of ideas, but then purposefully undermines those emotions and ideas. It’s impossible to decipher the intent behind Inside because its intent seems to change with every new scene. Is it a metaphor, a narrative, a dream world, all of these, or none of these?

Playdead’s first game, Limbo, was clearly an expressionistic dream world, one in which we accepted the world’s progression from thick forest to urban city to mechanical warehouse to some combination of them all, despite none of it making any logical sense. They were surreal places to begin with, made even more surreal by the sudden changes in location. There were no transitional spaces, no level titles announcing a new area, no attempt at a narrative throughline linking these locations—the world just changed and we continued on as if nothing had happened. We accepted it because that’s just how dreams work, and Limbo wasn’t interested in making logical narrative sense anyway. It was more about expressing a mood. Its intent was to make us feel, not think, and in that regard, it succeeded.

Too Literal for Expressionism

Inside feels like a different kind of beast. The world is weird, no doubt about that, but there’s enough consistency in what we see to suggest an internal logic, some in-fiction history of events that explains how and why the world is the way it is now. The world of Inside does not feel dreamlike. It’s not an abstract emotional experience, but a detailed fictional reality. It’s a confusing and foreign reality, yes, but only because we don’t understand its history. This seems to be a world, similar to Dark Souls or Bloodborne, that feels confusing at first but will open up upon close inspection and reveal its secrets.

For example, the transitions from forest to farm to city do not happen instantly. These locations are linked by transitional spaces that make sense. Between the forest and farm is a cliff that leads to a lake, then we go up and over a highway, through a cornfield, and across a flat plain before we reach the farmhouse. This transition feels perfectly logical and even realistic. Between the farm and the city is a mud field that looks downright post-apocalyptic with cars buried in the ground and broken telephone poles lining a long-gone road, then we hit a massive wall, climb some scaffolding inside it, move through a construction area, and then we’re in the city. This transition is less realistic, but it seems to hint at a history—the end of one society leading to the beginning of another.
The hints of history continue when we go underwater to explore some long flooded or sunken or abandoned buildings. We start at a facility labeled with a big bold “02”, then we work our way to a facility labeled with a big bold “03”, until we finish at facility “04”. There’s a clear progression here, and not just a progression of time but a progression of events as well. Something happened to Building 02. It could have been something disastrous, that’s naturally where our mind goes considering the setting, but there’s nothing that hints at this. Maybe Building 03 just had better Wi-Fi, so everyone moved over there and 02 fell into disrepair.

The reason is vague and open to an infinite number of interpretations, but the point is that any interpretation has to take this numbering into consideration. These numbers are the only kind of lettering in the entire game. They exist on these buildings and in this order for a reason. Playdead is trying to communicate something about progress.

That “something” could very well be symbolic or expressionistic in nature. History doesn’t necessitate narrative. A progression of images in a sequential order doesn’t automatically mean that there’s a singular logic linking them all together. Inside could very well be a series of standalone events that just so happen to star the same red-shirted kid. A progression of images doesn’t somehow prevent expressionism, but the repetition of images does.

There are several items and locations that repeat over the course of the game, appearing in different contexts each time, and each time the new context seems to add to our understanding of the item and its purpose in the world.

There are the drones / zombies / husks / whatever that play a large role in many of the scenes. We initially see them rounded up in a truck as if they’re being shipped off to some work camp. This assumption is borne out as we soon see them in a mind-control conga line, some form of testing of their slavery, and later at a construction site in worker’s clothes. They have a clearly defined role in this world, one that remains consistent throughout the game, unlike the shifting symbols of a dream.

This encourages us to question more about their nature. We also see pods throughout the game, and at one point, we force one open and drones fall out. So do they come from the pods? The window on the pods is always lit up if the pod is around greenery, does this imply that something is growing inside? It could be, or just as easily could not be, but the prevalence of the pods throughout the game encourages us to seek out a reason behind its repetition and a logic behind its slightly different incarnations (open / closed / darkened / lit). There’s a point to this repetition. It doesn’t suggest emotion. It suggests logic.

Then there’s the shock wave bridge, a bizarre and dangerous area that seems specifically created to defy interpretation and logic. We cross a long bridge between buildings 02 and 03, and in the distance, something creates a consistent shock wave that pounds the bridge, sending metal swinging and flying. There’s also some kind of mock classroom halfway across, housing a group of crash test dummies tied to chairs. Why the dummies? Why the test? Why the bridge? It would be easy to dismiss this as dreamlike nonsense—it exists because it exists, accept it and move on—or as some expressionistic metaphor, but then the game repeats this imagery. In Building 04, soon after plummeting out an office window with some executive or CEO in tow, we find ourselves in yet another construction area housing what are clearly parts of the shock wave bridge (those triangle arms that hold up the blockades are quite distinctive). Another bridge is being built.

This repetition undermines any dream logic excuse because repetition implies purpose. Dreamy acceptance only works once. Playdead could have put anything in the background—this second set of triangle arms is on screen for all of three seconds at best—but they specifically chose to show these arms again. Why? Whether justified narratively (maybe it’s where the parts are made) or symbolically (maybe it represents the impending destruction of building 04), the repetition nonetheless suggests a rationale behind the construction, which in turn suggests a rationale behind the shock wave, which in turn suggests a rationale behind the world. 

Which is all to say that Inside is not a work of expressionism. The world is far too literal for that, far too rational in its construction and progression and repetition. Playdead has gone to great lengths to convince us that there’s an internal logic behind everything that we see, so we can’t dismiss the imagery as weird for weird’s sake like we could with Limbo. Playdead wants us to think more deeply about Inside, to question the logic behind the world in order to understand the logic behind the world, to search for meaning in the imagery, to decipher its intent.

Inside was made with a different intent than Limbo. It doesn’t just want to evoke an emotion through imagery, it wants to use that imagery to tell a story. Inside is a work of narrative art.

But it’s a bad one.

Too Vague for Narrativism

Each puzzle set piece is powerfully evocative of several ideas. The farm evokes the apocalypse. The sunken laboratories evoke a warning of science gone wrong. The “conga line” of drones before masked families evokes class dystopia. In that line, the lower class are paraded before their superiors (or maybe something larger), revealing to a younger generation their future oppression, preparing them for their life as a drone, nothing more than a cog in the machine. The drones themselves suggest the possibility of mind control, collectivism, conformity, or any other related loss of individual identity.

Each scene on its own works as an expressionistic moment, but problems arise when these scenes are strung together. Inside conjures up a lot of ideas regarding free will, class warfare, and dystopian or apocalyptic societies, but it doesn’t connect those ideas in a way that offers commentary on them.

Take the farm for example, specifically the pig and the worm. The pig is seemingly mind-controlled by the worm, and the worms are in the drones too (as we see later on), so the game is purposefully making a connection between them… but to what end? Maybe it wants us to see the drones and the pig as similar entities—disposable cattle. That sounds good, and the symbolism seems to work, but when you start looking at the specifics of the scene, the metaphor falls apart.

The pig only becomes drone-like when you remove the supposedly mind-controlling worm. That’s when it becomes a living stool for you to drag and climb on as you see fit. Yet the drones are always subservient, so how does this reversal fit into the metaphor? Does individualism lead to servitude? Is collective conformity inevitable? What about the violence the pig showcased when the worm was inside it. How does that fit into the metaphor? Does it fit in? It doesn’t fit. The game keeps undercutting any thematic or symbolic interpretation with conflicting images.

Men are rounding up drones and the boy is running away from them, so clearly they’re an evil ruling class and their violence against the pod people tells us this kind of extreme class separation is bad. Or they’re scientists growing zombies in pods in order to better understand the mind control slug that destroyed society, and the boy is an evil agent of the hivemind hell bent on infiltrating their complex and freeing his mother brain—a collective using a collective to combat a collective. Or the men are part of an evil ruling class that want to use the mind slug to secure their power, and the boy is an agent of an outside force (the unseen player) sent to stop this fomenting of power—a classic gamey “me versus the world” story.

Or it’s all a metaphor for the way the human body fights an infectious disease. Or it’s just a tone poem about going “inside,” a game that wants to evoke the vague sensation of going deeper into something. Or it’s a series of economic metaphors about the worker’s struggle against corporate/government oppressors.

These are all interpretations that I’ve read or heard when scouring the Internet trying to understand Inside. The thing is that all of these interpretations are valid, which makes none of them valid. If everyone is special, then no one is special. Inside puts on a show of world building and consistency that suggests meaningfulness, but really its images—the pod people, the men in masks, the boy, the plugs, the mermaids, the shockwave, the gravity defying water, the blob—are just hollow symbols that can mean, quite literally, anything. Every interpretation only works on a surface level, nothing holds up under actual critical scrutiny.

I should note that this kind of ambiguity is not inherently bad. The images from Inside are undeniably evocative, and as such, they do work as pieces of standalone art. The scenes and set pieces and puzzles don’t need a narrative connection. They can be symbolic on their own and don’t have to mean anything greater, but Inside wants to reach for that greater meaning. It wants to connect these scenes together and ascribe a greater meaning to them. It wants to comment on individuality, collectivism, conformity, politics, economics, history, and so forth, but the symbols that it uses to express this meaning are conflicted to the point of confusion, to the point that they hide its meaning, rather than expressing it.

On the Moving Pixels podcast for Inside, our conversation eventually brought up Edvard Munch’s expressionistic painting The Scream. The painting works as a form of expressionism because it’s purely meant to evoke an emotion. We can read a reasoning into it, we can discuss whether it’s a scream for help, or one of anger, of fear, of frustration, of sadness, of shock—all of these are valid interpretations. However, they’re valid because we’re interpreting the work based off instructions suggested by Munch. The painting is called The Scream and this title guides us as we ponder its possible deeper meanings. Even if we don’t know the exact emotion behind The Scream, it evokes an emotional scream for everyone. The intent behind the work is clear.

Inside is not so clear. Inside is the equivalent of renaming Munch’s painting Expressionless. There would now exist a clear dichotomy behind title and imagery, and our natural immediate question is “Why?” The imagery is putting forth one idea and the title is putting forth a second idea that contradicts the first idea. What are we to make of this? The contradiction is clearly purposeful. There’s a reason behind it, but that reason can’t be understood by looking at the work itself. The work simply presents us with blatant contradictions and stops. It’s so ambiguous that we can fill in the reasoning, the author’s intent, with anything that we dream up.

When it comes to Inside, not only do we not understand the in-world, in-fiction justification for these images, but we also don’t know what any of the game is supposed to mean in a larger sense: What is the intent behind this imagery, and what is the intent behind this contradicting imagery? The game offers no semblance of an answer in itself, so we’re free to fill in that intent with whatever we want. Inside is as much about “going deeper” as it is about meta-gaming as it about economics as it is about internal body processes as it is about scientific ethics as it is about politics as it is about parenting as it is about… you get the point. At least Munch had the foresight to title his work in a way that directed his audience towards something. We can argue what The Scream is about, but we at least know his intent was to depict a scream.

Interpretation can only go so far. Eventually, a work has to speak for itself. If every interpretation is valid, then no interpretation is valid. If every interpretation is valid then the work itself is so hollow and so inherently meaningless that its meaning can be filled in with anything you desire. We can argue interpretation over many things, but eventually the work has to say something on its own.

The Lie of Ambiguity

All of this plays into the lie of ambiguity—into the assumption that it’s an inherently better form of storytelling than exposition.

It’s an easy argument to make from an artistic angle. Ambiguity can’t be overt so it requires a subtlety of execution. It’s “harder” then exposition in that it asks more of the audience, demanding that we think about themes and meaning on our own. Exposition is supposedly “easier” because it states plot and theme plainly, obviously. Thus ambiguity looks like a more challenging form of storytelling, and one that is worthy of more praise when done successfully than an expository story done successfully.

It’s also hard to argue against the power of ambiguity. The act of interpretation makes us feel smart. “This narrative is difficult to understand, but I understand it”, we say. Interpretation makes a story feel more personal, and therefore more appealing. The vagaries within it allow us to imbue it with themes that speak directly to us and our wants/fears/concerns/beliefs. By interpreting an ambiguous story, we stamp it with our personality, and in doing so, we give ourselves a personal stake in the success and quality of that story.

In other words, the more effort that we put into understanding a story, the more inclined we are to like it. We, the audience, are predisposed to like ambiguous stories.

But it’s important to realize that ambiguity is just a tool for storytelling, not a replacement for storytelling. As a tool, it says nothing on its own. A boy running through a dark woods may be emotionally evocative, but there’s nothing inherently meaningful about that scene. For ambiguity to be meaningful, it must be surrounded by more expository information, something to guide us when interpreting the ambiguous. If ambiguity is your primary method of expressing an idea, then you’re not really expressing an idea because ambiguity by its very nature works against expression. It’s about holding back information, not communicating information. 

Ambiguity only works as long as it reinforces the intent behind a work, and we can’t understand the intent behind a work without a little bit of exposition. The Scream is ambiguous in its emotion, but the intent behind its creation is clear. When ambiguity is used to create discussion of intent, it needs to work. If it’s used to obscure intent, it has failed. It’s a fine like to walk, and there are definitely no iron-clad rules that I can think of to distinguish a success from a failure. This explanation is more a matter of me saying “I know it when I see it”, and then trying to reverse engineer my rationale from there.

Inside feels like a game that’s constantly trying to obscure its intent. Playdead is so in love with the idea of ambiguity that they overuse it and end up sabotaging their thematic message in the process. What is the game trying to express about life, the universe, and everything else? What is it trying to say to me with its surreal-but-not-really-surreal world? What’s the point of it all?

Why was this game made?

If that’s a question that enters my mind, then I think it’s safe to say the game has lost its way.

But, hey, at least it’s still fun to play.

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