An ability to manipulate a collective is a hint at what a little boy's power as an individual might be.
It has been a year since the release of Inside, Playdead's follow up to the cult classic Limbo. When I reviewed Inside last June, I talked about its themes but avoided spoiling the game's ending, so it feels like it has been enough time now to consider that ending and how the game concludes with the embrace of a monstrous embodied form of collectivism.
The little boy that serves as the protagonist of Inside certainly stands out in the washed-out world of Inside. His bright red shirt marks him as unique in a world of muddy gray and starker black and white. This signals his individualism, his heroism, in the game.
But a hero for attempting to accomplish what exactly? Well, that isn't made clear at the outset of the game. With no background provided, the player is merely launched into the side scrolling world of Inside where the only goal that is apparent is to keep heading to the right.
While he heads right and begins exploring the world, this doesn't necessarily clarify his specific purpose. The boy's encounters serve to provide a sense of what is wrong with this world, some kind of totalitarian state has emerged in this land and people have taken on a zombie-like appearance of life within the total control of this state, but that doesn't necessarily make clear what a little boy's interests in heading deeper inside a compound run by that totalitarian state might be.
The game is quiet, providing no explanation through exposition or dialogue. It only allows us to observe the progress of this boy. Again, a progress that we are left to only speculate about as more and more of the world is revealed by our steady progress through it.
The boy clearly seeks something or seeks to accomplish something. After all, he is both persistent and brave enough to continue to endure in the face of threats that grow more bizarre as the game progresses.
Initially, it seems that the boy appears to be fleeing the state in the game, but as noted earlier, this is the opposite of what he ultimately is doing. He goes deeper inside towards the threat of collectivism, represented by the strangely animated, but lifeless husks of the “regular folk” that he encounters. He even uses them to his own ends by manipulating them with various mind control helmets that he locates within the game's world.
This ability to manipulate a collective is a hint at what the boy's power as an individual might be -- to be able to push back at the collective embodied by these husks, to bend them to the will of an individual.
All of which sets the stage for the final encounter in the game, between the boy and the thing that exists most deeply inside the compound that the boy has infiltrated. This being is a nightmare, the truly embodied form of collectivism, as it is made up of a hodgepodge of all of those “regular folk” that the player and the boy have observed earlier in the game.
The creature evokes images out of the traditions of body horror, and yet, the boy is seemingly unafraid of it. In fact, it appears that he wishes to join it, as he strips off his clothes and enters the tank that contains this monstrosity. In doing so, he goes deeper inside than he ever has in the game, becoming one with the mass of human flesh that makes up the monster's body. For a moment, it appears that the individual is gone, that the individual has now given in to the force of collectivism that this monstrous mountain of flesh represents.
However, the addition of the boy's will to the monster's own changes its goal, and the game, which so strongly wanted to emphasize the act of going inside that was the boy's mission in the first place, suddenly becomes a rush to get outside. The boy's will has changed the entire trajectory of the collective, indicating, perhaps, the power of individual will to steer a group and even a group mind.
What follows is a mad effort for a thing with dozens of legs and arms attempting to escape its shackles. It bursts forth from the tank that held it and manages to crawl its way out of the compound towards the sea, where in the end, it lies, panting, perhaps dying, but driven to escape its state, and the state, and its capture by it once again.
The final image is a haunting one. The boy has completely disappeared within this mass of flesh, but the action that he has caused, the sacrifice that he has made, is not invisible. It has been enacted through the player's action in controlling this creature and allowing it to escape its fate as a hive mind. Both the player's will and the boy's has led to this tragic but redemptive moment.