Playdead’s Inside was unquestionably one of the best games of 2016: a wholly immersive series of puzzles, with a cryptic and compelling story that generated endless discussion and analysis of its themes. The internet went at it like detectives solving a mystery, eventually settling on three primary theories about what was “happening”. I should say two and a half, because the third was more of a meta explanation of the game’s secret ending. The thing is, this theory is the closest thing I could find to a consensus about what the game is actually saying.
And Inside is practically begging for you to dig into its themes and messages. It’s clear from reading most reviews and discussions that people know that the game is trying to say something, but either aren’t comfortable or aren’t interested in exploring it. There are absolutely exceptions to this, and people have written some excellent thematic analyses of Inside, but most reviewers stop short, as highlighted in this quote by James Davenport from a discussion in PC Gamer:
To me, it was pointing out the failures of revolution, how a class or race or whatever it may be comes out on the other side when facing a huge social or political power. Short answer: not without bumps, bruises, and plenty of generational trauma. I know, I’m getting a bit middle-school-english right now, but Inside feels designed as an impressionist game, and that’s what I came away with. Heck, the more I try to nail Inside down, the less I like it.
Most articles about Inside are full of bits like this, where people start to talk about the game’s themes and then stop themselves, often with a similar disclaimer in the vein of David Benioff’s “themes are for eighth grade book reports”. But I especially love this quote because his last sentence describes the exact experience I had when I recently decided to replay Inside. I started down the rabbit hole, theorizing and justifying, and I eventually came to that same realization that there really is no comprehensive, satisfying explanation that can rationally explain and connect all the events of Inside, because that’s just not what it’s about.
So in the spirit of being the change you wish to see in the world, I’m here to tackle Inside exclusively through a thematic lens. It’s been a little while since the game was in the spotlight, so I’ll recap chronologically what I feel are the relevant sequences, but the main reason I’m doing this is that I really want to make it clear just how thoroughly baked into the game all of these ideas are. Watch the above trailer again to recapture the mood if it’s been a while.
We start the game utterly defenseless, as we remain for most of it. Every challenge at this point involves running and hiding, until we reach the cornfield. This section largely serves as a movement tutorial, but the section after the cornfield is also the first real example of the game’s method.
As we leave the field and approach the farm, we amass a following of baby chicks, whom we leave behind as we climb a rope into the barn. The puzzle that follows takes a second to sink in, primarily because it’s the game’s first real puzzle, but also because the solution just seems so ludicrous.
We open the barn door to let the baby chicks in, then have them follow us past an intake vent of to be sucked into the machine. We essentially take advantage of their innocent curiosity to fling them very hard into a hay bale so we can progress through the game. The situation strikes as kind of comedic until we notice that one of them has stopped moving.
Shortly after, we see our first instance of “mind control”, a homicidal pig that blindly chases us until it smashes into a wall. After pulling out the little mind control worm, we immediately drag the pig across the room to reach our first mind control helmet. We then use the helmet to manipulate a body wearing overalls to fling itself off of a ledge. It lies crumpled on the ground for a couple seconds, and then gets up to help us finish the puzzle. The whole sequence leaves a stark impression: mind control is powerful, practical, and super messed up.
In our next interaction with the mind slaves, we pretend to be one, mimicking their movements as we march through what appears to be some sort of demonstration. This sequence shows us that the use of these mind slaves isn’t a shady government project, it’s a socially accepted practice. This is clearly a public demo, as evidenced by the presence of children, and even a woman with a baby. Whatever our feelings are about this, the public has accepted it.
Our existential horror is cut short when a guard dog sees through our act. To escape it, we take advantage of its single-mindedness, luring it down below a ledge before we quickly climb up.
We briefly encounter a puzzle where we must use a mind slave to control another mind slave. Worth mentioning in that it adds some complexity to the simple dichotomy of slave and master.
When we next meet the dogs, we run them back and forth around a fence while we pry boards off of a door. Again, using their instincts to our advantage.
The submersible sequence follows this, where we encounter our first creepy Ring girl. She doesn’t appear to be acting with or for whatever force is creating the mind slaves, but she does seem to be trying to drown us for some reason.
I’m jumping over a fair bit here, but I do want to give a shout out to whoever animated this mechanical arm in the shockwave sequence. It just hesitates ever so slightly before it rotates into position, teetering you on the edge of panic before it snaps into place and the shockwave goes off. Whoever put together this sequence, you’re brilliant and I hate you.
Our next encounter with the underwater girl sees us luring her away from our objective by dangling ourselves in the water, using her (apparent) desire to drown us to our advantage.
And in the final sequence with her, she drags us down until we stop moving, and then shoves a wire into our chest, bringing us back to life. They weren’t trying to drown us, they were trying to save us.
So something malevolent was at work here, but it wasn’t the girls. The discrepancy between their actions and their intent implies that their behavior was mandated/programmed/baked in by some outside force. They’ve been killing us because for whoever programmed them, it was more important that they follow their programming than that they actually save lives.The evil force here is the will to control. This is an important enough revelation that the game slams it home with the closest thing to a “level up” in the game (except maybe the ending), since we can now breathe underwater, and control the mind slaves without a helmet.
A brief moment follows where we watch a father and his son who appear to be purchasing a box of mind slaves, reiterating the ubiquity of their use in this world, possibly even as an elite luxury.
From here we move into the climax. This game doesn’t have a clearly defined goal outside of the title (to get Inside whatever this facility is), but whatever it’s been up to this point, it completely changes when we are absorbed into what the developers call “The Huddle”. It seems that the will of the Huddle is to smash everything and get the hell out, and after everything we’ve seen, this feels pretty reasonable. We burst into the office of someone who seems like they might be the boss, and we crush them into a bloody puddle. And at a certain point, the workers in hard hats actually start helping us.
In our pursuit of freedom, we tumble into what appears to be a trap, and finally escape by smashing through a wall and rolling down a hill, where we lie next to a body of water as a light shines on us and the credits roll. It’s rather melancholy, and unlike the smashing and wrenching that came immediately before, it doesn’t give a feeling of accomplishment or satisfaction.
So what is going on here? Well, the two popular theories I mentioned at the start suggest that the Huddle was mind controlling us the entire time in an effort to free itself, or that the whole thing was an experiment being run by the scientists.
The former is an explanation for why the boy would so blindly throw himself into the tank, but the latter has arguably even more evidence. There’s a diorama that we crash through during the Huddle sequence that is identical to the hill we roll down at the end, and that “trap” seems to have been planned well in advance. Also, every person who helps us in the final sequence is wearing a hard hat, and many of them are being overseen by white collar men in ties, suggesting that they might be lab workers fulfilling their duty in the experiment.
Full honesty, I’m not all that invested in whether either of these theories is “true”, because I’m far more interested in tackling the messages and themes than “solving the puzzle” of the narrative. What matters to me is all of that confusion and doubt in the ending, feelings that only worsen when we start asking those questions.
Whose goals were we working towards? What did we accomplish? The Huddle has put itself through tremendous pain to get here, but we haven’t come anywhere close to dismantling the power structures we were presumably trying to fight, we just killed that one guy in that office (he’ll even move out of the way if you wait long enough.) What were we even trying to accomplish?
Throughout the game, we constantly use the simple, predictable behaviors of our enemies to our advantage. In the puzzles involving the baby chicks, the dogs, and the creepy girls, we use their single-mindedness to prevent them from achieving their goals, or to further our own. We may think of them as stupid or brainwashed, something that we’re above, but if we look at the ending of the game, how much better were we at achieving our goals than they were at achieving theirs? Did we not also single-mindedly pursue the nebulous goal of “get Inside, take down system” and then ultimately end up failing and possibly even working towards the goals of the system?
It would almost seem like the game is trying to get us to think about the consequences of our choices, if it weren’t for the fact that this is a linear game and we can’t make choices. But what if we could make choices, and we just didn’t know it? What if that were exactly the point?
Let’s talk about the secret ending.
The seamless pacing and plotting of this game makes it difficult to remember to look for secrets. And the alternate ending can only be found if we are constantly looking for alternatives, constantly questioning the presented continuity and deviating from the apparent path.
I mean, we need to really be looking for this stuff. I’ll give a quick summary in case you don’t remember/never unlocked it.
We need to find and disable 13 orbs covered in glowing lights, most of which are extremely well hidden from the main path. After unplugging the giant orb near the end of the game, we have to load the game back into the cornfield, return to the orb room found there, input a sequence on a switch that corresponds to a sequence of musical tones that can be heard in previous orb rooms, before traveling through a tiny dark tunnel for almost a straight minute to reach a room with a giant cable going from the wall to a mind control helmet connected to a bunch of other wires. We yank the cable out of the wall, the helmet lights go out, and the little boy slumps to the ground in the same pose as the deactivated mind slaves.
Those two most popular “explanations” have very different interpretations of this ending. The controlled-by-the-Huddle theory sees this as us shutting off the Huddle’s influence, which doesn’t make much sense if the Huddle is actually controlling us. The everything-in-the-game-is-an-experiment theory sees it as you simply ending the experiment and your involvement in it, which is a little closer to what I think is happening here. But again, I don’t really care if either of these explanations are “canon”, because the thematic implications of this ending (and what you had to do to achieve it) are so much more interesting.
If the normal ending is about what happens when we follow blind instinct without questioning the institutions that may be influencing our actions, this ending is how to take down an institution from the Inside.
The new world order of Inside isn’t simply a giant evil big bad exerting its will – it’s been accepted by society, as we can observe from the families watching demonstrations, and buying boxes of mind slaves. The evil here isn’t just a corporation or a piece of technology, it is the insidious idea that some people are “beneath” us (note the blue collar garb of the mind slaves), and as long as they are, it’s okay to exploit them.
And if we want to take on an institution as large and entrenched as this one, if we want to take on the very notion that manipulating and controlling other people is wrong, we need to constantly remain aware of the ways that this institution and its ideologies may be influencing our actions, and seek out alternative solutions wherever we can.
Whether it’s the scientists in the game itself, or the craft of the designers at Playdead, the levels of Inside are designed to compel us blindly forward, fixating us on next big obvious challenge. All the while, we are forced to manipulate and exploit other characters’ behavior, and make extensive use of the mind slave technology. That’s not to say that it’s Bad and Immoral for us to be doing those things, but our goal should be a reality where we don’t have to.
And if we look a little deeper into the metaphor here, the secret ending sees us achieve that goal. The room we find at the end of our journey, with the desk, chair and glowing monitors, evokes a classic “control room”, but there’s nobody at the helm. Just another mind control helmet, connected to a bunch of wires and tubes. Because it wasn’t some evil mastermind enacting all of this, it was the system itself. After all of our exploration of the factory and ourselves, we’ve reached the belly of the beast, and can finally pull the plug.
Now we don’t really know if pulling this plug will “take down” the whole system, but I’m going to be a hypocrite for a second and indulge in some lore speculation. This thing that we’re unplugging here isn’t just one mind control helmet controlling us, it’s clearly an important piece of the larger network, given the multitude of wires protruding from it in lieu of a controller, and the extensive procedure involved in accessing it. But again, the literal events are ambiguous because they only exist to serve the thematic narrative. And the clear message here is that we are choosing to no longer be complicit in the system’s methods.
It’s no mistake that this secret ending takes us back to the cornfield, immediately before the sequence where we exploit the baby chicks. We’ve gone through the whole game, using the system’s means and methods where we had to, but constantly making conscious choices to question every lead we were fed. Our reward is the chance to go back to the point before the game forced us to put ourselves above someone and use an innocent baby animal’s behavior for our own ends. If we again look at the metaphors here, the boy slumping down after he pulls the plug is both an acknowledgment and a release of the system’s power over him.
So to recap, we spend most of the game after the cornfield manipulating our enemies’ behaviors and taking advantage of corrupt systems. When the system presents us with a sudden opportunity for power, our instinct is to wreak havoc and destroy as much of the system as possible, but it doesn’t really accomplish anything, the system still stands at the end of it. The evil behind the system was an idea, one that we have upheld even as we destroyed property and individuals. But if we approach what we’re given with a critical eye, if we make conscious choices to leave the main path, we can uncover a solution that shuts down the entire system without making us complicit in its methods.
This type of storytelling that focuses on systems of thought rather than individuals is often referred to as sociological storytelling. This video essay about Wall-E goes into more detail about the concept. Video games have a unique strength as an artistic medium for sociological storytelling, in that they are literally made of systems. They are by their very nature collections of rules that we must learn and follow, which makes them the perfect conduit for thematic messages about social systems and the ways that we interact with them.
Games can also react to a player’s choices by having a slightly easier “bad” ending that helps players learn a thematically relevant lesson in order to achieve the more difficult “good” ending, a storytelling tactic also used in Hollow Knight. Inside employs both of these methods to great effect, but only a fraction of the analysis around it has been concerned with the game’s sociological messages. We’re just not conditioned to approach games this way.
There’s so much we can learn by delving into the “why” of video game stories, but we tend to get very caught up in the “what”, especially with stories as ambiguous as Inside‘s. And it’s not just games – we do it with movies all the time. Dan Olson talks about this happening with the movie Annihilation. Annihilation has beautiful and haunting things to say about the nature of change and loss that render all the theories about whether the main character is secretly an alien completely inane.
But we have this societal perception that games exist purely for entertainment, and it predisposes us to view games in particular as “no meaning, only lore”. And this approach doesn’t just dismiss what the creators of so many beautifully resonant pieces of interactive media have worked so hard to communicate, it completely belies the vast untapped potential for video games as an art form.
So the next time you sit down with your favorite narrative-driven game (might I recommend replaying Inside), think about what it’s making you do, and why. Think about what different parts of the game make you feel, and why they make you feel that way. Not every game was built with its message in mind, but I promise you, it’s saying something. And approaching games inquisitively, understanding how they affect us, and questioning our perceptions of them is the best way to change the way we, as a society, think about games.
And hey, don’t take it from me. Take it from Inside.