Since it’s October again, it’s time for my traditional post about a spooky game. Last year, I wrote about the innovative use of death in the mechanics of Limbo, and this year I’m excited to tackle the storytelling of Inside.
A spiritual successor to Limbo (2010), Playdead’s Inside (2016) is also a 2.5D puzzle platformer, and was similarly well-received by gamers and critics alike. Similar to Limbo, death is used as a feedback mechanism in Inside. In fact, death of the player character in Inside is depicted as even more alarmingly gruesome.
But we already know that the folks at Playdead can design great puzzles and platforming gameplay. And we already know that their “trial and death” system supports the players’ learning and problem solving. What I want to write about here is where I feel Inside is a step above Limbo, and that’s in its clever storytelling.
Spoilers for Inside abound below, so be warned.
The Plot of Inside
In Inside, the player plays as a boy who wanders through the wilderness and infiltrates a scientific facility. At times pursued by guards and dogs, the player has to solve puzzles to avoid them and discover or create pathways to advance.
Within the facility, the player eventually is sucked into a giant blob creature made out of humanoid limbs. As scientists watch in horror, the player as the “Huddle” breaks out of its chamber and goes on a rampage throughout the building.
To understand the story structure, we can go back to the lessons on narrative arc from high school English class.
it’s easy to fit the progression of Inside into this simple story structure. There’s no doubt that Inside follows a common arc that has proven effective for many types of stories.
Marrying Mechanics to Storytelling in Video Games
But there’s more to it, because Inside is also an interactive story in the form of a video game. In games, players have to perform actions in order to advance the story. This will often fit into one or more established storytelling frameworks for video games. The strength of a game’s storytelling is linked to how well it matches with its mechanics.
In the most basic examples, RPGs often place the player in a role of the hero, who fights through many quests in order to achieve a main objective, such as taking down a final boss. This progression makes sense because the game mechanics would be combat or exploration, which is what the hero would do in the world to advance.
More interesting examples place players in unique situations that use mechanics to strengthen their storytelling. In Ico, the main character must help the princess Yorda traverse through the land, and needs to arrange the environment to allow her to pass before advancing. Ico can also take Yorda’s hand to move faster.
In Never Alone, the player’s character Nuna travels with an arctic fox companion through a puzzle platformer game. Nuna and the fox need to work together, with either two players or one player switching between them, to unlock the puzzles with their unique abilities.
Like these games, Inside marries narrative to mechanics well, but it also goes one step further. Inside has a very abrupt switch in the story tone and action that is cleverly reflected in a change in mechanics. This is not often seen in video games, as they usually stick with the same gameplay as players learn and gain skills throughout. But it’s one of the reasons the storytelling in Inside is so effective.
The Turning Point of the Story of Inside
The turning point, or the climax, is the point of highest tension at the peak of the story arc. From here on, everything changes for the main character. Most stories, even in games, have this moment, from Mass Effect to Pokémon.
But Inside captures this switch far more effectively because at this point, things not only change for the character, but for the player too. The player ends up interacting with the world in an entirely different fashion from the rest of the game.
In Inside, this moment of change is when the boy releases the Huddle and becomes a part of it. Suddenly, everything in the game world changes, from the sound to the player mechanics. Suddenly, instead of the boy needing to be stealthy to avoid being captured and killed by guards, the people are all scared of the Huddle, whom the player now controls.
This is a drastic change. The Huddle is the opposite of the scared boy. It is big and powerful, and the mechanics change so that the player gets to go on a power trip. Suddenly, the player is crushing scientists, crashing through glass, scaring screaming people.
It’s a shocking, but exhilarating change for the player. This dramatic boost in power forms a satisfying conclusion to the game, releasing the tension that the player has felt from trying to run and hide from others. It allows the player to feel strong and enact a form of revenge, while reinforcing the story direction. This power shift is only experienced for less than 10% of the game, towards the very end, but it feels amazing.
Video Games Excel when Players Feel the Story
Like Limbo, Inside doesn’t explicitly tell the player what the story is about. There are no in-game descriptions of the facility, or the Huddle. There is no exposition about why the boy was trying to sneak in or why the Huddle was trying to get out. Of course, there’s plenty of theorising about all these things online, as well as what the alternate ending could mean.
Despite this, Inside’s story is strongly told through gameplay and mechanics, especially that narrative and mechanical shift that abruptly happen at the same time. It’s subtle in the sense that the player doesn’t notice that the moment is used to reinforce the story, yet it’s very effective.
This way, Inside shows that a story arc is not told to the player so much as it is felt. Therefore, the more elements designers can use to reinforce story beats, whether that’s music, lighting, or sound effects, the better.
In the end, Inside does even more by shifting tone drastically in the mechanics when it’s called for, strengthening the story by changing the gameplay itself.