INSIDE – Assuming Control
You can tell a lot about a gamer by what their favorite controller is. Their age, where they come from, when they started playing videogames in general; all can be assumed through their playing preferences. These preferences can also change at any given moment, depending on the generation or the evolution of the console in particular.
My favorite controller — at the present time– is the PS4 controller. The PlayStation controller has a history of developing comfortability with each new system, and the Dualshock 2 currently sets the bar at its greatest of heights. It rests in the palms efficiently, the rubber sticks elicit an elasticity quite ideal to the mechanics of constant shifting and turning; plus the triggers finally suit the composition of fingers, as opposed to those of the dysfunctional original Dualshock. Even the intrusive touchpad proves relatively successful, especially given how little often games utilize it as a main component.
I enjoy the revisions made with the PS4 controller. The functionality is comfortable and makes a late night Overwatch session enjoyably undisturbed — the smooth composition even makes it easy to clean. To me, the Dualshock 2 represents the ideal center of satisfaction and ease when playing a console game.
Which is exactly what INSIDE strives to eliminate, and so effectively succeeds in doing. INSIDE, by the most basic definition, is a puzzle-platformer, essentially working in a two dimensional framework; however it constantly turns these familiar design concepts on their heads, simultaneously borrowing from its inspirations while also transforming their methodologies into something quite unusual.
This is the crux of what makes INSIDE such a dire, disagreeable experience. Apart from its oppressive tone, bleak color palette, and unsettling visuals, the game is a nightmare in its functionality alone. Proving through the player’s assumed interaction that there is no such thing as having total control over any body.
Videogames often associate with escapism; INSIDE deliberately defies this notion. It is a carefully orchestrated sequence of events, leading the player down a singular path, representing the very essence of a lack of control. There is no single moment where the boy protagonist rises above being anything but a cog in the machine, even when assuming control over the minds of other bodies, right up until the final scene where a picture of so-called ‘freedom’ seems so close to the player’s grasp.
Most of the game is spent pushing slightly left on the stick, moving the boy forward through the dilapidating setting one frantic breath at a time. One of my most enlightening moments with INSIDE came when my thumb couldn’t take it any more. I had to stop, flex the muscle a bit; letting the boy have a needed rest.
I became one with this silent protagonist, felt completely entangled within his own being. It’s a feeling only videogames can conjure, and most impressively with INSIDE, since that sense of relief parallels the boy’s animations, and associates directly with controller functionality.
In that very moment, Playdead succeeded in making me, the player, feel exactly as I ought to in the world they have conjured. My comfortable Dualshock 2 controller has been altered into as vexing a catalyst for control as surviving the tyrannical atmosphere of the game’s world. They have taken a stable environment in which I feel at home and at ease, and twisted it into an oppressive, burdensome climate where respite is only temporary.
I love it, frankly. It takes me out of my comfort zone, boldly providing a message and a purpose to the game’s functionality. When a title so adamantly pronounces its underlying messages and mood through the process of extracting emotional response from the player, it’s the mark of a developer who understands the artistic capabilities of the medium.
Compare this to a game like Resident Evil, where the awkward tank controls only further emphasize the survival horror elements inherent in the gameplay scenarios. RE’s sense of tension holds up two decades onward because of this unrefined control scheme. Imagine a more comfortable means of turning and aiming; a more polished and refined set of functions equates to a powerful player character.
Silent Hill 2 revels in experimenting with this concept. Plumbing the depths of psychological devastation, a near-literal weight placed upon the player as they manipulate James through cumbersome combative encounters, the game examines guilt as a catalyst for dehumanization. While players assume control of this unreliable protagonist, resultant scenarios (both narrative and gameplay) play out inefficiently, as though a subconscious presence is molding James’s arc.
For instance, playing through the game maintaining a low health bar will result in a suicidal ending; the implication being, of course, that the particular version of James as ‘controlled’ by the player cares little of his own well-being. These various endings mold a complicated understanding of James’s psyche and how his guilt affects him, ruminating on the trials we put ourselves through as a result of emotional decision-making.
And then we have more modern titles, experiments rather, like 2015’s Mountain. A game predicated entirely around the idea of witnessing the development of a supposed living thing, a being which was created but cannot be exploited or shaped, only observed from afar as it develops day by day. It’s a bold design decision: forcing the ‘player’ to sit back and only slightly manipulate the environment surrounding the titular being, serving moreso as a reminder that the world around us continues to exist even when we aren’t necessary looking.
But what’s most interesting to consider in regards to controlling this experience is the fact that only by initiating the game from the desktop will the Mountain continue to evolve over time. Exiting the game leaves the being in a sort of stasis, questioning the reality of existence through the simple pressing of a button. Does the Mountain cease to be when it disappears from the screen?
In short, videogames have the ability to acknowledge the fleeting awareness of control, be it psychological or physical. INSIDE delves into both, pondering the very notion of freedom in a world predicated upon the use of human beings as cogs in a machine. It carves out a deliberate path, but one only manageable through the perception and motivation of the player.
This concept is essentially what all games are built upon, but INSIDE approaches it with a cynical sneer, prompting meta-references to mind control and manipulation of others, capitalizing on the constructive elements that make up the medium as a whole. It puts an intrinsically-involved artistic twist on the mechanics it borrows from past influences, forming something at once both familiar and wholly-unique.
INSIDE reminds me of why I play videogames to begin with. Articulating the very lack of control we so stubbornly fail to realise as we continuously develop across our daily lives, it’s a reminder of mortality and a grim one at that. Alone, we function as little more than tools for others to utilize; but the chain ceaselessly cultivates regardless of our expendable presence.
Artistry has the ability to open eyes and argue the human condition. Videogames offer (often-literally) a first-person point of view describing the consequences of (re)actions, as well as the lack of control we truly have on the outcomes of our decision-making. It’s uncomfortable, beautifully bleak, despicably modern, and I can’t get enough of it.
Puzzle design prompts thematic implications regarding a regimented outcome to all scenarios, but it is the motivation and mental capacity of the individual which allows the destined outcome to be properly reached. Hence, all lives lead to determined ends; but the path there is rife with various emotional and contemplative responses (it’s the journey, not the destination, so to speak).
If assuming control — be it of one’s self or another — equates to commandeering a body as a vessel for growth and further understanding, then videogames in general allow for more than just a relative means of escapism (quite the opposite in the case of INSIDE, in fact). They beg a player to consider the limitations set upon them as people regardless of the setting, positing psychological, physiological, and even political ruminations that of which cannot be explored so extensively across any other form of art medium.
Leave it to a developer who chose to record all sounds through a human skull to contemplate so drastically the supposed insignificance of human Life, in spite of our natural instincts to survive. If there is one universal truth to be learned from the experience they have hereso conjured, it’s that truly there is no living without freedom. Liberty, the everlasting goal, facilitates incentive, and therefore experience. Despite its somber aesthetic, INSIDE manages to turn a very oppressive experience into a demonstration of organic optimism. I’ll never hold my controller the same way again.