One Giant Leap, 2016: Inside

In One Giant Leap, Katie charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we huddle up and discuss Inside

(Spoilers, btw.)

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a game designer. It’s something I went to school for, literally majoring in game design. My school had game majors work in teams across disciplines1 every year, gaining experience by doing, culminating in the senior year project, which was set up to emulate professional development. This included having multiple milestones you needed to hit sequentially, and even a presentation at the end of the first semester where half the projects were cut and their team members reassigned to the surviving projects.

It is in the early milestones that I learned a production technique that I find useful as a thought experiment. The very first2 milestone required you to prove your game’s central mechanic in a grey box mockup. You were specifically not allowed to use any good-looking art, provide any narrative, or use any other sort of non-ludic polish. Your game had to be fun stripped to its bare essentials. The theory being, if your game isn’t fun at this stage, no amount of improved presentation will make it fun.

You can apply this to real-world projects; I fundamentally don’t think the mechanical prototype greybox of Uncharted would be much fun to play, for instance, especially in the platforming. Every bit of juice the platforming in that game has comes from animation selling the fantasy of danger. On the other hand, Splatoon immediately got me and every graduate I kept in touch with buzzing when it was debuted at E3 2014, because it has big, high concept mechanics where you can close your eyes and immediately see the banger prototype behind them.

That prototype isn’t theoretical btw, they demonstrated it at GDC 2018

Now, this approach is not the flawless foolproof One True Path to making video games. It’s a useful way to judge if your game is mechanically fun; many games are trying to be that, but many games are not, at least not all the time. Lots of games engage primarily via story, or aren’t even trying to be fun in the first place. What would a mechanical prototype of The Beginner’s Guide even look like? So, why do I bring up this bit of Katie Lore? Isn’t this article supposed to be about Inside? I bring it up to say this: Inside is a game that passes my college’s test, but I feel is worse off for doing so.

Inside can be described a few different ways. Mechanically, it’s a puzzle platformer. Most of the game is a series of locked doors (either literal or figurative) that the player has to figure out how to unlock. The solutions are usually environmental, rather than tied to a more overtly game-like mechanic (in opposition to puzzle games like, say, Portal). But the parts of Inside that stick with you aren’t gameplay, or at least not in a pure sense. The game’s main selling point is its atmospheric story, a journey through a dark and dangerous world, filled with body horror and open-ended imagery.

These two elements are not inherently at odds. Sometimes they work in harmony. There’s a sequence where the player has to blend in with a line of mind-controlled humans3, lest they be spotted by guards and executed. Having to blend in by observing normative human behavior and repeating it back by rote memorization is quite evocative; having to break down actions everyone else performs by instinct through having an internal count of “okay, wait for four beats, then turn, wait for four beats, then turn and march ahead for 9 steps” both works incredibly well and also makes me Feel Things4.

But more often, I think the puzzle focus hurts the game. There’s some basic frustrations that can arise; the game is so dedicated to not breaking cinematic presentation that it never once tells you the controls, which left me looking up the very first puzzle in the game because I just straight-up didn’t know the game had a grab button. But despite the potential pitfalls Inside mostly manages to avoid being too obtuse. I was able to get with it far better than, say, Braid. But I was always thinking about how to progress. I was taking in elements based on their utilitarian function, rather than really soaking in the whole picture. Like, late in the game, you fuse into a hideous mass of human bodies, and rather than contemplating the horror of the scene, thinking about how this thematically ties into the mind-controlled drones from earlier, or pondering if this fate wasn’t what the guards and dogs and such were intentionally leading me towards all along, I was focusing on my new controls, how I interacted with terrain and could throw objects differently.

There’s a saying I come back to often: “There’s no such thing as an anti-war movie”. The idea being, scenes of war are simply so awe-inspiring that if your movie includes them, it doesn’t matter if the spoken narrative is explicitly pacifist or anti-war. The power of the imagery is stronger. I think there’s a corollary for games, in that games are fundamentally about their mechanics. If a game makes you do something, spending active focus and effort on it, that thing is going to overpower everything else in your mind when it comes to the game experience. And there’s plenty of ways to account for this, of course5. You can make the mechanics fit your aesthetic goals so well that they reinforce instead of distract. You can make the dissonance part of the intended effect6.

Or, more and more commonly, you can de-emphasize mechanics, to the point where from a traditional perspective you aren’t even really making a “game” so much as “interactive art”. (This is what so-called “walking simulators” are doing, for instance) And playing Inside, a game made in 2016 and thus well after walking sims were in the public consciousness as a thing games with Inside‘s artistic ambition could be, I was left wondering why it chose the mechanics it has. It reminded me most of all of Another World7, a cinematic platformer game made in 1991 initially for the Amiga and Atari ST. This game has detailed sprite animation a la Prince of Persia, and frequent cutscenes in a style that’s quite ahead of its time. But the moment-to-moment gameplay is little more than Dragon’s Lair, requiring the exact right inputs to produce any result besides immediate death. It’s a frustrating play experience, coming from an era when games, even artistically ambitious ones, absolutely had to aim for fun. Inside is nowhere near as punishing as Another World, but it has that same dissonance.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is the game’s final shot. As a flesh blob, you have successfully broken free of the lab containing you, rolling down the hill to freedom. But when you come to a rest, in one of the most brightly lit shots of the game, you can no longer move at all. Are you dead, your freedom being merely a symbolic victory? Are you simply enjoying a moment of peace, a moment to yourself after all the horrors that have come before? I remember my thoughts, as the camera slowly pulled back on this scene: “okay, do I need to jump? Press action? Do I wait for something to happen? Is the game over? Okay those are credits, I guess it’s over. Shit, was there something I was supposed to pay attention to?”

Stray Observations:

  • The way the bathysphere jumps/dashes, building up energy before releasing, is just so gamey. I almost never use that word, but it really felt at odds with what the game otherwise was.
  • Same with the upside-down water, though I’m always a sucker for that. But like, I’m a sucker because it’s so fun, is that really what I’m meant to be feeling at that point of the game?
  • There’s apparently a secret ending you can unlock by going to hidden rooms throughout the game? I dunno, feels odd. The secret scene is evocative, at least.

Other 2016 platformers of note:

Super Mario Run brings the New Super Mario Bros. experience to phones, using the same auto-run simplification that the Rayman Origins mobile game used to great effect. The game’s even shockingly honest re:monetization. You get the first world for free, and then you get the rest from a one-time purchase of $10. No gambling, no energy, no nickeling and diming or any other bullshit.

Mobile gamers hated it. $10?! What do they look like, Andrew Carnegie? Nintendo didn’t need to be told twice, and all their other mobile games are exploitative crap, but technically it’s all free if you want it to be, and you’re too smart to fall for their tricks, right big fella? Step right up, try your luck.

Elsewhere, EA tried one more time to make Mirror’s Edge happen with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. Unfortunately, all AAA games in 2016 were by law required to be open world, and the parkour obstacle courses that made ME shine just didn’t work as well in an open world game. Maybe one day this cult classic first-person platformer will have a breakout hit, but that day wasn’t in 2016.

Next Time: It’s a One Giant Leap special event! 2017 saw a lot of platformers mining nostalgia from different angles, and we cover not one but four such games: Sonic Mania, Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, Yooka-Laylee, and A Hat In Time