‘Inside’ Is the Video Game Equivalent of Danish Arthouse Film
Playdead's second outing is surreal, ambitious, and follows in the footsteps of a long-established tradition.
Inside is a difficult game to talk about – but not by any conventional reasoning. It’s a wonderful artistic experiment, more or less as an evolution in the style of Playdead’s 2010 debut, Limbo. Its casual grotesqueries are a wonder, at turns eerie, befuddling at others. There’s an unexpected rhythm to its quiet and thrum, and it undulates as you move across its landscape. And knowing as little as possible about the game before jumping in is the best way to experience it.
If you played Limbo, you might have gotten an inkling as to what may be in store, here. The small Copenhagen-based studio’s first game was a striking study of aesthetic contrasts, a grim, otherworldly 2D plane defined largely by its grainy Chiaroscuro and clever brain-teasing design.
While what actually happens in the wordless Limbo is open to interpretation, the grisly imagery, and particularly the concept itself, make a potential reading of its abstruse narrative not entirely out of reach. As you might expect, whatever interpretation you arrive upon isn’t necessarily the point; it’s a game that is almost more about a sensation than any single takeaway.
Inside may follow in its ancestral footsteps, but you could say that, as a more ambitious second outing, it offers no easy answers beyond allegory. Any familiarity with Limbo is a good baseline, and Inside presents more of an abstract progression than simply more of the same.
There is another parallel here in Denmark’s lineage of arthouse cinema. In the interest of the briefest possible overview, the avant-garde style of Danish filmmaking has a long history, stemming back to the European New Wave of the ‘60s. In 1972, the creation of the Danish Film Institute ensured that the medium had proper, state-supported aid as part of the nations cultural tableau, leading to all manner of creatively-driven projects in and out of the school.
Probably the most influential (eventual) outcome of all this was Dogme 95, an experimental movement spearheaded by Lars Von Trier and The Hunt’s Thomas Vinterburg among others, who rejected the more artificial aspects of formalist films – sound and lighting manipulation, for example – for a purer form of storytelling focused on themes and realism.
The movement ended over a decade ago, with Von Trier, Vinterburg, Susanne Bier and other Dogme directors and creators moving on to less restrictive – if perhaps no less radical – approaches, often resulting in deliberately-paced or obliquely visualized character dramas.
Yet the spirit of that creativity has arguably had a huge impact on Danish indies in the years since, and if there is one developer whose body of work seems to be a natural complement to their film industry, it’s Playdead. (DFI, which has been a funding source for culturally-inclined Danish games over the past few years, also contributed to helping make Limbo and Inside possible).
Both Limbo and Inside may be the most similar, if in a less luridly graphic sense, to Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn’s films. The divisive director, interestingly, turned down a chance to study at DFI before his first film, Pusher, and is no fan of Von Trier.
Playing Inside especially, you can sense a kind of spiritual resemblance to the dreamlike pacing of Drive and Only God Forgives, not to mention their settings of Los Angeles and Bangkok, respectively, both alien places that become characters themselves. The fragmentary surrealism of Bronson, whose script is so minimal you might almost consider it an experimental film, also resonates.
Anyone familiar with Refn’s work is well aware of how drawn-out the silence can be, almost daring your brain to fill the void with whatever meaning you wish; Inside’s evocative scenes achieve the same result in a way that exposition would only hinder, if not outright destroy. Both Refn and Playdead’s creations are a bit like swimming underwater, characterized by worlds that may seem somewhat inscrutable.
If there’s a “closest” parallel between the two, it’s probably Refn’s masterfully atmospheric Valhalla Rising, a migratory character study following a mute warrior taken on a forced pilgrimage with a band of knights marooned during the Crusades. It’s an appropriate match, given that both Limbo and Inside can be looked at as journeys, with all three stories told largely through the impact of visual expression.
It goes without saying that Playdead’s contributions, as high-concept as they may be even by indie game standards, are an invaluable contribution to the medium, which is all the more reason why Inside should be played without prior knowledge. The developers themselves seem to appreciate that as well, as the game’s launch trailer doesn’t actually contain any game footage proper.
To leave off, here is a clip of the Valhalla Rising’s ending (spoilers, obviously), which, if nothing else, shares a strong affinity with Playdead’s work. If you finish both games, you might guess at what that means.