The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Inside: Game Disintegrating

Inside, spiritual successor to Limbo, is a game about control, but is anyone really at the reins of the game's dystopia? And can an experimental documentary from the 80s give us insight into the game's radical pessimism?
Spoilers for Inside; no familiarity with the game necessary.

"If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster."

Inside is a game about being inside. Inside is a game about systems. Inside is a game about being inside systems. Inside is a game about people being inside systems that are constituted of things created by people that, nevertheless, expand far beyond the human in scope.

Some of the systems in Inside are game systems. Inside is a game to a large degree about learning particular small and large mechanics and using those mechanics to navigate a hostile, murderous world. It's a game about dying a lot to the game's systems. This is kind of the whole gameplay aesthetic that the creators, Playdead, built their name on. Their previous effort, Limbo, is a similarly torturous experience, as befits a game (maybe?) set in purgatory. There are puzzles, a puzzle system, but a lot of the time you're not so much trying to understand the puzzle's solution as you are trying to time your jumps properly in order to not get the child you play stabbed, decapitated, crushed by a long fall, drowned, eaten alive by wild dogs, blasted into meaty chunks by sonic waves, and so on. A large part of the game system then is experiencing gruesome death over and over while you attempt to carry out what are really fairly simple instructions the game wants you to do.

Some of the systems in Inside are the diegetic systems of the game's narrative. The world of Inside is some sort of dystopia in which a large part of the population shambles around as brainless husks, controlled via special helmets. The world is littered with strange experiments, at various times your player character has to pass obedience standards, industrial machinery and hostile, shoot-on-sight monitoring equipment is everywhere. None of this ever really gets explained, it just sort of is, it just sort of exists as something the player has to navigate.

Inside is a game about the fact that you don't necessarily understand the systems--both gameplay and diegetic narrative systems--that you're interacting with It's a game about domination and power and control, to be sure--it's not exactly subtle about any of that, what with the fact that periodically throughout the game you have to both pose as one of the shambling husk people and take control of them, commanding them to move for you in order to solve various puzzles. But that control is sometimes weird, abstract, and more about the experience of being lost within an incomprehensible and at times absurdist narrative and space than about any particular concrete idea about control.

Inside is a game where you start as a boy running through the woods and end as a monstrous ball of flesh and limbs escaping a research facility until you finally land, inert, in a pool of sunlight on a forested coastline.

Just what this ending means is a little up for debate, as is the meaning of the second, secret ending. Hell, if we're debating endings, I'm still not completely convinced that "secret endings" actually count as admissible evidence. Still, even if we do include this alternate ending--where you discover a bunch of random mind control ball things and eventually discover what might or might not be the actual body controlling the "normal human" you thought you were and unplug it--it doesn't really make the game less strange.

The big debate, just from what I've seen casually, seems to be about just what the game thinks of control. Is it possible to break free, or are we just slaves to someone else's control? This debate triangulates on the endings and small pieces of information here and there that might prompt alternate readings of them. What does it mean that, when you've turned into the globster, at one point you find yourself crashing through a ceiling onto a scale model of the same beach where the game ends? Was it all a plan of the scientists all along??? Or what of the fact that you sort of arbitrarily find and get sucked into the globster, launching its murderous rampage through the research facility? Is it possible that the globster was controlling your movements all along???

Or, like, were you the player always controlled by the game, man???

Actually, this last one probably approaches, most closely, something like what the game in its totality is driving at. Not that the other theories are bad or not textually supported, not exactly anyway. It's just that I'm not sure the game actually cares very much about the answers, and I don't think that's necessarily a copout (although I can see how it could feel like a papering-over of basic narrative incoherence).

What stands out to me from my playthrough of Inside--done during the second week of a cold that evolved into some much worse respiratory bug that I still haven't shaken off a month and a half later--is the sheer bewildering scope of the game compared to our player character within it and the tiny amount of information that we are given access to as players. It's the sense of being lost in systems I never fully understood, solving puzzles not because I had a concrete sense of the outcome but because, well, that's what you gotta do next. It doesn't seem strange to me that there would be so much confusion about who is in control to what degree because my whole experience--aided by nyquil--was one of dumbstruck awe and horror. 

What I came away with was a sense of a world driven by vast mechanisms that dwarf and surprise even the people ostensibly in control. At one point, post-globstering, I fell several storeys onto some scientist. He burst like one of the weird bags that Canadian milk comes in. Just, splat. It's hard to imagine that dude's last thoughts were, "Ah yes, all in accordance with The Plan to make this big ball of flesh take a trip to the beach. Excellent." 

My end impression then was that this game achieved a representation of what it is like to be a part of a vast assemblage of complex agents. It is a game where despite your ostensible player agency you ultimately are subject to countless forces and behaviors that have their own natures and purposes, the vast majority of them radically inhuman. To translate these ideas (drawn from Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter and some broader academic discourses around agency and environment) into clearer language: we might've built the machines and hierarchies and megastructures in our world or in Inside's world, but all those things can do work on their own--not just actively through mechanization but passively.

Think: greenhouse gasses melting the icecaps and releasing more trapped methane. Think: water slowly eating away at the supports of an entire city. Think: plastic and sea acting on each other to create vast toxic gyres of grainy debris. Think: a "democratic" structure that repeatedly elects candidates that the majority of the population actively do not want. What excites me about Inside is the way it uses the surreal game environments and mechanics to express these kinds of ideas, not directly but obliquely, abstractly.

The problem of visualizing vast systems is not new. I've talked before about the Sublime and how it was used in the 19th century--and now--to express an idea of nature as beyond the scope of the human, as ungraspable. Visualizing the human as beyond the grasp of the human probably calls for modified tools. Koyaanisqatsi, Godrey Reggio's 1982 experimental documentary, feels a lot at the beginning like the 19th century sublime, for example, but develops techniques that might clarify Inside's efforts. 

Silent except for Phillip Glass's repetitious, minimalist score--at times warbling, at times droning, always iterating on and exploring a small range of motifs, Koyaanisqatsi depicts a "life out of balance" (as one translation of the title runs). With only Glass to accompany you, you've not got much else to think about during Koyaanisqatsi than whatever the camera is pointed at. That shouldn't be unfamiliar to Inside players--the game has no dialogue, a similarly minimalist score, and a lot of wandering through spaces to and from puzzles (not to mention all the time you spend waiting for puzzle elements to cycle through whatever they're doing, reset, iterate, and so on). Most of what you end up staring at, therefore, is what you traverse in Inside and what the camera is pointed at in Koyaanisqatsi:

Landscapes. Lots and lots of landscapes.

What are the landscapes like? Well, the things that seem to be human-made at human scale tend to be decaying shells, hostile environments. Inside and Koyaanisqatsi share their urban environments. They are vast mausoleum cities. Koyaanisqatsi's first exploration of urban space begins, Glass's score dirging slowly in the background, with a few long shots approaching The City (the film is indifferent to locality) then slowly considers a series of close scenes of degradation, collapse, ruin. We actually get some shots of people here, living in squalid environments. Then we pull back and the music accelerates suddenly, aggressively, to a series of helicopter shots where we see that the street level view is mirrored again and again, housing block after housing block. Through this montage we are given to understand the city as necropolis.

Inside moves from rural environment to gradually more and more urban spaces and in the process we eventually come upon a vast sunken city. Containing fragments of what once must have been a conventional urban environment, you navigate via a small one-person submarine through its office buildings with their periodic corpses, dodging the nightmarish long-haired entities that now are the city's only inhabitants. The smaller urban environments we see--city outskirts--still seem to function, but only robotically, and the landscape is full of debris and the dead (walking or otherwise). The rural environment, of course, is full of slaughtered pigs. Decay permeates the human-scale landscapes in these works.

There's a kind of dark sublime at work here, a sense of these environments being vast but desolate, human-built but utterly alienating, made deeply strange by the mechanisms of the 2d sidescrolling format of Inside and by Koyaanisqatsi's camera eye. The weirdness of both transcends this aesthetic language, however.

Koyaanisqatsi, memorably, juxtaposes satellite views of the earth with microscopic views of circuitry. As above so below. This is exciting because, unlike the long shots of urban environments, this is a view sharing basically nothing with images of the Sublime. It explores the beyond-the-human by jumping back and forth between scales that individually inaccessible. (It's so striking that I managed to remember it as going on for about 20 minutes--it actually lasts about two.)

Inside, while it's still working with landscape, opts for a different strategy, plunging the player into spaces that are industralized, urbanized, and organized, while also looming empty, at inhuman scales. You as the player can only progress through these spaces at a tedious, human pace. Take, for example, the initial area that the submarine descends into, a vast basin filled with massive, distant pipes. This is the first real megastructure the game introduces us to. We get a swell of the minimalist score and have to make our slow way through a space so large that it hardly seems like any motion is happening at all, the parallax of the pipes in the background indicating the scale.

What Koyaanisqatsi achieves through fast- and slow-motion, its trance-inducing score, and its montage of images (here's a sausage making machine! here's people on escalators! Geddit?) Inside achieves through this experience of play. It throws you into locations like these vast submerged megastructures or abandoned, overgrown lab-parks, or...

Well, consider the sequence midway through the game where you have to navigate an industrial landscape while in the distance some mechanism sends out sonic waves that will literally blast you apart if you stand in their path unprotected. What could the machine possibly be? What is its origin or purpose? I have no idea. It's simply vast, inhumanly vast, and unseen. It seems to exist inside some sort of compound but the compound is itself so huge, and your first encounter with the sonic blasts off in the distance comes so long before you experience them directly (introduced during one of the longest puzzles in the game) that even holding it all in my head is difficult, let alone making sense of it.

This is a mechanism the size of several city blocks that seems to do nothing but blow shit around, sometimes damaging the structures it appears to be hooked up to and sharing a compound with. The sheer bewildering scale and apparent pointlessness of the thing is paired with Inside's puzzle system to give a sense of being at the mercy of these incomprehensible engines. In one frustrating puzzle, for example, you have to carefully coordinate a rotating metal arm with the pulsing bursts of noise and force in order to safely navigate a series of platforms. You're totally at the mercy of these mechanisms that don't seem to have much... well... point. You have to be constantly aware of your environment, but being aware of the environment doesn't help you to understand that environment in any meaningful way. You can only understand it to the point where you can, barely, survive it. There is no mastery of the system possible.

It's totally fair to call this contrived, of course. To an extent it probably is--there's no explanation for these things in the text beyond "they needed to be here for the puzzle." For a game that seems to have a narrative and thematic purpose that might be an issue, but here the very contrived, meaningless absurdity of the assemblages that you're navigating might be the point. Naturally these systems WOULD be contrived, absurd, and incomprehensible. It all feels a little bit touched by Aldous Huxley, and among other things the Brave New World is a series of technological absurdities.

Besides, it links up with the game's fervent desire to discipline you as a player. The puzzles in Inside are often trial and error. They're not overly punishing trial and error, as they can be repeated rapidly, iterated on, practiced. Nevertheless they are often trial and error, carrying on the tradition of Limbo. Errant Signal cites this as a problem with the puzzles. Elements like two traps in a row that trigger in opposite ways, he suggests, are not so much puzzles as cheap tricks. This design is Nintendo Hard, in TV Tropes terms--difficulty stemming not from what we might nebulously call system or mechanical mastery but from the game throwing up instant death challenges that you can't reasonably predict or even see. Moreover the puzzles seldom require too much thought, as noted earlier. They simply ask that you do the thing in the order and with the timing that the game demands.

Is Errant Signal wrong to suggest that this feels orchestrated, contrived and tension-stifling? Not at all, not really. I just don't think that the game is necessarily trying to be the cinematic game he expects it to be, or even to be a game about a naturalistic world rather than one deeply contrived.

The play experience of Inside for me was one of slowly learning to simply do what I was told, to read the signals the game sent me and comply even though sometimes I didn't understand what I was doing or why I was doing it. I just assumed past a certain point that if I wanted to move forward I should just go with the flow.

I was disciplined into acting on and for an system inhuman in scope.

There's a chilling brilliance to this. I can practically hear Roger Waters's sadistic teacher shouting "Wrong! Do it again!" on repeat with each death. And after all that disciplining, all that learning to obey the game's systems, creating a whole theory we might say of how to properly understand and navigate what is otherwise outside the human in scale, what are we left with? Just a model beach, and the player character, a blob lying motionless in the sun as the credits play.

This is, of course, going to be a problem for some players, and kind of was for me as well. I was certainly left wondering what the fuck it was I had just played. Still, I think it's interesting to note that it effectively dodges some of the problems Koyaanisqatsi has (apparently) suffered over the years. Brows Held High, for example, did an in depth breakdown of the way the ostensibly radical shots in Koyaanisqatsi, the visual language I find so compelling, have been wholly repurposed by the very machine driven consumer culture, the very life out of balance, that the film critiques.

There's probably something to this, of course. The argument seems to be that when you strip the images of their Philip Glass context, take out the chanted Hopi prophecies about global destruction and all that, they are transformed back into base matter which simply serves neoliberal interests.

Well... yes! Yes of course! What else?

What art could possibly withstand such scrutiny? Are Mondrian's designs, so absolute in their order that when a fellow De Stijl artist dared to paint his rectangles askew Mondrian never spoke to him again, not on handbags and dresses now? Are the jolts of dada and surrealism, the radical repositioning of things in other contexts, not fully rehabilitated into advertisement of every sort? Rehabilitation is what dominant ideology does, this is how discourse works. Any radical challenge can be subsumed and consumed by the vast engines of theory. It took about five damn seconds for people to start rolling out ads for candy based on Don Hertzfeld's "Rejected." You know.

That said, I think it's important to remember that this isn't necessarily a process that we can say is done by any particular person. You don't need a boardroom full of dudes smoking cigars and muttering to each other that they gotta get a plan, see, a plan to get those "Vapor Waves" back on THEIR side, gotta clamp down on this here aesthetic challenge to neoliberal modes of production, see? It's just not necessary. (Though I'm not going to go so far as to claim there's no thinktanks anywhere that look like that.) It occurs because of the constant desperate process of competition that means any trend, any new aesthetic, is a possible edge for some advertiser somewhere, something that can catch the attention of new buyers.

In this sense, Koyaanisqatsi is a victim of the very massive systems that it tries to make tangible in all their overwhelming force. Does this art fail? Maybe. It might well be that no matter how moving I find it, still, the film is dead, inert, fully incorporated into these vast human grids. I find it somewhat hard to fault the film itself for failing to transcend the vast assemblages it shares a world with, though. 

That's, perhaps, the core insight of Inside: 

There might not be an outside.
Or, there might not be an outside except one that we subjectively carve out conditionally for ourselves within a limited frame of reference. This is the optimistic view--that after all, it doesn't matter how much of the blob's great escape was orchestrated and how much was a surprise, or whether it's the blob guiding you to join with it or just the game sort of shrugging and going eh what the heck, there's not really a good character motivation for where we want to go but we're gonna go there anyway because it'll look cool. In the end, maybe what matters is that from a subjective standpoint your bloated blobster corpse landed in that pool of sunlight, finally outside the massive mechanized compounds you've wandered through. In the context of vast, inhuman systems, carving out a solipsistic sunny spot might be worthwhile if only because the resolutely restricted and local is all you can grasp anyway.

But Inside seems primed for the pessimistic view, and primed as a consequence to respond to the critique that anything weird it does--the introduction of vast environments, the imposition of methods of control, the alienating nature of the puzzles--all this can be subsumed into shovelware just as easily as into an art game. Remember, it's not called "Nintendo hard" for nothing, folks. But the underlying suggestion of Inside might be that even such a process taking place would hardly be comprehensible to us anyway, and only to be expected. Why shouldn't Koyaanisqatsi or Inside be subsumed by what they critique? The systems, it suggests, will drag everyone down in the end.

The most unsettling part of the game for me was a sequence where one of the long haired water things drags you into one of the deep waterlogged megastructures, pins you in the water despite your struggles, and inserts some sort of mechanism into you, a mechanism that ultimately gives you the ability to survive underwater like she does. It's a moment that undeniably helps you progress, but it is also a moment of horror and violation. After what is done to you, you simply move on to the next puzzle. The mechanism, the thing in the water, your newfound abilities, the ramifications of what has happened to you... none of these are ever explored.

How could they be? Whatever systems interacted to bring everything to that point are beyond the grasp of the player character, the player, and the other entities within the game. They, and perhaps the game itself, are all united, powerless to do more than fumble through the forces acting on them. This is why the debates over the ending or the actual question of what the heck happens strike me as beside the point. How much do the alternate interpretations really change the violence and violation done to and by the player character? Would a theorization of events meaningfully alter their nature?

It's hard to see how they would. You would still be just as much a disciplined entity, just as subservient to these systems, in the same place you always end up.

As a blob. In the sun. On a vast and empty shore.

This Has Been

Inside: 1. crazy game. 2. game in turmoil. 3. game out of balance. 4. game disintegrating. 5. a state of game that calls for another way of playing.

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