Inside: Best video game of 2016
The ambiguous thriller for a year of ambiguous thrills
I will never get over the ending of Inside. It’s in my brain forever, lingering; I’ll never be the same. But I should start at the beginning. In Inside, you control a little boy. He wears a red shirt, like all the disposables from Star Trek. He wanders through a forest, a farm, a city. Men chase him, if they’re men. The setting changes, trending fantastical, clashing dreamy anachronism with maniac geometry. You imagine our half-cyborg descendants, millennia hence, crafting an ancient myth about our modern world. There are floating graveyards and oddly human monstrosities in the deep; a World’s Fair aquatica lit up green space-age neon and grimdark industrial factories resembling Frank Miller imitating Andy Warhol pastiching Upton Sinclair. There are sci-fi shockwaves and squealing pigs, robots with flashlight eyes, fire escapes and locked safes, and I swear I think I saw my office.
Inside is a platformer, so the obvious goal is straightforward: Run right without dying, until there’s no more right to run toward. But the game’s gradual pace invites meditation. What’s this boy doing? What are you playing? The game’s developer Playdead is based in Copenhagen, and surely there’s some easy joke about moody Scandinavians to make here. (What if Ingmar Bergman invented Super Mario?) But there’s nothing easy about Inside, not the clever brain-tickling puzzles, not the majestic paranoia of all the nightmare-fuel imagery. Is the boy a refugee or a renegade? An exterminating angel or the Devil himself? (Note, again, that dark red shirt.)
Like Playdead’s brilliant previous effort, Limbo, Inside is a game that invites interpretation. Unlike Limbo, there are no obvious clues: no mythic parallel, no clear-cut goal. The hot theory for Limbo was that when the game started, you were dead already; that’s positively optimistic compared to the story Inside seems to be telling. My interpretation of Inside is personal yet cosmic, unlikely but accurate: Inside is about 2016. This was a brutal year, haunted by death and politics. These past 12 months felt like individual iron bars in a cell made of history. It became a common refrain, on social media and casual conversation: Can this year just end already? Trapped, we moved forward, confident if nothing else in the normal flow of chronological time.
The boy moves forward, too. What he finds is grotesque; well, what did we find, anyhow? The final act of Inside is somehow both morbidly pessimistic and grotesquely optimistic. It could be a hilarious tragedy, or the most disgusting happy ending ever. There is a moment, extremely late in the game, where you break through a final barrier. Call it a wall, or call it Dec. 31. By then, you no longer have any clear sense of where you have been going. You don’t even know what you are anymore.
Soon, 2016 will be over. Like the boy, at long last, we’ll be outside. Wherever that is.