Inside and Tension

StoryScan: Critical hit

Intro

StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Inside (Playdead, 2016), a haunting puzzle-platformer in a monochrome world. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers.

Content Warning: This essay contains discussion of graphic violence against children, which may be upsetting to some. Those who wish to avoid this content may want to set this article aside. For those looking for an alternative study of tension, check out our study of To the Moon and Tension or our general essay on tension in narrative.

Playdead’s Inside (2016) feeds player imaginations by leaving key details of the story unstated.

More than any other genre, horror thrives in the realm of the unknown. Unreliable narrators, low lighting, sparse prose, and narrow viewpoints are just some of the tools artists have created to build tension until the perfect moment. These tools build tension by withholding information from the audience, leaving their imaginations to do the work. An ordinary person in the doorway in the daytime is nothing to be afraid of, but that same person can be terrifying when they’re cloaked in shadows and silence at midnight. The difference is the lack of information: the inability to assess the stranger’s appearance, intentions, or motives. Great works of horror use these gaps in information to build fear in the audience’s minds, and then they feed it and feed it until the moment of release—if that release ever comes.

Just like movies and novels, the best horror games use the threat of the unknown to create tension in their narratives. One memorable horror game that hides more than it reveals is Inside (Playdead, 2016), the 2.5D puzzle-platformer that pits one faceless boy against an unfeeling, monochrome world. Inside is unique not only because of its eerie visuals and sparse soundtrack but also for its total lack of dialogue. The player must piece together the story from environmental clues, relying on background visuals and sounds to flesh out the narrative. Even the most attentive players won’t be able to put together everything, however, as Inside never gives away all the answers. Instead, it gives the player just enough information about the plot, characters, and setting to feed their imaginations, allowing the horror to build in their own minds. 

Withholding Information

Plot

The protagonist’s ultimate goal may be unclear, but he has good reason to run from his pursuers.

It’s hard to tell a story without revealing the details of the plot, yet that’s exactly what Inside does. In Inside, the protagonist’s ultimate goal is unknown, and all the player knows is that they must keep running from where they came from. In a vacuum, this flimsy goal wouldn’t be enough to keep the player motivated, but Inside’s developers use a combination of background details and enemy interactions to fill in the other critical elements of plot: stakes and urgency. 

Right from the start, the protagonist is being chased by a group of faceless men with tranquilizers, trucks, and violent attack dogs. Should the player slow down for any reason, the guards will catch up to him almost immediately. In the best-case scenario, they’ll knock the protagonist out with a tranquilizer dart or a chloroformed rag; when the situation doesn’t allow for mercy, they’ll shoot him in the water or leave him to be mauled by the dogs. The developers aren’t shy about depicting these deaths on screen, either. Even though the protagonist appears to be a child, the camera will remain unflinchingly fixed on their little body as they’re bruised, beaten, and torn apart. This naked brutality makes the stakes and urgency of the story all too clear: escape now or die in the worst way possible. Together, these elements form enough of a concrete goal that can propel the player forward, even if they don’t know why they started running in the first place. 

Character

The protagonist’s red shirt sets him apart from the colorless people in the monochrome world.

Inside’s characters are defined as much by the traits they lack as the ones they possess. The denizens of Inside are faceless and featureless, and the protagonist is no exception. The one thing that sets him apart from the rest of the world is his red shirt, but that’s enough to make him stand out in a monochromatic world. It’s a sign that he’s different than everyone else, even if the player doesn’t know why. The clues come in through the background details, where the player sees the other residents of the world. Generally, the people in Inside fall into two characters: those trying to capture the protagonist and those who can be controlled. The enemies who want to capture the protagonist come in many flavors, from plainclothes guards to well-dressed executives, but they’ll all drop everything to track the player until he’s in captivity or out of reach. Like the protagonist, their motives are unknown, yet that lack of stated motive is one of the things that makes them so terrifying. They’ll chase a child down, potentially to kill him, and it’s up to the player to imagine why. 

A potential answer becomes clear when the player meets the other type of background character: the mindless humans who can be controlled by machine. Inside doesn’t tell you why or how these mobs to people came to be under the control of the machines, or what purpose they serve, and that uncertainty makes them all the more terrifying. If the player is caught alive, will they, too, be enslaved? If so, what will they be forced to do? In the late game, the player is subsumed by a writhing mass of flesh, its many limbs propelling it like a hellish wheel, yet even then, the protagonist’s intentions remain unclear. Some hidden elements suggest the protagonist has been under control of the machines from the start, which means their actions have never been their own. This information gap invites all kinds of speculation, particularly about the relationship between the protagonist and the player, and the story takes on a greater degree of depth precisely because of what’s left unstated. The protagonist’s place in the world is uncertain, and all he knows how to do is what the player can help him do: run. 

Setting

The player knows nothing about the setting beyond what they can see: a crumbling, drowning, industrial Hell.

Inside is nothing if not a visual experience, and the visuals reveal a great deal about the setting. The world of Inside is a drab, dreary place, and the human structures that mar the landscape are in differing states of decay. Old farms have holes in the walls and ceilings, metal catwalks bend and break in the middle, and everything is drenched in water. Entire sections of the game take place in long-abandoned underwater facilities, and the player can find proof of the humans who came before at the bottom of the unforgiving sea. What they can’t find is an explanation for how the world got this way or where it’s heading next. 

Inside’s uniquely unsettling setting raises myriad questions about the past and future of the world, and the developers pointedly leave them all unanswered. The player is presented with a grim, industrial world beset by dark water and rain, and they’re given no explanation for how these elements interact. All they know is what they can see: human beings racing to control each other, experimenting on their fellow man en masse without any emotional attachment. It’s the player’s job to imagine what purpose these experiments serve and how they’re related to the harsh environment, and Inside’s pervasive gloom and brutality ensure the player’s imagination will drift to the darkest of places. Maybe they don’t know why humanity has cocooned itself in an industrial nightmare world, but they’re given enough evidence to know it’s nothing good. 

Closing

Tension and horror have their roots in the unknown, and few games tackle the unknown quite like Inside. By withholding crucial information about the narrative from players, the developers make room for imaginations to head to the darkest places. Storytellers who wish to heighten the tension in their works can look to Inside as an example of what to reveal and what to hold back to create an ideal environment for the most frightening kind of speculation. 

Further Reading

Prototype: Alex Mercer

Narrative Analysis:
Tension

The imbalance of information between the characters and the audience keeps the story interesting.

StoryScan: To the Moon and Tension

To the Moon tells a compelling story, but too many false mysteries strain the audience’s credulity.

StoryScan: 12 Minutes and Theme

12 Minutes develops the theme of mindfulness, by connecting it to plot, character, and setting.

footnotes