I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, Williams College, Brown University, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Inside (Understanding Games #3)


This is the third article in a series documenting my Game Camp for Grownups at Williams College for introducing humanities faculty to the medium of video games. [Previous: #2:Monaco]

“Inside” (2016)  
"Inside"
Designed by J. Carlsen
Directed by A. Jensen
Developed and published by Playdead for Xbox One and Windows

Jensen and Carlsen’s previous game, “LIMBO,” was a spectacular combination of 2D platforming mechanics, puzzles, environmental storytelling, narrative, ambient audio, and 2D art.

With “Inside,” they’ve polished and matured that formula into what looks to be the game of the year.

"LIMBO"
Unlike most games, you must to play all of the way through "Inside" to appreciate it. If you stop even 80% of the way through, then you'll miss essential elements of the game. It is fine to play the game with a group of people and pass the controller around. Just make sure that everyone has chance to control each of the types of challenges, for example: under water, shockwaves, etc.

It should take you about three hours to complete the game, provided you don't get stuck anywhere for too long. If you are stuck on a puzzle and would like to move on, I consider it acceptable to use a walkthough guide (but don't read ahead...only consult the guide to move past a specific puzzle). That's because this particular game communicates through the narrative and the feel of movement, not the puzzle solving.

Technically, "Inside" has two endings, and only one choice in the entire game: which ending to drive for. However, the second ending is nearly impossible to achieve without a lot of time investment and looking at a guide. I can't believe that the typical player is expected to play it. I recommend that when you've seen the credits roll on the first ending you simply look up a video of the second ending so that you'll know what it is.

Flawless

While there are many great games, I can think of only a handful of flawless ones.

Flawless games are the ones where the technical elements, the controls, the balance, and the mechanics all are perfect for each other and what the game achieves and there is no room for improvement.

Super Mario Bros.TetrisMetroid: Zero MissionOcarina of TimeAge of Empires III, and everything Tim Schaffer made at LucasArts are in this category. In recent history, Portal and Portal 2 are flawless. XCOM almost achieves this company, but it is held back by the cut scene visuals, which will look dated in a few years. (It is hard for any game with realistic human characters to be flawless today because real-time computer graphics and artificial intelligence still aren't very good at depicting humans.)

"Inside" is flawless. The art style of "Inside" abstracts the human characters in an animated style that needs no improvement and will age well. Volumetric lighting, fire, water, and glass are all rendered perfectly through careful art direction, even though each of these is considered an open problem in graphics technology. These effects are all used to guide the player and enhance tone.

It is the first 3D game that I've seen with zero aliasing (no jagged edges or flickering). That alone is a huge achievement, because many people feel that aliasing is the primary visual difference between CGI film and games.

The puzzles and platforming elements are tuned as well as possible. They present a challenge that gives the player a sense of accomplishment on defeating them, but are not so hard as to drive most to quit in frustration. The diversity of platformer mechanics employed is impressive. These include lock and key, physics, jumping puzzles, audio puzzles, timing puzzles, patterns, arcade sequences, backtracking, side quests, and ordering puzzles (e.g., crossing a river with a fox and geese).

Pacing is excellent. Just as a style of play becomes familiar or the story starts to wear thin, the game layers more complexity and introduces twists. The overarching story and ending(s) are sublime.

Although there is nothing I would change about "Inside," I do not present it as the acme of video games or a model for what all other games should be like. It has perfectly executed its own unique design, but game design is a vast space. Some games excel with novel mechanics, complex 3D graphics, choice-driven narratives, and other directions which "Inside" does not explore. This is a great game and there's a lot of room for other types of great games as well.


Between Film and Games

In this series, I use "media" as a generalization of medium, genre, and form. I've discussed how media provide structures and conventions. An individual work often draws on multiple media. It is important to analyze each work using the appropriate tools. So, what are the right tools for "Inside"?

Last week's game, Monaco, is close to the center of mass of the "video game" medium and leverages mostly game-like structure: foregrounded mechanics, meaningful choices, and a unique experience driven by them on every play through. We analyzed Monaco as a video game and downplayed the narrative and characters. A game like that is called emergent because the mechanics allow many different situations to arise based on player choice. "PAC-MAN DX" is also emergent.

"Inside" draws equally from animated film and video game structure. It is a purely progressive game, in that the player works through a predetermined linear progression with minimal (in this case no) real choices. We can apply some of the tools of video game analysis to "Inside" for discussing the control feel and the layered puzzle mechanics. But the purely progressive nature, strong narrative, breathtaking visuals, and ambient soundtrack of this work signal that we must also analyze it using techniques from animated film.

Uncharted 4
Progressive games are good for narratives but create a clear tension between giving the player apparent control and actually restricting it. Naughty Dog's Uncharted series is one of the few progressive game series in which this tension is resolved well. The immaculate design of those games predicts and manipulates the player's desires so well that many players simply don't feel manipulated or constrained. (The Last of Us is also by Naughty Dog and has a similar design and is arguably even better. It introduces enough RPG elements to make the combat sequences more emergent even though the overarching narrative is tightly controlled, and the narrative scenarios are more sophisticated.)
The Stanley Parable is a progressive game that directly criticizes other progressive games.

The Stanley Parable
"Inside" takes an extremely sophisticated approach that lies between that of Uncharted and The Stanley Parable. It motivates the player with the classic, implicit platformer command that dates back to Super Mario Bros.: Go Right!

"Inside" then introduces a very compelling narrative, which is told solely through environmental storytelling. This draws the player on, and, combined with excellent use of light, music, and visceral terror (of drowning, of capture, of execution, ... and various worse horrors later in the game), drives gameplay so that there is little desire to make any choice except move to the right of the screen, quickly. This is the Uncharted approach, and where the game draws heavily on film-like conventions.

But even as it manipulates the player, "Inside" reflects its structure with the in-game themes of control and manipulation. As with The Stanley Parable, the creators are clearly aware that they've made a purely linear experience, with no choices. One can construct a strong argument that the game is self-aware of its status as a game, based on the main and secret endings (I won't present that argument here, to avoid spoilers.)

Unlike The Stanley Parable, "Inside" doesn't criticize progressive games. It is presenting a film-like narrative and enhancing the experience by making you responsible for the maintaining the progression. I don't think I would have felt terror in watching some of the scenes in a traditional film, but I was near panic when playing them. When surreal and grotesque elements emerged in the final sequences, my reactions to them were very different than they would have been for a film. The sense of identification with the protagonist is much stronger in a well-executed game than in a well-executed film; Inside bridges the two.

References

"Inside" is artistically related to its predecessor, "LIMBO." I don't see that as a reference, however. Carlsen and Jensen are iterating on their vision and "Inside" is probably closer to it.

Another World
"Inside" strongly references Another World (a.k.a. Out of this World),  Éric Chahi's 1991 video game. Another World was commercially and critically successful at the time of its release, and deservedly so--the game's structure, story, and visuals were among the best ever achieved in 2D and ahead of their time.

Another World has since been lost from the general public's gaming consciousness (compared to, say, PAC-MAN) but remains a cult classic. Like The Velvet Underground & Nico for pop music, Another World's influence on game designers was significant beyond the work's direct impact. In "Inside," the visual style, progressive narrative, overall tone, and some specific elements (e.g., the worms, the pig charge, swimming) are so clearly from Another World that they must be explicit homages.

As the progenitor of all medium and long-form platformers,  Super Mario Bros.'s imprint is strong on its descendants. "Inside" even uses the exact same controls: directional pad movement, A button for jumping, and B button for actions. The responsiveness of the controls is refreshing at a time when many artistically-inclined platformers are a bit loose, and the complexity of mechanics explored with simple controls references some of SMB's expansiveness...timing, sliding, different types of challenges, and so on.

Cronenberg's Videodrome
I have no evidence of conscious reference, but overall "Inside" feels very much like what we'd see if David Cronenberg remade Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979). The grotesque aspects, themes of control...and media, metamorphosis, endless dripping military-style installations, supernatural elements, and meditative pace speak to both of those film influences.

Portal 2
Likewise, Portal 2's environments and environmental storytelling must have affected Carlsen and Jensen. Portal 2 and "Inside" are both platformer puzzle games with strong narratives and dystopian, semi-fascist settings. They are very different games, but complement each other, and I suspect that without Portal 2 to set the bar and fire the imagination, "Inside" would have tackled a less ambitious scope.

Post-Game Activities

  1. "Inside" leverages both short (animated) film and game conventions, so let's analyze it as both. If you've just completed the game, then the story and ending must be foremost in your mind. Think of the experience as a film. Objectively describe its elements:
    1. Characters (protagonist, antagonist, supporting cast)
    2. Setting
    3. Plot points, including the MacGuffin, climax, and denouement (don't interpret, just literally state what happened)
    4. Visual style and key composition elements
    5. Audio style and key themes
  2. Now, consider the objective elements of the experience as a game. Each sequence presents different mechanics and they are quite diverse, so pick one, such as "the shockwaves" or "the mer-child." Describe:
    1. The gameplay state
    2. The animation state
    3. The player controls
    4. The rules (how the state evolves over time and due to player inputs)
    5. The high-level player choices
  3. Having objectively described the game, now consider the effect on the player of the combination of mechanics and narrative. List emotions that you felt at different points in the game, and describe how those elements conspired to make you feel this way. The jump scares, moments of horror, and sublime moments are easy to remember...but most players actually have several moments of laughter (comic, not nervous), delight, and fiero, in this game that they may not remember by the end. It may help to play with someone else and note their reactions as you proceed.
  4. Many players will see several (gruesome) deaths of the boy. The game then resets the puzzle as if time had gone backward. But real time has not gone backward, and the player remembers those experiences and the tone that they set. How do these discredited events function in a narrative game?
  5. Interpret the game. There are several specific points which are complex, and occasionally ambiguous (I'm deliberately phrasing this to avoid spoiling the ending):
    1. Who is the boy? Why is he running? Is he escaping or running into the facility.
    2. Why are the factory workers wearing masks? Why is the boy not wearing a mask? (These are really important points.)
    3. What is the facility?
    4. Why are there children at the facility with the workers?
    5. When you encounter drones that you can't control...who or what is controlling them?
    6. The sequence where you impersonate the drones in the line is dense with meaning at a meta level. How does that sequence mirror and reflect on the game as a whole? Consider the interpretation of this given that the drones can themselves operate the mind control devices...
    7. What is the relationship between the worms, the pigs, the drones...and the ending?
    8. What is the back story on the drone people? How did they come into existence? What is their future?
    9. What causes the shockwaves?
    10. What happens to the boy when he's deep underwater and the mer-child plugs him in?
    11. Who are the other characters looking into the final tank?
    12. What is the relationship between the boy and what he finds in the final tank?
    13. Is the boy really the protagonist of the game?
    14. Who are the mer-children? How did they come to be?
    15. Is the player present as an implicit character in the game, or entirely outside of the game?
    16. Who is the player controlling for the end sequences of the game?
    17. What happens at the end of the game? Is this a happy ending? A tragedy?
    18. Interpret the second ending.

Recommended Reading

Shadow of the Colossus
As in "Inside," some radically different games use similar techniques to create emotional attachment to characters. I'm thinking of Portal 2, Grim Fandango, Shadow of the Colossus, To the Moon, Two Brothers, "Gone Home," "Firewatch," Journey, and XCOM. In many cases, these aren't the player character. In Portal 2 and "Gone Home," the characters who we feel so strongly about don't even appear on screen.

Isbister, How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design, MIT Press 2016 discusses some of the techniques specific to interactive media that create (or, manipulate) emotional connections with characters.

"Inside" and its spiritual predecessor, LIMBO, can be classified as both popular and potentially fine art. Upton, The Aesthetic of Play, MIT Press, 2015 explains the different kinds of art to which different games aspire and shows the value in each. It then explores the spaces between these, which "Inside" inhabits.



Next: Understanding Games #4: Her Story


Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. His most recent games are Project Rocket Golfing for iOS and Skylanders: Superchargers for consoles. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.