There's been a lot of talk about INSIDE's [official site] beauty and poignancy, and I don't disagree with any of that, but my own appreciation of it was for another reason. I thought it was bloody funny, in the malevolent manner of Evil Dead 2 or Braindead. Inside is a horror videogame, yes, but it's also an extremely cheeky videogame.
N.B. here be FULL SPOILERS.
Inside isn't openly funny, not really. You catch the humour in the corner of your eye sometimes, glinting cheekily in the dark, and once seen it cannot be seen. It's at that point that what I believe to be the truth of Inside becomes apparent. It is not a tragedy or a masterful act of unspoken storytelling: it is an uncommonly beautiful b-movie. It has all the sadism and gross-out chuckle-horror of Sam Raimi's best or Peter Jackon's early, gleefully evil films. Moments that can be considered either horrific or just plain bizarre make sense through that lens. For instance:
A pig which is physically-manipulated into violence by an evil worm pretending to be its curly pink tail. This is telegraphed by the first glimpse of the creature, lying down as if dead, but its tail oddly brighter than the rest of its shadow-clad grey flesh. The game is winking knowingly here. It is saying "PUZZLE! HERE IS A PUZZLE! IT'LL PROBABLY BE DELIGHTFUL! LIKE THAT ONE WHERE THE LOVELY CHICKS FOLLOWED YOU AROUND, RIGHT?" And there's me thinking, "OK great, at some point soon I am going to tweak that pig's tail and it'll probably squeal then run into a door and knock it open for me. Lovely friendly pig."
No. No. That does not happen. Instead the pig suddenly lurches to its feet, a classic jump scare but subverted by the use of a farmyard animal, chases me down and immediately mauls me to death. I reload, manage to outpace it, it clangs its head against something and is stunned, and yes, here is my opportunity to pull the tail. Probably still some kind of door puzzle? No. No. The tail detaches, the pig squeals, and the tail is revealed as some kind of monstrous, butt-dwelling brain-worm, which twitches horrifically on the ground. Zing!
It's horrific, taken at face value. But "I was chased around a creepy farm by an angry pig with a psychic worm stuffed into its arsehole" is pure Evil Dead, right from the 'I was attacked by my malevolent mini-clones or throttled by my own severed hand' playbook. As it plays out, Inside is sitting back, chuckling heartily and exclaiming 'gotcha!'
Again, this comes not long after a puzzle which involves being inexplicably followed around by a pack of cute, fluffy, yellow chicks, who are both besotted with you and somewhat helpful - allowing themselves to be sucked through some kind of hopper and then fired at a bale of hay, which falls to the ground and allows you to climb higher. It makes no sense! It's so stupid! But, in light of the pigs, I understand why it's there. It's declaring "animals are your friends", and then. And then. Oh God. And Inside cackles.
This early example is key to realising that there is a tongue lodged firmly into Inside's cheek throughout. Every shock death, every awful kill animation as the boy encounters some new awful fate? It's making a virtue of its Rick Dangerousish learn-through-failure structure - in fact, it's closer to Dragon's Lair. Though playing that ancient, beautiful, awful FMV game is a painful experience, what it did right was to reward failure with lurid scenes of death and defeat. Sure, it's deeply annoying to lose, but you get the treat of seeing your guy die in an unpredictable, ridiculous way each time. Snakes and spiders and skeletons and squishings, oh my.
In Inside, we get demonic pigs, monster-mermaids, giant robots with tasers, apocalyptic thunder-spasms and oh so much 'surprise! Massive pit/shock squishing/bone-shattering fall.' Gotcha. Inside doesn't want you to thump your first on the table in frustration when proceeding to the next location results in an immediate, impossible-to-predict death, but instead to utter 'lolwut' at the abruptness and absurdity of it, then have another go knowing what's ahead.
Deaths are Inside's pulse, spikes of excitement and weirdness along that flat line running almost always to the right. They are the questions posed by its puzzles, for you to then devise an answer to using a combination of carefully signed-posted aids and a culmination of knowledge built up across the course of the game. They are a reward, not a punishment: they show you what's going to happen, in the aaagh-sudden-death-from-nowhere-haha manner of the best b-movies, and then you are free to journey on.
Rarely did I find that I died more than once or twice on any fatal puzzle, because Inside has its fun with the first death then leaves you equipped with the information required to avoid it next time. It flows, and in the latter half of the game I began to look forwards to whatever crazy horror it was about to inflict on me, rather than to fear it.
In fairness, and where I do agree with John's assertion that watching a little a boy repeatedly die is genuinely distressing, the scenes where Inside-Lad is caught and choked by sinister men or has his throat torn out by dogs cannot be explained away as Evil Deadish gross-out horror-comedy. They're not 'fun'. They're haunting, and perhaps necessarily so. Although perhaps the choking scenes go too far, Inside wouldn't work at all if it were openly farcical. Its humour works because it creeps in through the murk, glimmers of darkly delicious merriment, rather than taking centre stage and cavorting for our attention.
See also, of course, the 'zombies', the mindless, pale husks who can be psychically-controlled with special helmets. Clearly, they're a heartbreaking sight, a demonstration of awful technology employed by undisclosed overlords to take over the world (and I'm sure we can safely speculate that said technology is derived from the aforementioned bum-worms in some way). Comedy or not, I am not claiming for one minute that Inside is not set in a world gone monstrously wrong. But... look at how they wobble and stumble. Look at their funny blobby bodies! They're not zombies. They're Teletubbies.
Earlier, on the nose, we get Zombitubbies marching in unison through the streets, commuters marching to their cubicles, or perhaps to buy the latest iPhone.
Later, we get a mind control helmet hanging in mid-air, openly ridiculous, clearly not even trying to pretend that this is device anyone ever intended to use - it's just saying "wouldn't it be funny to control a zombie in mid-air?" A strikingly silly scene amid the gloom, almost a note of joy. Zombies are comedy as well as horror; Inside gives you both.
Similarly, the mid-game puzzle where you must round up 20 Zombitubbies and plop them all on a giant switch in order to open a door is beautifully dumb, hilarious and ridiculous. It's lifted from Oddworld games, of course, but it also reminds me of Lemmings and Mario vs Donkey Kong - shepherding around idiots, flocks of shambling goons ushered around haplessly. And, of course, you only find 19 of the buggers.
So then, after a convoluted elevator/human pyramid/jumping puzzle, you find a single corpse in far room, which you have to drag to a ledge and then send plummeting a hundred feet. Bingo, there's your 20. It's Weekend At Bernie's at the end of the world.
Then there's the Mermaids, surely Inside's most terrifying creature: the long dark hair of a J-horror teen-spook, the plump white physique of cherubic Victorian baby-paintings. Fast, silent, unspeakably malevolent (or are they?), dragging the poor boy down to drowned depths. Death by aquatic pre-teen. Or: death by The Little Mermaid. Ariel, why?
I'd argue that this particular foe is used one or two too many times - certainly, her latter appearances constituted the section of the game that I found most repetitive and least fluid compared to the masterfully propulsive puzzle-design of Inside's bulk. Nonetheless, I loved it the first time around. My reaction was thus: "haha, what the fuck?"
As well as the sheer weirdness of encountering this cloud of hair and those plump little limbs hanging in the water as you're bobbing along in your own personal submarine, like some jolly scene from In The Night Kitchen, it's the first and only time we see another child. Is Inside-Lad about to gain a companion, or at least an ally? Pre-pubescent camaraderie in a world destroyed by adults. But no. No. There she is, clawing open the submarine's window, a toddler doing a Jaws impersonation. It's horrible, it's wonderful.
Then there's the double-twist a bit later, an implication that maybe the Mermaid was trying to help after all, but that's something I'm less fond of. It feels like a grinding deus ex machina, an attempt to justify an abrupt infusion of new powers via a wordless twist. Inside's greatest story-telling strength is that it says so little, happy to provide a loose, striking and escalating visual theme and then let our imaginations fill in the gaps, but in this instance it's perhaps too overt for its own good, very obviously taking the 'THING HAS TO HAPPEN HERE' route rather than the langorous journey which characterises the game as a whole.
And so to the ending, the most divisive aspect of Inside in the discussions I've seen or heard. I'm a fan of it, and particularly of the build up to it. I won't argue that the final scenes constitute comedy, but those that precede it are, and in any case the climatic image is entirely appropriate to the b-movie ethos which I am convinced underpins the game as a whole.
You've been this cute, mop-haired little lad throughout. Surely freedom and a return to innocence awaits? Nope, you're getting subsumed into a giant, fleshy blob of groaning limbs, identity lost forever, now the most monstrous of monsters in this land of monsters. It's appalling.
It's sickly hilarious though; transformed from platforming tot to mutant Katamari, the Blob meets the Human Centipede. World of Gruesome Goo. Your reward, for all the horror that you've been through, is that you get to trash everything, steamrollering through one of the dark facilities that have brought so much pain and strangeness to the world. It would be a beautiful finish in and of itself: vengeance, horrible, tortured, mutant vengeance. Ultimate power. Not conventionally funny-funny, not at all, but totally within the b-movie paradigm of gross-out excess.
Clearly, it can't end well. That's not how a good b-movie ends: the world can't be saved. Evil Dead 2 has an apparently victorious Ash carried off through time to another battle against endless new foes, y'know? Inside's boy-blob should be glad it gets a moment in the sun. A last glimpse of goodness before the darkness returns.
A final joke on the game's part: haha, you thought there'd be a happy ending? Nope, no way. Enjoy the sun, that's all you're getting. It's better than angry anal maggots, murderous mermaids and suicidal Teletubbies, after all.
A prefect gross-out ending for a gross-out game that successfully wears the skin of a beautiful fable. Good work, Inside.