The Cinema Inside
How the video game Inside is a better movie than most movies.
Biologically, I know I am an adult man. I grow hair in all the right places. You know, like in patches on my back and on my toe knuckles. Culturally, I do many things an adult man would do: I wear a tie to work, I drive a Kia Soul, and I’ve used a wrench at least twice in my life. So, when I tell some ignorant, old fogies that I enjoy video games in my leisure, and they give me those disdainful eyes of disapproval with the mutterings of “that’s for children” on their stupid lips, I can comfortably point to my man hair and wrench experience to feel masculinized again. I understand the inclination, though. Some people relate video games to the marketing icons of the business, your Marios and Sonics and Pikachus.
Those are very much cartoonish idols, and for the most part, cartoons are targeted at children. Something like Toy Story 3 transcends such designations. Like it, the more you approach cinematic ideals – the dual nature of brevity and complexity in a narrative, the amalgamation of the moving picture and resounding audio into a unifying theme, the auteurism of the creators – the more you get an experience that only movies can provide. At least, that’s what I thought until I played an indie game partially funded by the Danish Film Institute titled Inside.
For the most part, how someone feels about a certain thing is a very personal, subjective matter. I feel that Inside is not only an incredibly profound experience, it’s also the most “movie” game that I’ve ever played, and I’ll try to provide objective metrics to describe why this is. If I can’t detail it objectively, then I’ll just throw some analogies at you, and you’ll just have to deal with it, okay? Inside follows an anonymous boy as he journeys through a series of progressively creepier, dystopian-style locales, constantly pushing forward to an end goal that the audience is unaware of. (You could argue that the boy isn’t propelled forward by some internal motivation and that there is no audience, because this is a video game, and the user is ultimately deciding what the boy will do and where he’ll go. Look how smart you are! No need to be pedantic, though. That’s a major theme addressed in this world.)
The most obvious cinematic element of Inside is the framing of the character within his environment. The boy is always visible, but subtle camera movements and contrasting shades within the mostly monochromatic aesthetic draw the eye to clues or provide focus on an otherwise inconsequential detail. It’s the type of cinematography that would’ve blossomed out of Kubrick’s head. A game like Red Dead Redemption has a beauty to its presentation, as well, but because the player has greater control of what can and can’t be seen (you don’t control the camera in Inside, just the boy), plenty of stupid shit like staring at characters or horses phasing through the walls or just looking at your feet for hours can easily break the uniformity of the viewing. The low, ominous tone humming throughout mixed with the sharp, jarring machinery noises puts my mind in a low-budget horror film, always awaiting the monster around the corner. The pacing of the narrative – sans dialogue, even! – is structured like an old school Ridley Scott slow-burn sci-fi thriller, building the tension slowly and thoroughly. The failure of the boy that can lead to a mauling, a crushing of bones, or a drowning feels palpable. Understandably, I don’t know what suffering like this would literally feel like, but I believe it’d be equatable to sitting through a Madea marathon on TBS with your mom.
Plenty of other video games have been touted for their film-like appeal, like The Last of Us, which received much deserved admiration. All the best stuff of that game, cinematically speaking, came from the cutscenes, though. They were basically mini-movies wrapped in a video game, allowing the character to have some fun killing things in-between story time. In Inside, all cinematic elements are integral to game mechanics. It was on a level I’m not familiar with in the gaming universe.
Storytelling in video games has been strong for a while, and it’s not necessarily necessary for a video game to emulate the movies. Inside just has that magical something to it, where I could’ve easily just sat down and watched someone else play the game and come away fully satisfied. It brings to mind the infamous quote from the late Roger Ebert stating, “Video games can never be art.” I grasp the arguments he makes, I just still don’t know how one of the Mount Rushmore level critics of judging whether something is art or not could be so unfathomably wrong about something so obvious. If there were ever a zenith of fantasy escapism to bridge the gap in his mind between the artistic merits of film and the lack thereof in video games, it’d have to be Inside.