Video games tend to attract people who suffer from depression.  It’s not a big stretch to imagine why that is – the arts have always been a gateway to relief for those who struggle with the mental affliction.  Artists and those who love the arts have both sought refuge in fantastical worlds and engaging stories that take their minds off of the struggles they face daily.

Depression is the worst.  I imagine that everyone deals and is affected by depression in their own way, but my depression manifests itself in a numbness that is all-consuming.  It takes my brain and beats it into submission.  Every task suddenly seems monumental, the entirety of my life seems wasted, I feel like a failure and the only way to cope is to lie down on my couch and sleep until I have to be somewhere.

I’m lucky, actually, that my depression isn’t so severe that it prevents me from going to work or socializing (even though both tasks are much more difficult).  I’m also lucky that my depression tends to come in waves.  Most of the time I’m usually an optimist, someone who looks on the bright side and can see the good in most things.  But my mind is a ticking time bomb and every now and again I’ll find myself consumed by another bout with depression that leaves me lying on my couch, sobbing uncontrollably as I watch Return of the King for the umpteenth million time. (Take that judging face elsewhere, fuck-stick.  It’s not welcome here!)

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I find it hard to play games when I’m depressed.  My brain can’t focus.  Huge RPGs feel like herculean tasks to undertake, shooters feel shallow and stupid, small indies feel dispensable and insubstantial – it’s not that I actually believe these things, my brain just simply makes excuses to give myself a reason to remain horizontal on the couch, barely breathing.

It was in the middle of this foggy, bleak atmosphere that I picked up Playdead’s Inside.  

I almost didn’t.  I almost used one of my flimsy excuses to just simply let my brain turn to jelly.  But I had been looking forward to Inside for a while now, despite my lukewarm response to the studio’s previous game, Limbo.  So I fought through the haze and nagging voice in my head, and sat down to see why so many critics had fallen in love with this game.

Inside is a side-scrolling, platform-puzzler.  In many ways, it feels like the aesthetic evolution of Limbo.  Instead of the noir-style, black-and-white palette of Playdead’s last effort, Inside is filled with varying shades of grey – aside from the red shirt of the protagonist.  It remains drab, sparse and haunting, but it also manages to feel more grounded and real than Limbo’s otherworldly atmosphere.  It’s clear that Playdead built Inside to be a world we could recognize, from the farm buildings in the beginning of the game to the science facilities in the latter half.  The visual shorthand feels close and imposing.  While the underlying themes of Inside feel as powerful as Limbo, they also feel more urgent.

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Which bring us to the narrative themes.  Again, riffing off of a style Playdead discovered in rookie outing, the driving plot of Inside is sparse and largely left to the interpretation of the player.  The only thing we know for sure is that there is a boy who is continuing to travel left-to-right and everything is trying to kill him.  However, Inside has a sense of urgency that makes it unique.  This boy has a set destination, you feel like his journey is far less personal – as was the case in Limbo – and far more of value to humanity on the whole.  It might have to do with that fact that Playdead have, intentionally or not, tapped into a visual shorthand that accompanies much of the dystopian future fiction that is so popular today.  The washed out grey aesthetic, the human-drone analogy, the antagonists being framed as broadly recognizable archetypes instead of actual people, you almost half-expect the unnamed protagonist to fall down a hole and discover a resistance led by Katniss Everdeen.

But he doesn’t.  And this is where Inside separates itself from the pack and fed my deep, dark depression.  Inside provides a sense of urgency, leans into the dystopian stereotypes, but doesn’t reward you with satisfaction of release.  It simply shuffles you from one twisted landscape to another.  It simmers with danger and malice.  It twists the arm of the player, refusing to let go.

Unlike Limbo, Inside doesn’t feel like it was designed to punish the player.  The puzzles are much more simple and straightforward.  I rarely got stuck.  Whereas Limbo felt like a challenge, Playdead seems to be inviting more people to finishing Inside.  But this is a ruse, a trap.  Players continue to push forward and make progress, but the only reward you’re given is one more puzzle and more of the same bleak artwork.  It’s hard to walk away because you always feel like you’re just one more puzzle away from sending the protagonist to safety, but that never comes – there is no happiness to be found.

This nihilistic approach takes what is a haunting experience and makes it feel inescapable. Something that resonates deep inside you and fills you with a sense of dread.  It’s never explained if Inside is set on Earth or how humanity created such a factory of horrors, but no explanation is needed.  The intimacy of Inside makes you feel like this is a not too distant future.  As I manipulated the drones to help me solve the puzzles, I wondered if that was where I would be when Inside’s future arrived.  Would I be one of these lifeless creatures, waiting for a greater mind to animate me and give me purpose?

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I don’t usually seek out depressing stuff when I’m depressed.  It has always seemed like a toxic mixture.  But Inside fed into my depression in a satisfying way.  Not a destructive way, it didn’t spiral me down deeper than before, it simply made me feel understood.  The haunting, twisted world of Playdead might have felt so intimate because it was familiar territory for my dark mood and bleak thoughts.  The feeling of impossibility made sense as I finished puzzle after puzzle only to realize that this would become an exercise in futility.  Why try?  Why even bother?  Inside lent credence to this idea with it’s dark world and blunt themes.

Then, something strange happened after I finished.  I felt better.  While Inside had fed my depression, it has also satisfied it.  It’s unsettling ending had given me some sort of closure to the feeling of hopelessness that had taken me over.  I put down the controller and walked away from the mess of complicated emotions that the game had drug out of me.

I want to make it clear, Inside didn’t fix my depression.  It didn’t even necessarily make me feel better – that should be pretty clear by the title of the article.  I got myself out of my bout with depression by spending a lot of time talking myself through what I was feeling and why I was feeling that way (again, I’m lucky that my depression is mild and I can deal with these issues this way, because a lot of people can’t).  What Inside did do was give me the unique experience of finding something that matched my mood at the exact right time.  I spend a lot of time playing games and obviously go through a lot of emotions when playing them.  I’ve had game manipulate my feelings, but rarely does my mental clock sync up with a game as readily as it did with Inside.  This chilling experience from Playdead fed my depression in a surprising way – and I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget that.

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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