INSIDE: Irony and the Review Process

So I bought myself INSIDE for Christmas – it’s something I’ve been wanting to play for a while. Now I’ve played it, uh, and if you’ve played it too, you’ll appreciate my slightly stunned silence. I have a personal rule for this blog that I don’t review games. I’m happy to talk about their storytelling methods, but that’s more about analysing specific aspects rather than discussing my overall position on the game. My reasoning is pretty simple: I generally don’t care about the opinions of random assholes on the internet. If I don’t know you, I’m not interested in whether or not you liked a game, because the criteria I’ve got for liking something are probably very different to your criteria. Basically, If I was writing reviews, I would feel like another random asshole on the internet – I couldn’t expect you to care about the content. 

For that reason, like I say, I try to focus on storytelling and narrative methods. It’s (relatively) more objective, in that we can pretty confidently say ‘Look, here’s a way the designers told the story’. That’s something that I consider to be useful for everybody, regardless of what your opinions on the actual game are. I’m telling you all of this because INSIDE does interesting things to my position. It upsets my approach to this blog. That upset is also conveniently caused by a narrative device, which is why I thought we might talk about the game today.

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Quick summary, then: INSIDE is the second game from the guys who made LIMBO. If the last chapter didn’t exist, I’d comfortably argue that it’s better than LIMBO: it seems more thematically directed, more tightly written, and possessed of more integrity of vision. INSIDE is marketed as basically ‘LIMBO with more George Orwell’, which I think was a good decision. If we didn’t have the last chapter, the story arc would be pretty simple: boy evades totalitarian government, makes his way through the bombed-out ruins of civilisation, infiltrates the government facility where they Room-101 people, and frees all the little mind-controlled Winstons.

However. That fucking final chapter. There’s really no way around this – the protagonist finds a giant wad of flesh and limbs floating in a tank, frees it, and then the giant wad storms through the facility trying to escape. As a final movement, it would potentially be really fucking effective if it were just an uncontrolled smash-and-grab: running, screaming, glass exploding, people getting run over by uncontrollably-quivering flesh-ball (honestly, the screenshots are totally inadequate – you have to see this shit in action to believe it). Unfortunately, that’s not what the game does. There’s a handful of puzzles involved in getting the flesh-ball out of the facility. You’ve got to throw some boxes around and manouevre all this shit in a way that really reduces the shock impact of the flesh-ball. Ideally, you would think, the game would punch you in the face with this ‘what the fuck’ moment and then end with you reeling. It doesn’t do that. It gives you time to recover, to acclimatise – it makes you solve fucking puzzles with this thing. And then there’s a very abrupt, very unsatisfying ending that doesn’t really provide… any closure.

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In the wake of this weird, weird game, I flicked over to RPS to see if anybody had anything sensible to say. I read through a couple of reviews, including one by John Walker (who didn’t like the game and got blasted by the comments for being ‘Contrary John’). Possibly the most interesting one, to me, was this Christmas article, where all the writers had opinions about INSIDE and were sometimes grumpy about other people’s positions.

(Brief aside: RPS is a good example of where I think reviews should exist. It’s a professional website that does professional reviews – where they pay actual money to people to write about video games (and more actual money to editors to make sure it’s not shit). The prerequisite level of competence needed to get a job like that cuts out the dross you’d more typically find on personal blogs like mine.)

This is where we come to our narrative device: irony. People bitch about the misuse of the term, but there’s actually a whole bunch of stuff that counts as irony that isn’t commonly recognised as such. Probably the most widespread understanding of irony is situational: a dentist drinking Coke, or an oncologist who smokes. The dentist is supposed to take care of teeth, right, but here they are drinking Coke, which is terrible for teeth. It’s a situation where the expectation (that the dentist would take care of their own teeth) is reversed.

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The form of irony we’re talking about today is more subtle. Have you ever read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal? He published this pamphlet in 1729 where he basically said “Look, there’s a lot of kids in poor homes, and we can’t possibly support them all financially – let’s just eat the little fuckers.” Obviously he’s being ironic – his words don’t match his actual intention. There’s a disconnect between the expectation (that people say what they mean) and the reality (he doesn’t mean it) – and that disconnect is essentially what irony’s about.

So one line of argument with INSIDE is that it’s being ironic – that it doesn’t entirely take its own premise seriously. For example, one RPS staffer summarises a scene in INSIDE thus: “I was chased around a creepy farm by an angry pig with a psychic worm stuffed into its arsehole.” When you put it like that, okay, yes, you can see the strength of the irony argument.

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However, the problem with irony is that it makes a fucking mess of interpretation. It’s at the heart of the conflict between the different RPS writers in that Christmas article – one party claim that the game’s being ironic in its weird design (eg the weirdly structured end sequence), and the other party claim that no, the designers are just bad at making games. Things would be less awkward if irony hadn’t been invoked as a factor – because then we wouldn’t have to talk about what the designers Actually Meant. As it stands, irony automatically invokes discussion of authorial intent, because it suggests that the surface reality doesn’t match the intentions of the designers. Authorial intent, of course, is one of the shittiest and most irresolvable artistic debates of all time. It also makes my job really fucking difficult, because if I want to discuss how INSIDE does things, I have to assign particular meanings to what it’s doing. I essentially have to take a side in the Authorial Intent argument, which goes against my policy of Not Doing Reviews. Alternately I could just write about irony as a tool and avoid the whole damn conversation.

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