INSIDE by Playdead is at the same moment one of the greatest video games of the last ten years and a dense, fascinating and inspired look at mental health.
For anyone with depression, the world can feel like it’s been smashed into a thousand pieces. Or it can feel like one giant globe, positioned delicately on a pair of tired shoulders. It can feel like a racing train or a pack of barking dogs or a slow and dark river. Fast moving then slow. Frantic yet deliberate. Sometimes that globe – the outside – is something terrifying; the only refuge is your bedroom where you can become lost in a video game.
It’s difficult to delineate the processes inside the head when depression comes around. So how do we represent it in fiction; in art? Well, it takes a deft team, a sensitive and creative idea and it must provoke thought clearly.
For me, it was during the shockwave section of the game that I realised that INSIDE could be read as an allegory for mental health. In particular, unipolar depression. Distinct from the episodes of mania that distinguishes bipolar disorder, unipolar depression leaves only one mood or state: a low one.
Rather than simply capturing this mood, the game captures the whole framework of experiencing and dealing with depression. From probing observation, the feeling of being chased – hunted – down, the pressure of socialisation and conformity at odds with a suffocating and crushing sense of isolation. It’s all there in Playdead’s game.
The section in which the player must navigate a section in which loud shockwaves can blow the game’s character apart is indicative of the consequences of the chemical imbalance in the brain we know as depression: Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT).
This section is actually unapologetically brutal. If the player-controlled boy is caught in the open – and therefore at the mercy of the booming shockwaves in the distance – he will be torn apart, blown to pieces in a shower of blood. Portrayals of ECT in popular culture are often this brutal, i.e. Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy’s spitting, contorted face, biting hard into a wooden bite block in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s not pretty, because neither is the last-resort “treatment”.
It’s as uncompromisingly harsh in the game as in real life. When approaching the shockwave section there is even a room with many individuals sat with an instrument clamped around their heads, hooked up to a another unknown, clinical facility. It’s one of the game’s more direct hints at the theme of mental health in the game – a grim reminder of the numbing effects of a severe treatment.
But reading INSIDE as an allegory for mental health has implications that transcend its three or four-hour length. You see, me and the late, great Roger Ebert had a few things in common. He, and so do I, think Brando is the greatest, we were unified in a consensus of many classic movies. What I respectfully disagree with is the affirmation that video games are not art. We’re all aware of the argument. But, it’s an essentially superficial argument. INSIDE is a perfect example of this superficiality.
When looking at Playdead’s game, it’s more logical to read the game not simply just as “art” – with its mainly aesthetic connotations – and instead view how we can look at games simply as texts. How we view the canon of contemporary fiction, the great American Novel or cinema classics past or present should not be mutually exclusive discussions to that of certain video games.
Does that mean that we use the same lens to read Melville, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Scorsese, Tarkovsky, Bergman? Not so much, for the sake of being called a massive knob at the very least.
But, we must try a similar approach. Because the simple fact is that sometimes it’s better to understand the world and the people that inhabit it through the eyes of someone else. Someone’s else’s vision, passion, emotion. For example, we can learn more about the US socio-cultural history from the people that experienced it or the people that turned it into art like Bruce Springsteen did/does.
It doesn’t matter if we are listening to music; sat in a cinema seat with our eyes glued to a giant 4K screen with a hundred others; or alone, with INSIDE on our home console. We are experiencing a creative voice that has something to say. If we don’t communicate what we think this voice is saying, then others will only continue to see video games as vapidness.
The ending of INSIDE is oddly fantastic, but it leaves a more important impression in its final frames. Hope. When the strange, groaning flesh object breaks from the concrete and steel of the facility that the player has been controlling it through, it rests upon a patch of grass with a beam of light upon it. The light at the end of the tunnel. I know, it sounds a simplistic device but it’s all it needs to be. It exudes the faith that in the end things will be okay.
“It’ll be okay in the end”. It’s something that someone with mental health issues will be told all the time. By their family, their friends, their teachers, their doctors. Because they are the circle that the chemical imbalance affects too. It will frustrate them to be told this.
But it’s worth fighting when someone tells you “things will be alright in the end”. Because most of the time they’re right. In the meantime, a game like INSIDE can offer a look at mental health and deserves to be read as a text like any other facet of culture.
Takethis.org is a non-profit charity dedicated to improving conditions and informing others of mental health issues in the video games development and larger video games communities. It seeks to provide education, refuge and to reduce stigma regarding depression and other mental health issues. They can be supported here.