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Game Theories

How your X-Box may be creating art

There’s a moment late in Arnt Jensen’s Inside (2016) that bears serious consideration. It comes after the popular videogame’s pre-teen protagonist undergoes a transformation. This kid started out in Inside’s predecessor, Limbo (2010), as a cartoonish figure resembling Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes; in the new version, he’s become something more like the panicked, panting children that Steven Spielberg is always exploiting to give his films four-quadrant appeal. But in this last liminal turn of play, the boy winds up suckingly absorbed into a giant, fleshy collective-body sort of thing—stay with me, now—with arms and legs and torsos that jut out in all directions, though these occasionally fall off and writhe on the ground, having lost neither neural activity nor agency. This blob-boy thing is immortal; it can withstand fire, it is as squishingly versatile as an octopus, it can breathe water, and it can fall from great heights and not die. It’s a perfect organism, as Alien’s Ash would say.

The critical moment comes in the middle of a rampage upon which this slovenly but industrious fellow embarks (and please note that you would not now be cringing if this were a discussion of Frankenstein’s monster, which similarly runs amok). There’s a lot of glass-breaking and wall-smashing, and so on, but the context isn’t important for the point I want to make: that amid the pixilated mayhem of the gaming world, a strange alchemical process may be transforming a medium of passive mass entertainment with disturbing etiological roots into something . . . more.

What happens is this: a floor gives way beneath the blob-boy, and it tumbles down a shaft and plops gruntingly into the middle of some kind of observation cage. Inside is a miniature mountainside carpeted with pine trees, like the foliage of a very large model train set, and from above, a spotlight shines down on the tiny landscape like a ray of sunlight, illuminating a pleasant-looking patch of grass at the base of a slope.

The moment is not immediately notable. Straightaway, the blob-boy crashes out of the cage and continues its stampeding escape through a kind of apocalyptic factory designed to manufacture, it would seem, additional blob-boys. At last, it breaks through a wall and goes tumbling down a pine tree–covered mountainside, coming to rest in a ray of sunlight illuminating a pleasant-looking patch of grass at the base of a slope.

That’s the end of the game.

Now, to be clear, a little meta-twist shouldn’t raise anyone’s eyebrows. In these dry, post-irony days, a cute trick like this in a novel would probably be dismissed as cliché. But we’re not talking about literature—we’re talking about a videogame—and what’s most striking about this moment is that it is not striking at all at first. You zip right by it, and most likely you don’t even register the fact that the image repeats at the end. It’s a case in which a full understanding of a videogame demands additional engagement with its text—rereading—and what you find when you do just that is that Inside does, in fact, repay careful attention paid to it.

What this means is that the game stands in stark contrast to an industry whose products, historically speaking, rely on hijacking the reptile brains of hormone-crazed teenaged boys. In short, the history of videogames is the history of the glorification of violence. We can debate what constitutes the first videogame, and whether it’s fair to attribute the invention of videogames to the military, but what’s undeniable is that military engineers—ever ready to coopt, conspire with, or commission innovation from the private sector (e.g., the splitting of the atom, the invention of I.Q.)—more or less immediately recognized that videogames could be employed as a cheap substitute for teaching soldiers how to do everything from fly a plane to take out a sniper. This had the consequence of instilling in at least some players a predilection for enjoying violence, a fact that is amply demonstrated by leaked audio/video of American soldiers conducting drone strikes, which both look like videogames and sound like players playing them. Hence, count me among those who find the current lack of a direct link between “first-person shooter” games and real-world violence to be unconvincing evidence that there is no relationship between the two. Correlation is not causation, sure, but neither is absence of evidence evidence of absence, and, for crying out loud, there’s already a word—German, of course—for the pleasure that one derives from employing skills either innate or acquired: funktionslust.

It’s a characteristic of certain games (e.g., Sometimes You Die, 2014) that the main character—the figure you control—must die over and over again such that progress can be made. And to be fair, Limbo and Inside feature gorefests of the ways in which the boy protagonist can perish. But even on this point there is a shift underway. The boy dies over and over, but he can’t overtly kill anything.

This M.O. flips when he is quaffed up into the faceless blob monster. The blob-boy can’t die, but it can kill. I’ll have more to say about this, but the metamorphosis into the blob creature not only becomes a meta-moment with the kind of subtext normally associated with the literary—that is, it produces the nearly out-of-body sensation that passes over us when we realize that an image is freighted, that it means something—it also presents the player with a moral choice that may amount to a critique of the medium. Inside, then, offers itself up as a fair occasion to ask whether videogames have transcended their violent roots and risen, as has been suggested, to the level of art.

Is the Play the Thing?

It’s not at all new to ask this question of the broader category of games in general, but for videogames these are the golden days of aesthetics and neuroplasticity.

Consider chess and Go, for example—games long held to have catapulted over the line separating casual diversion from artistic endeavor (such is the fervent suggestion of Hermann Hesse’s 1943 novel The Glass Bead Game).

Inside stands in stark contrast to an industry whose products, historically speaking, rely on hijacking the reptile brains of hormone-crazed teenaged boys.

You don’t need to look far to find claims that games of this sort confer benefits, that they improve one’s abilities in pursuits ranging from economics to risk assessment to, more generally, math and science.

Such material real-world advances, it’s argued, develop in concert with one’s enhanced skill level in strategy contests that boil down to the control of space. The contention that playing games can actually make you smarter is particularly charged right now. Today’s booming industry of brain-training game regimes is, depending on how you plot out such claims on your own mental gameboard, either the cutting edge of the science of intelligence (gray matter was found to have increased in the brains of candidates studying for London’s grueling taxi-driver exam), or a snake oil–style pitch offering the equivalent of a claim that daily indulgence in tiramisu can burn off that hard-to-shake belly fat.

Equally troubling is that games notoriously lend themselves to obsession and addiction. Bobby Fischer is only the most famous instance of a chess player descending into madness (Paul Morphy is another), and money is but a reward variable, not the obsession at the root of gambling. Lest you persist in a quaint conviction that videogames are a cognitive world removed from the familiar hustles of blackjack and craps, just consider that Tom Bissell, in his 2010 study of videogaming, Extra Lives, emphasizes the phenomenological similarity of videogames and amphetamines. Reflecting on a months-long period of dabbling in both, Bissell concluded that “Video games and cocaine feed on my impulsiveness, reinforce my love of solitude, and make me feel good and bad in equal measure.” Indeed, the dopamine charge offered by both your PlayStation and your local Native American casino is overtly celebrated in game marketing slogans: “It’s not just a game, it’s an addiction.” [1]

The Game of the Rules

This is all to say nothing of what might be called the auteur problem in game creation: if videogames might be art, then what kind of videogames would we be talking about, and who exactly would be the artist? I don’t claim to have any scholarly authority in this sphere, and my personal experience is limited to occasional fascination with 1981’s Missile Command and some halfhearted investigation of the brain-training company Lumosity. But I do know that there are some games, like Inside, that rely heavily on storytelling, with plots and characters and so forth—and that they function like labyrinths, presenting the appearance of wandering freely through a maze while in reality there’s only one path through. More specifically, Inside is what’s known as a “2D side-scroller”—meaning that you observe your figure mostly in profile in the center of your screen while a background landscape scrolling right-to-left gives the illusion of left-to-right forward motion. This sort of game traces back, at least, to another 1981 videogame, Scramble, which I note because my mother, of all people, got exceedingly good at this game when I was fourteen years old—in retrospect, an oddly formative experience.

But games like this are not the only games that attempt to lunge past simplistic zero-sum competition. There are also “sandbox” games, like the wildly popular Sims franchise; these proffer no story, or permit players to ignore the story, such that things can and do happen that might well come as a complete surprise to the game designers, who may have had no idea that a particular image or event could result from the extensive coding of their product. I believe games like this to be favored among those who hold that videogames are a new artistic medium, and some similarity between sandbox games and games like chess and Go is apparent: the “artist” is less the creator of the game than the player who brings innovation and creativity to bear on an established template—the “rules.”

At the same time, though, rules are what nudge games like chess and Go closer to sport than art. Abner Doubleday aside (ably dismissed by Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown”), these sorts of games evolved collectively without the intervention of some singular heroic inventor or author. And while the world of videogames has already become a “spectator sport,” I’m unaware of any instance of the record of a videogame player’s performance becoming intellectual property, as it has in the world of chess, and in a whole array of sports. True, gamers go “professional” by attracting followers on the internet and earning ad revenue, but their play itself is not copyrighted. Games might wind up in museums (worldwide, there are at least seventeen museums dedicated to videogames), but bracketed moments of the play of particular games have not yet become value-able as art.

Art for Naught’s Sake

By contrast, the 2D side-scroller and its pitbull of a cousin, the first-person shooter, being narrative in nature, lend themselves quite easily to comparison with storytelling mediums that are readily accepted as art. That videogames tend to be produced by tech and design teams enumerated in “credits” that appear at the end of a game, and that the videogame industry already has its equivalent of the Oscars, the BAFTA Game Awards (in 2017, Inside prevailed in four categories: artistic achievement, game design, narrative, and original property) might suggest that film is the clearest antecedent of videogames. However, film and most other storytelling mediums (theatre, ballet, opera) are performances that render their viewers passive, with the relevant pacing and staging determined by directors and actors. A videogame player’s control of the speed at which events unfold is closer to the experience of a novel’s readers, who can skip forward and backward in a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, or an entire book. If videogames have struggled to be accepted as art even as they garner revenues that already rival those of the film industry, it should be noted that the novel itself was for several centuries regarded as crass entertainment and did not begin to be taken as the equal of painting and poetry until the middle of the nineteenth century.

What’s more, the “writer” of most storytelling mediums finds herself rudely shoved down the list of those heralded for the final product—even in film, the screenwriter is jammed six or seven places down the list of credits. This is critical, because the credits of any storytelling medium, be they on a screen or in a playbill, tell you who is responsible for what the story means—and having a meaning, having something that is expressed or “said,” is the most fundamental trait of a work of art. Contrast this with literature, which has no credits apart from the author’s (though certain editors deserve more credit than they receive), and whatever a book means is what its author is saying. Hence, if a videogame is to be anything like the art of written storytelling, it should be susceptible to the kind of critical analysis that we would apply to a book to suss out a meaning attributable to its author.

More than perhaps any game designer, Arnt Jensen, founder of Playdead Games, has been held aloft by the industry as a kind of auteur. From romantic creation narratives sprouted up around Limbo and Inside to an aloof-at-best personality that suggests the heavy toll of genius to a coy avoidance of any attempt to resolve the inherent inscrutability of the two games that comprise his entire corpus of production, Jensen is either faking the life trajectory of an artist very well, or he is one.

I Am the Eggman

An odd critical outburst followed the release of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), a reverse chronology film about a man with short-term memory loss attempting to solve a murder. Inspired by the movie’s involuted narrative structure, many people not normally given to criticism spent a great deal of time poring through the film. There was an interpretive paucity to this response, however, because although the film had fired imaginations, few knew what to do with their enthusiasm: the “analysis” was simply reconstruction—inverting the events to “fix” the chronology, as though the story was a jigsaw puzzle and a critic’s job was a glorified sort of puzzle assemblage. [2] Lost was the possibility that the film’s odd structure was simply a way of permitting the viewer to experience an approximation of the protagonist’s abnormal consciousness.

A similarly misguided sentiment is evident in the 2012 documentary Room 237, about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, The Shining. Here, those who would further the understanding of a masterful work do nothing more than scour it for hidden symbols, as though criticism is akin to numerology or Kabbalah. There is no attempt to plumb the film for a core meaning or purpose.

Both of these errors—a belief that a critic’s job is to untangle a tangled plot, and that meaning is an accumulation of hidden symbols—are built into the design of most videogames; inevitably, they creep into how the games are played and understood. And both are evident in the similarly robust and amateurish critical outpourings that followed the release of Limbo and Inside.

There is in some players a predilection for enjoying violence.

Take, for starters, the cumbersome critical bait of so-called Easter eggs. These coyly placed marginalia—items or images or messages hidden inside a game—have been a feature of the videogame industry almost from its inception. The first “egg,” as I understand it, was simply the name of a game’s creator, and amounts, I suppose, to a distant cousin of the small self-portrait that Luca Signorelli included in his mural (begun in 1499) in the Cappella Nuova in Orvieto, Italy—it was early in the history of artists taking credit for their work, and while the artist’s name may not have given us the modern word “signature,” let’s just say it did. That’s about as fancy as it gets for videogames, however, and for the most part Easter eggs have been nothing more than gimmicky little nerdgasms. With any luck, the practice will have played itself out with the 2018 release of Steven Spielberg’s unwatchable adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, which made Easter eggs a central feature of its ridiculous plot, and which, thank you, no, I’m not going to bother to read.

Limbo and Inside both feature Easter eggs, and both games are also known as “puzzle platformers,” which simply means that the protagonist does a lot of leaping and climbing from surface to surface and, in order to progress, must surmount a series of obstacles in the form of puzzles based on the physical manipulation of the digital environment. One might argue that puzzle games bear some resemblance to detective stories, but the difference is point of view—do you read about a character solving a mystery, or are you required to solve it yourself? The puzzles of Limbo and Inside are more ambitious than the puzzles of most games in that their solutions often require the player to wait, or to exhibit what in psychology and education circles is known as divergent thought—for example, a corpse is a corpse, but it is also potentially a deadweight that can be used to spring a boobytrap.

Nevertheless, puzzles themselves stand as an obstacle blocking the path of videogames’ journey from game to art. For while I might willingly suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that a boy has been tasked with jogging exhaustedly through a factory that churns out invincible blob creatures, I will find that willingness strained when I am also confronted with confounding puzzles placed in my path for no good reason. Videogames, in other words, ignore the basic tenets of internal consistency—in order to keep playing, you must suspend your disbelief, and then suspend it again, and again, and again, which means that in order to play and enjoy videogames you must also suspend the kind of critical judgment that is normally associated with art.

Similarly, Easter eggs appeal only on the level of geek fetish—which is more or less the opposite of critical appreciation—and it is for this reason that I won’t address the puzzles and Easter eggs in Inside, even though they eventually lead to what some have concluded is the game’s “hidden meaning.” And this is the problem of videogames in a nutshell, because meaning in work of art is no more hidden from its beholder than the summit of a mountain is hidden from the mountain climber.

Dispatches Beyond Aesthetic Limbo

There are a couple of ways to understand what Inside is attempting to achieve—if, in fact, it’s attempting to achieve anything at all.

First, on the level of plot, the game begins much as Limbo did, with a boy appearing alone in a forest and setting out on some kind of quest.

Both of these errors—a belief that a critic’s job is to untangle a tangled plot, and that meaning is an accumulation of hidden symbols—creep into how videogames are played and understood.

The splatter pattern of interpretations that followed the release of Limbo clustered around a single hint as to the boy’s motivation: the game’s marketing materials indicated that he was trying to find his sister. Beyond that, the images and figures of Limbo do little by way of aiming at storytelling consistency—there are giant insects, and factory buzzsaws, and blowgun-wielding primitives—and even though the progression of the game seems to track the history of mechanical technology from ancient pulleys to futuristic anti-gravity machinery, there is little rigging in the text that one might employ so as to launch a confident ascent toward any ultimate meaning. Limbo is either impossibly opaque, or it relies on piling ambiguity on ambiguity in order to lure users into its deceptively closed gaming universe.

Inside is less a sequel to Limbo (or a prequel, the title of the latter having led some to suggest that the boy and his sister are already dead) than an improvement on it. The upgrades include not only a shift to color (not unlike Dorothy’s emergence into Oz) and a little 3D introduced to the 2D genre, but also a more palpable and consistent narrative that emerges in pieces as the left-to-right journey begins. This time there is no sister; the boy is revealed to be evading men who appear to be guarding some kind of installation. The path is one of escape, running through old forests, to farm country, to slaughterhouses, to massive factory complexes that sometimes seem to be under attack. Eventually the boy stumbles past, and then among, marching lines of stunted people whose grayish skin color and sometimes kinked necks and limbs give them every appearance of being partially animated corpses. Staffed with far more sentient guards and scientist types, the factory at first seems to be a corporate version of the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein, designed to turn these drone figures into a slave population that can be manipulated with a kind of brain-control device that the boy, of course, must occasionally employ.

The Blob Tube

The experiments don’t end with the manufacture of a zombie working-class, however. The boy does encounter a girl in Inside, but she seems to be some kind of failed experiment; she has been given the ability to breathe underwater, but has been turned into a murderous mermaid in the process. She kills the boy over and over (it’s a Freudian jackpot), and eventually hooks him up to a machine that gives him the ability to breathe underwater, too, and this is one of many hints that the boy’s journey is not an accident. Like a chicken escaped from a processing plant, it seems that the boy was on his way to becoming a drone, but managed to free himself and plop down into the in media res outset of the game.

In the end, the boy doesn’t escape. He becomes the blob-boy, and several scientists intent on this creature’s creation die as a result of its rampage. A particularly ghastly sequence follows in which the blob-boy crushes a scientist as they both crash through a window and fall several stories, leaving the scientist a bloody smear on a cement floor. Notably, however, this man need not die at all. It isn’t a puzzle, but the man can be spared if the blob-boy—you—simply waits for him to get out of the way. This is worth noting because prior to this moment the violence the boy has inflicted, either in Limbo or Inside, has been indirect—really an act of self-defense—but now the game is threatening to creep back into the usual videogame mode of affectless murder. You are given a choice: slip backward toward the wantonly horrific likes of Grand Theft Auto (1997) and Postal 2 (2003) [3], or pause a moment and then continue on in a macabre but not morally bankrupt pursuit narrative. In this way, the player is implicated in a wryly disjointed bit of commentary on the history of gaming itself.

Regardless, the remaining scientists assist the blob-boy in his frantic escape from the compound. It’s tempting, then, to conclude that the blob-boy is a successful experiment; created perhaps as a weapon for the war waged in Inside’s backdrop.

From there, it’s not hard to find antecedents for Inside in both literature and film—it’s a little bit Soylent Green, a little bit Logan’s Run, a little bit The Island of Dr. Moreau, and more than a little bit Frankenstein. The imagery starts to seem familiar, too, with milieus lifted from E.T., Alien, and The Poseidon Adventure. But all this allusive flotsam becomes a bit of a disappointment, as eventually you become hard pressed to find anything in Inside that you haven’t seen inside something else.

Ezra Pound demanded that artists “make it new,” and Marcel Proust insisted that a writer is someone who invents a voice as unique as his or her fingerprint, but Inside isn’t even really trying to tell a story that hasn’t been told before. That’s a problem. Art cannot be made up wholly of references to other art. Star Wars, for example, does not come close to art because at its core it is nothing more than a pre-fab mash-up of archetypes mail-ordered from the IKEA superstore of Joseph Campbell.

Put another way, Inside could only have been designed by someone who hasn’t read Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” and hasn’t read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and hasn’t read T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—someone who hasn’t, in other words, engaged theoretically with what art is. And that, in turn, leads to the simple conclusion that on the level of its plot Inside is not trying to do what art does.

Burial Plots

Second, there’s still the meta-twist to consider: perhaps Inside is a game with both a text and a subtext. And perhaps a subtext can help the videogame industry evolve beyond the hyperviolence that is its womb and its crutch.

As one approaches the end of Inside, it’s hard not to notice that the factory complex begins to seem modern, featuring the kind of techy, geeky feng shui that one associates with the office spaces of Google and Apple and Kickstarter. Amateur critics have inchoately proposed a latent allegory: the scientists populating the factory of the game are creating the world of the game itself, and the blob-boy crashes down into the observation booth where they’re working out the bugs in the game’s final images. The facility, then, is not an assembly line for an army of chubby super-soldiers, it’s a metaphor, it’s Playdead itself, it’s the company creating the game you’re playing—whoa . . . so cool!—and perhaps the nerdy, pocket-protector guy that you can either spare or squash is a coy cameo by Jensen himself, plugged into his own game, not unlike the tiny self-portrait of Luca Signorelli smugly staring out from the corner of a mural on a mountaintop in central Italy.

But what the hell is that supposed to mean? A meta-twist might tickle the postmodern funny bone of a bratty twelve-year-old, but should a game aspiring to art aim its loftiest ambitions at a player whose most formative life experience to date is the infected zit festering on his slobbery upper lip? What does it suggest that Playdead appears to think of its players, its customers, as a giant, faceless globule desperate for freedom but trapped inside a sequence of events it can’t control? Is it a joke on every parent willing to shell out $6.99 for their kid’s app? Or is it more like the allegory of Stephen King’s Misery, in which the misery is King’s own, feeling strapped to his bed and forced to bang out endless tripe for soulless housewives?

Lost in the Funhouse

The answer, in plain sight, is perhaps Inside’s salvation—and perhaps it’s the salvation for videogames as well. The problem of games today is that their creators have not imagined any purpose for them greater than fun. There are exceptions to this, of course, but for the most part games equate escape with distraction—to be distracted is to be entertained, and it is good to be entertained.

If escape means distraction, then Inside fails as art, but if escape means enlarging the boundaries of the self, then it succeeds.

That this is facile and potentially harmful is depicted in Michael C. Clune’s memoir of a life in videogames, Gamelife, which demonstrates in a satiric rant how the pursuit of fun destroys the ideas of truth and history: “The only reason to have history anymore is for fun.” In conclusion, Clune provides his own meta-twist to draw a stark distinction between books and games: “You think I wrote a book about computer games for fun? If I want fun, I’ll play a computer game.”

In a somewhat different context, John Barth famously asked, “For whom is the funhouse fun?” But in that instance, the funhouse was a metaphor for storytelling, and the fun was a metaphor too, a subtext for whatever art is supposed to do. Art can be fun—of course it can—but that is not its primary obligation. The obligation of art, as Henry James described it, is to be interesting, and if you’re paying attention, that is to say, if you’re trying for more than distraction, then Inside begins to be interesting with its name, which stands in stark contrast to games like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It stands in contrast, too, to Limbo—a shift from a proper noun to a word that can serve as preposition, adverb, and adjective. Inside is less named than titled—and while a title is not a clue, it can, on the level of theme, offer an indicator, a signpost to keep you on the right path as you zig and zag your way through the labyrinth.

Of course, there’s irony to this, as well, because the whole of Inside is about getting outside, about escaping the facility that is the game you’re playing, and the allegorical game designers seem to be trying to help you do that, even though you’re not actually escaping anything, because it’s all just the game. To escape this—to make it more than a prepubescent meta-snort of postmodernism—you have to broaden your understanding of what escape might mean. If escape means distraction, then Inside fails as art, but if escape means enlarging the boundaries of the self, then it succeeds. In other words, Inside is not about whether the kid, or his sister, is dead or alive at the beginning or the end of the game, it’s about whether you are.

The much remarked-upon narrator of Raymond Carver’s classic short story, “Cathedral,” experiences such a moment as the story climaxes with a blind man helping him draw a church. “My eyes were still closed,” the narrator says. “I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.”

At its most ambitious, Inside aspires to a similar feeling. Escape in art that is not transcendence is cheap, and if you can climb beyond the foolish puzzles and the Easter eggs and the hidden meanings, you can feel, for a moment, that you are not alone on your sofa with your phone, playing a game; rather, you are somewhere else—somewhere grassy, bathed in warmth by a ray of sunlight falling from above.


[1] To seal the deal: “Internet Gaming Disorder” has been included as a “condition for further study” in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 since 2013, and in June 2018 “Gaming Disorder” was added to the eleventh edition of the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases.

[2] Memento’s marketing campaign encouraged this response, but when was the last time you heard of a literary critic basing their theory of a book on its jacket copy?

[3] The release of a more recent game, Active Shooter, was quashed in the wake of the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.