“It is not enough that men are not slaves; if social conditions further the existence of automatons, the result will not be love of life, but love of death.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
There’s little the tinfoil conspiracists debating the meaning of Playdead’s Inside can agree on. Part of what makes the game so hard to pin down (and brilliant) is that there is no lack of specificity in its unyielding ambiguity. You can reasonably argue for just about any interpretation of the game (can you even with this fertilized egg one?), but every theory inevitably falls short of addressing its many layers of enigmatic detail. The most popular theory posits that the King of Limbs (as we conspiracists call him) mind-controlled the boy to escape—but if that’s true, why does the secret ending give you the choice to opt out? Did you even really escape, if the diorama found in the facility depicting your final resting place on the hill implies that you did exactly what the powers that be wanted you to? And what the hell is up with that underwater rebirth scene with the mermaid, anyway? From claims that Inside is a metaphor for social media, a scientific experiment, or a meta-commentary on game development, one common thread unites them all: oppression. It almost goes without saying that Inside is oppressive yet, oddly, most interpretations gloss over this fact to instead focus on minute plot details. But to understand Inside, a narrative exclusively carried out through wordless symbols and images, you have to meet it on its own terms. And analyzing its symbolic language paints a much more unifying picture that can explain some of its more baffling moments.
Inside’s game system emulates the mechanics of an oppressive social order with uncanny accuracy, giving players a powerful experience of dehumanization. In the tradition of Engles, Marx, de Beauvoir, Freire and many other social philosophers, it depicts a world where man made machine, an institutionalization of the machine gave man dominion over nature, and then an economy run on the labor of enslaved, mind-controlled masses fed the machine until it took over all of existence. In the game’s world, mind-controlled humans are a literal commodity to be bought and sold: the zombiefied “Husks” are packaged in boxes and paraded before lines of families who purchase them as goods. While many popular theories attribute the decay of Inside’s world to war or nuclear weapons, there’s much more evidence that the fundamental “mistake” this dystopian society made was actually building technology that siphoned resources from mother earth. In every forested area (both the beginning and a little further on when the jump box is introduced), you see metallic pods with glowing lights attached to trees—which later, in the mining area, are revealed to incubate the Husk drone workers. Only the pods in the forest have their lights on, while the ones inside the factories are “off,” indicating that the creation of these human slaves is fueled by a natural resource. In the woods at the very beginning of the game, the boy is actually witnessing a “harvesting” of these pods, as hundreds of the Husks are rounded up in containers and shipped off for distribution.
In Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, the seminal feminist philosopher traces the symbolic meaning behind this shift in human history from agriculture to technology. While, before, man was at the mercy of mother nature’s natural and mysterious will, the invention of tools “enabled man, tested by hard and productive work, to find himself as creator, dominating nature.” And, in order to “exhaust the new possibilities opened up by new technology: he called upon a servile workforce, and he reduced his fellow man to slavery.” During this process, the ability to create passed from the domain of the female to the male. But man’s creations were always mutations of the female’s natural processes, co-opting the earth’s resources into something monstrous. Inside not only makes warehouses out of forests, but forces the player to unceremoniously use living beings (like pigs, chicks, and even humans) in the name of progress. This mutation of natural forces only grows more grotesque the more you see of the world, culminating in the underwater farms that grow writhing piles of human limbs, or the King of Limbs’ cold, clinical, engineered womb.
Inside’s symbolic exploration of an oppressive social order (or, in other words, patriarchy) is at its clearest and most baffling in the underwater sequences. The only place where nature appears to be winning the war to reclaim what man took from her, these flooded facilities show how the brute force and power of machines can be negated within a husk of rusting metal. A return to when mother nature reigned supreme, the Freudian symbolism used here submerges the player in cavernous expanses that inspire a fearful awe of feminine power. As de Beauvoir explains, in most symbolic representations, “Mother Earth has a face of darkness: she is chaos, where everything comes from and must return to one day; she is Nothingness.” In these levels, the player encounters the most terrifying creature in the whole game: a freakish mermaid with long-flowing hair. In every way, she is Other, alienated from the patriarchal order above and reduced to an agent of disorder and chaos in a world otherwise programmed for order and conformity. But, even as the Other, the mermaid still operates within the patriarchy’s mutated version of nature. In the final confrontation with her, she strips the player of his agency, attaching a mechanical umbilical cord to his chest in a rebirth that grants him not only the ability to survive in her underworld, but also further control over the mind-controlled slaves. Once again, natural forces are corrupted and used to feed the system that relies on an endless cycle of manipulation and dehumanization.
Another moment that usually eludes most of Inside’s theorists happens right before the final sequence. The player hides behind a box while a cage of enslaved human drones is lifted onto a forklift, their bodies carted away like products, as the silhouette of a father and son watches from the doorway. The father, overseeing the scene and holding his son’s hand, seems to pass on a tradition of patriarchy that relies on an economic model of dehumanization—a system fed through the oppression of various Others, from the human drone slaves, to the mermaid, to even the scientists in their labs, and the bureaucrats in their offices.
Inside’s most notorious sequence depicts one of the final stages of oppression, as the player enters the engineered womb only to be absorbed into the King of Limbs and transformed from individual into a generalized “mass.” Interestingly, though, despite all the body horror that The King of Limbs dishes out, it’s a creature that remains unquestionably empathetic to the player until its last breath (or final resting place). As players, we are made to feel pity for the creature as it is continually exploited and tricked into conformity. We continue to see it as pitiable and sympathetic, even as it wreaks havoc on the world and even murders. Because, deep down, we know that this writhing pile of flesh is us—all of us. It is the collective, demonstrating its raw strength in numbers, yet ultimately powerless to destroy a social system that alienates us from our very sense of universality, turning humanity into something grotesquely disfigured.
It is an accepted fact among social scientists that oppressive systems do not ultimately serve the oppressors they purport to serve. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire explains that the oppressive mindset “transforms everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time—everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal.” Weirdly enough, not even the oppressors escape this transformation, becoming so obsessed with the material gained from the process of dehumanizing that “they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have.” You’ll notice that while female avatars can be seen among the families early in the game, all the people staffing the facilities are men. But are you supposed to envy these men maintaining the patriarchal system? Do they appear happy or liberated? While playing Inside, you are inevitably faced with the question: Who actually benefits from this bleak and inhumane world? Who ultimately controls it, the blob, the player, and the human slaves? Is it the scientists? The hard-hatted workers who help you “escape”? The director in his big corner office, who is crushed under the weight of the revolting masses and reduced to a puddle of blood? The real answer is much more terrifying than any one of those: No one is in control. Because in this ouroboros-like system, all living things—even those who believe themselves in power—are subjugated to the dehumanizing, self-serving logic of institutionalized oppression. The system of patriarchy not only oppresses women, but reduces all people to categories that undermine their very humanity.
As in real life, the revolution in Inside begins with different oppressed groups banding together under one common cause or hive-minded goal. But the secret ending implies that the real battle has only just begun—“The great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well,” Feriere explained. Viewable only after the player has finished the game and destroyed all the mind-control orbs hidden throughout the world, the secret ending shows the boy unplugging the power to the machine, evidently shutting down the entire system. As everything fades to black, he slumps over. Having made what is possibly the first and only liberated choice in the whole game, he destroys the technology that started it all. Whether or not this leads to a new world order—well, I guess we’ll have to wait another six years for Playdead’s next release to find out.
Jess Joho writes about the web, culture and intimacy in the digital age. Her words appear on Kill Screen, Motherboard, Paste and The Atlantic.