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Posts By Caleb J. Ross

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I’m simply too excited to Yooka-Laylee to sit idly by and not direct that excited energy into something. So, I bring you another episode of 6 Degrees of Pixelation. This time I connect Yooka-Laylee with Amanda Palmer (and I never once mention that Amanda Palmer plays the ukulele! I’m either an idiot or a king of self-control).

Like many other episodes in this series, I’m basically taking things I like and trying to find a way to make them exist in the same universe. If you don’t like the things I like, that’s okay. I still love you.

You know that social theory that everyone on earth can be connected to anyone else by no more than 5 intermediaries? They call that 6 Degrees of Separation. I do the same thing here, except I connect video game topics in strange ways using 6 Degrees of Pixelation.

Click here to access the Google Doc with the script and sources.

 

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Welcome to The One Thing, a video game review series that does something a bit different. Rather than try to touch on all the features that make a game great, I attempt to distill a game down to a single element that I believe is integral to the experience of the game. This may not be the only thing that makes a game great, but if someone asked me to tell them why Shantae works, specifically games 2 and 3, I’d start with The One Thing.

What is the one thing? With Shantae, it is the consistent attention paid to retro platformer details while respecting the modern gamer. The game plays well, has great characters, oozes charm, and encourages exploration–all very important to platformers of my youth. And while doing this the game also embraces modern elements such as a refreshingly gradual difficulty curve, plenty of save points, unlimited lives, and bosses that aren’t so much Nintendo-hard as they are I’m-an-adult-and-don’t-have-much-time-to-play-games-easy. If I had to smoosh this The One Thing into a single phase I’d say the Shantae games are Fun.

The term fun is more broad than I prefer, but every time I tried to think of something more poignant, I came back to “fun.”

I love a 2d platformer. I hesitate to call it nostalgia because the 2d platformers of my youth were generally so difficult that having a nostalgic association with them comes across as a bit Stockholm syndrome-y, that psychological phenomenon in which hostages develop feelings for their captors. I’m not going to thank Contra for hurting me over and over. But the best 2d platformers–and modern platformers do this especially well–feature an impressive amount of control, just enough puzzle solving and physical destruction to keep things interesting, and a learning curve that’s fair, meaning if something goes wrong, it’s not the game’s fault. It’s the player’s fault. Like Stockholm Syndrome. Alright, I conceded that their are similarities… Contra only hurts me because she cares.

See, Shantae reminds me what it’s like to be loved. And, I know, this stockholm syndrome thing is getting old fast, but let me extend the metaphor a bit, at least enough to allow me to reign it in. See, Shantae is beautiful 2d platformer, made to look like a 16bit entry from the mid 90s, but it benefits from the vast knowledge that gamers and game developers have collectively gathered and refined since the 90s. Back then, games were long because developers wanted you to get your money’s worth. But now, we understand that gameplay is far more important. Imagine a game like Ninja Gaiden on the NES, but not necessarily difficult, and instead of being pushed back into a chasm every time you get hit, the game actually understands that without fair control, a game is nothing. That’s Shantae. And to be fair, that’s Shovel Knight. That’s Teslagrad. That’s Steamworld Dig. That’s so many other great platformers and puzzle platforms that take the aesthetic simplicity of the retro and merge it with the gameplay sophistication of the modern. I love a 2d platformer. I love Shantae.

Here’s an important note: a game can be enjoyable without being fun. Borderlands 2 is enjoyable. It looks great. It’s got some great humor. But it’s pretty boring, honestly, after a few hours. Not fun. Same with Gianna Sisters. Starts off fun, but gets tedious fast. A game can be demanding, annoying, frustrating, but still be worth playing for reasons other than fun. Maybe it’s a self-empowerment thing, like actually completing Ghosts n’ Goblins (which I’ve never done, btw). Maybe the game is intellectually engaging like The Beginner’s Guide or emotionally engaging like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. These games may have elements of fun, but fun certainly isn’t their central intent.

So how do the Shantae games do it?

What Shantae does is take what we know we love about the past, what we perhaps didn’t realize we love about the past, and what we love about modern gaming, and package it into a beautiful, perfect couple of games, and it does this all by not restricting itself to standard platformer conventions.

You’ve got minor RPG elements with weapon upgrades, character power ups, but unfortunately no branching paths. Shantae dabbles in metroidvania with semi-open maps that encourage revisitation once new powers are acquired. The final leg of Risky’s Revenge, game 2 in the series, provides a short side scrolling shoot em up diversion. Acquiring animal powers is common in the game, which is reminiscent of many early era platformers, most notably to my mind, Little Nemo the Dreammaster (I love that game). And though I cannot pinpoint specific influences, the game has a Mega Man feel to it (Perhaps it’s these on-rails platforms). Shovel Knight by way of Ducktales also seem to have some influence.

The only gripe I have is the steep increase in difficulty during the final leg of the final stage of game 3, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, where timing had to become impeccable. That was a bit of a let down. I had come to respect the game for not having to rely on difficulty to make it worthwhile, vying instead for ease (which some of us like, dammit). But that’s a minor gripe.

Why am I speaking only of Shantae: Risky’s Revenge (2) and Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (3), games 2 and 3 in the Shantae series. I haven’t played the first game in the series, but from what I understand, games 2 and 3 top the first in all ways, so I’m okay with not having played it. Add to this that the first game is currently selling for hundreds of dollars, and, well, it’s just not feasible for me to play it.

These versions of Shantae are distributed by Limited Run Games, meaning unfortunately for you, they now cost a lot of money. Limited Run Games, as the name implies, presses limited runs of games and once they are sold they are sold forever. And if you are a collector, don’t be fooled by what may appear to be two different covers for each game. The cover is simply reversible.

Luckily, you can download digital versions of these games for PS4 and Wii. Even more luckily, the next Shantae game in the series will be released later this month (December 2016). Shantae: ½ Genie Hero is a kickstarted game, and the first to move away from pixel-based visuals to a clean HD look. I honestly don’t like the change, but I also understand that my dislike is entirely based on aesthetics. As long as the game plays like a Shantae game and is written like a Shantae game, then the visuals shouldn’t distract me. This new game is developed by the same studio that did all the previous games (WayForward) so I shouldn’t be disappointed.

Let me know in the comments below if you’ve played the Shantae games 2 and 3, and whether or not you agree with my observations, specifically regarding fun.

What games would you recommend for people who like the Shantae games?

And please, if you like this The One Thing approach to video game reviews, let me know. I make decisions based on the comments, so you, dear viewer, are all powerful.

If ever I meet someone who left a comment on one of my videos IRL, I’ll buy that person a beer.

Research/Sources/Credits/Inspirations (this is not a comprehensive list, as that would be impossible, especially the “inspirations” items)

The following are YouTube videos licensed under CC BY 3.0

Music Credits

 

I had an idea for a podcast. So I made a test episode ready for your listening pleasure. Behold, episode zero of the Gamer Strangers Podcast.

Some background info: In a hunt for Kansas City area gamers, I stumbled upon a group of people, two of which (NSA_iswatchingus and PairedRabbit) host the gaming podcast The Titled Gamer Podcast. This lead to me participating in episode 50 of their podcast which in turn opened up the opportunity for Nick (NSA_iswatchingus) to indulge me in a podcast idea that, selfishly, is meant to introduce me to more KC area gamers.

Welcome to episode zero of the Gamer Strangers Podcast, a podcast that brings together two otherwise strangers based only on their mutual love of videogames. We scour the online and IRL videogame communities to find people that don’t know each other personally but do know that the other person loves video games. This conversation, we hope, takes that single point of video game love commonality and stretches it into a wonderful, lifelong friendship.

Give it a listen, then let me know in the comments below what you think. Alternatively, let me know what you think via Twitter at @calebjross.

And subscribe to The Titled Gamer Podcast.

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I’m no doctor, but…like all people who begin a statement with “I’m no doctor” I’m plenty qualified to project an unearned sense of expertise about medical conditions. I’ve read a lot of WebMD and each night before bed I read a chapter from The Color Atlas and Synopsis of Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

I can prove I know a lot about medicine. Last week I fell into a pit full of rusty nails and the resulting wound now smells like almonds. Which, based on my expertise, means I probably actually just fell into a pit of almonds, which explains the smell. It’s honest confusion. I’m no carpenter. I don’t know what rusty nails look like….I smell toast. What does that mean?

And like normal people, gamers need a doctor to help define our problems. This is where I come in, to use my non-doctor degree status to educate you on 7 gamer syndromes, compulsions, and other medical things that we gamers share.

7. Compulsive Obligatory Credits Acknowledgement

So, you just beat the game (or “won” the game, if you’re a weirdo who phrases things in weird ways), and as the final cinematic fades out, the credits fade in. And you watch. You read a few names, hoping you might recognize a few, and perhaps even see your own name in the “Special Thanks” section as a Kickstarter contributor or maybe that guy you pestered at the bar those years ago was actually a game dev and it turns out your drunken political ramblings somehow inspired the entire Dr. Olivia Pierce narrative in DOOM. But halfway through the credits you realize neither of these hopes are realistic, but you continue watching. Why?

Personally, I watch because I feel like the creators deserve that small offering of acknowledgement. When you consider that the history of video game development is one that actively snuffed out any developer recognition (which by the way lead to the entire concept of an Easter Egg…watch my video on the topic, link in the description), when you consider this systematic lack of recognition, spending 10 minutes to take in a few important names is the least we can do. Not to mention, if the game’s denouement is brief enough you may still be sweating that last boss fight. A few minutes to calm down is probably what you need anyway.

Oh, and I know I mentioned DOOM above, but I should have picked literally any other game. The DOOM credits are actually fun to watch.

6. Side Mission Hoarder Syndrome

So what happens before you hit full on Compulsive Obligatory Credits Acknowledgement? If you suffer from Side Mission Hoarder Syndrome, then the answer is a lot happens. In fact, some might say too much happens. SMHS sufferers will, sensing the impending climax to a great video game, deviate from the logical narrative finale and instead address those many, many pesky side-missions they’d been putting off.

You don’t want the good time to end. I get it. We all get it. Even this guy, who has a very compromised sense of bureaucratic priority amid a zombie-infested apocalypse gets it.

5. Incongruous Exploration Syndrome

Super Mario Bros. was our gateway drug, and our first hit was that secret 1-up in World 1-1. Every video game experience after Super Mario Bros. had to share story developing time with an incessant need to explore every last crevice of every level.

Often, our compulsion for exploration isn’t even rational. It’s somewhat reasonable to be a completionist. I understand that. The idea of collecting every gem in a game of Giana Sisters, for example, is rewarding and attainable. But Incongruous Exploration Syndrome takes from the fuck-you school of Incongruity Theory by way of exploring not everything, but specifically the places the game is telling you not to go.

If at the beginning of Limbo, your first response is to turn left, you may suffer from IES. If during a game of Giana Sisters you go left when the signs literally say go right, you may suffer from IES. And if that first secret 1-up in Super Mario Bros. encourages you to try jumping at every few pixels hoping for another secret, you may suffer from IES (or you may just suffer from Walkthrough Aversion Syndrome, also known as I-Can-Do-It-Myself-Itus).

Side effects may include cyclical depression, inevitable reward let-down, and hatred for linear platformers.

4. Autosave Distrust Syndrome

It’s standard fare now, the warning at the beginning of every game that a specific symbol indicates your game state is auto-saving. For those of us before consoles with harddrives but after cartridges with batteries, saving was manual. You’d reach a checkpoint, bring up the main menu, then save. But along came auto-saving and the world was a glorious, changed place.

But us Autosave Distrust Syndrome suffers hide a shameful secret. We don’t trust the flashing symbol. We manually save even with an auto save feature. Perhaps we’ve been subject too many times to the harsh reality of autosave failure. I know, you’re saying “the autosave didn’t fail, you just shut off the game before the save could complete.” To that I say…you’re probably right. But the anger my impatience breeds is still anger and I reserve the right to place that blame wherever I want.

Side effects may include wasted time, accidental game state overwriting, and technology-based bigotry.

3. I’m a better cartographer syndrome

Games didn’t always have maps. Metroid for the Nintendo Entertainment System is a perfect example of a game that would drive modern players to the edge of insanity, with its circuitous paths and repetitive (though not for its time) visual design. It’s hard to navigate without a map, let alone without unique landmarks to guide you.

Even modern games don’t always get it right. The DOOM 2016 map system takes some getting used to, and nobody, not one person, has ever used the Fallout 4 interior maps. So it comes as little surprise that I’m a Better Cartographer Syndrome suffers exist, even in this modern world of gaming. We’ve simply learned that an in-game map cannot be trusted. Hell, we’d often prefer old-school feelies to the neon vomit screen Fallout 4 expects us to use. At least with physical maps, you’ll never get distracted by a runny nose.

But let’s say you do reduce yourself to an in-game map. Are you going to trust the provided legends? Nope, you’re setting your own waypoint marker because you’re a man of the wilderness and you don’t need your hand held.

Side effects may include map clutter, upset collectors, and spontaneous Incongruous Exploration Syndrome…you know, because you don’t follow the map.

2. Distrust of people who are actually qualified to name syndromes syndrome

Since when has a video game doctor ever been good? Doctor Light from Megaman? Sure. Okay. Maybe Doctor Mario, but I’m not sure that using pills to destroy other pills counts as good doctoring. Dr. Tenenbaum from Bioshock, maybe. Okay, there are a lot of doctors. But be honest, when first introduced to a video game character in a lab coat you immediately assuming the worst.

This is especially the case when the lab-coated smarty appears a bit too conveniently, as is the case with Doctor Camden from Dying Light. Just listen to how perfectly this guy speaks. He’s way too articulate and his voice is much too soothing for me to trust his continued survival in this world full of rampant virility. He’s too much of an asset for the bad guys to not be compromised. He should be much more freaked out. I completed the story mission, and canonically he’s on the up-and-up, but I don’t trust him.

Doctors are supposed to be ethically good, which makes them perfect fodder for subverting expectations. This despite that most video game doctors who start openly bad stay bad and who start good stay good. Dr. Wily. Dr. Robotnik/Eggman. Doctor Neo Cortex. But still, I distrust melodrama. Good can’t be good.

Side effects include…all of them, because you won’t let a doctor anywhere near you.

1. Auditory Hallucinations

You’ve been playing for hours and hours. You’re tired. So you turn off your game of metal gear solid and go to bed. But then you hear it, the panicked siren of a soldier spotting you. Is someone breaking into your house? No. Though you’d love to believe that you’ve acquired the enemy soldier’s exclamation point alertness ability, you’re actually just suffering from Auditory Hallucinations, a form of Game Transfer Phenomena. This one is real.

In 2014, psychology researchers took to online game forums to survey more than 1,200 gamers who said they had experienced hallucination-like perceptions, thoughts and behaviors after gaming. Of this group, 12 percent reported hearing imaginary sounds after playing video games, this according to a study published in the International Journal of Cyber Behaviour, Psychology and Learning.

Researcher Professor Mark Griffiths–a smart guy whose research I used in my Ratchet & Clank video–observed that “Game Transfer Phenomena appears to be commonplace among excessive gamers and most of these phenomena are short-lasting, temporary, and resolve of their own accord.”

He went on to say “For some gamers, the phenomena are conditioned responses, therefore the best way for the tiny minority that may have longer lasting phenomena is to simply cut down the amount they play.”

But why do that, I ask. Then you wouldn’t be able to feel like a mildly able security guard with a, now that I think about it, skill that’s actually quite debilitating considering his line of work. I guess it would be a lot better if an intruder weren’t alerted to the security guard’s presence?

* * *

There you have it, 7 syndromes that gamers suffer, but hopefully not for much longer. The first step is awareness, and that’s what I’m doing with this video. If we work together we can find a cure…other than ceasing to play video games entirely. I’d rather hear video game voices in my head than suffer the level of insanity attainable due to a life without video games.

And if you like this video, please give it a thumbs up. And by that I mean clicking the thumbs-up icon below the video. Simply extending your thumb in from of your screen, while enjoyable for onlookers, isn’t actually helpful for me.

You’ll find a link in the description to a Google Doc with my script, notes, and sources so you can dig in more if you’d like.

Until next time, I’m Caleb (exclamation) you’re just hearing things, and we are burning books.

My own videos that I mentioned

Research/Sources/Credits/Inspirations (this is not a comprehensive list, as that would be impossible, especially the “inspirations” items)

The following are YouTube videos licensed under CC BY 3.0

Music & Sound Credits

  • Rhinoceros Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
  • Overworld Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
  • Dr. Wily Stage 1 (Mega Man 2) [accordion cover] by Jackson Parodi, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GprEBfGlP9o, Attribution 3.0 License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
  • https://www.freesound.org/people/Timbre/sounds/151711/

Google Docs link with the script and sources: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GZVg8LteA0wRKZ3Xo5fSHgSVu3eZSS1oc4PF4diBqUU/edit#

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I recently read an article in issue #283 of Game Informer that prompted me to think a bit more about a topic from the book Console Wars, which I also recently read. What happened with Sonic the Hedgehog and how can he come back into the mainstream, if he can come back into the mainstream?

It’s hard to overstate how integral Sonic the Hedgehog was to the pop culture fabric of the early 90s. To many gamers today, Sonic is at best a novelty, and at worst a joke. But there was a time when he was perhaps bigger than–definitely as big as–Mario. I know that’s hard to believe, but you’ll just have to trust me.

Part of what inspired me to offer my thoughts is that I’ve long been interested in fads in general, and more specifically whether or not the cultural context that allows a fad to thrive can ever be recreated. Not “can that context ever happen again?”–surely it can–but can a marketing team ever consciously create an environment for a fad to be reborn without the intended audience recognizing the money-grab. See, I just showed my cards. “Money grab” implies that the resurgence of a fad, as supported by a company, is all about the money and not at all about simply trying to let people have an innocent moment of nostalgia, but I still wouldn’t bet on Sonic Mania being one of the top sellers of the year.

I know, usually fads by nature are the product of (or at least supported by) corporate interests. But is there room for simple nostalgia?

Enter the latest installment of Sonic, the upcoming Sonic Mania, which is billed to be a return to a 16-bit, pixelated, side-scrolling Sonic the Hedgehog. The Game Informer article details the many, many, many failed attempts by many different game developers to bring upright the fallen 90s icon. After a while it seems reasonable to dust our hands and say “sorry, they tried and failed. A sonic resurgence isn’t meant to be.”

And I actually side with those hand-dusters. I honestly don’t think Sonic will ever have a true resurgence. He is the product of an era in pop culture that promoted all things x-treme, awesome, gnarly, and blast-processory. Sonic’s personification of early 90s attitude was his charm. And that charm became his downfall. He played a very specific type very well, but as context changes so do the fads that context is able to support.

But Mario has had some shitty games, too, right? Absolutely. So how does Mario succeed? According to yet another book I recently read, How Nintendo Conquered America, Mario took the Mickey Mouse approach in that from the beginning Mario was never assigned to a single, definable role. He was a carpenter, then a plumber, then a tennis line judge, then a golfer, then a race car driver, then a boxing referee, and on and on. But Sonic is such a specific character that to allow him entrance into any other role in any other decade for any other reason (other than nostalgia) just isn’t possible.

Have I pre-ordered Sonic Mania? Yes. Will anyone under the age of 30 pre-order Sonic Mania? I highly doubt it.

Perhaps only when gamers old enough to remember the original 16-bit Sonic games are long dead can Sonic be reborn.

Tell me what you think in the comments below or at this video’s YouTube page: https://youtu.be/H8mtmr98ntI

Further Reading

 

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Hi future Caleb…

You are probably watching this video because you’re old and have forgotten if, back in 2016 when you first read this book, it was good or not and you’re considering giving it another read. Maybe you’re retired, sitting on a beach–but you’re still in Kansas, because climate change has turned your Kansas City suburban split-level home into an island paradise. So you’ve got nothing left to do but read books and die. That’s okay. With great books like Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation sitting dusty on your bookshelf, dieing doesn’t have to be simply the poorer choice from a selection of two poor choices. No, it’s strikingly worse than reading.

Future Caleb, you’re thinking “What? But I thought this channel was about video games!” Don’t worry. Dementia hasn’t destroyed your brain to the point that you’ve forgotten your entire 30-something youth. But I will remind you that before video games, book reviews were a big part of this channel. I’m not going back to a book review style, but if a book I read deals with video games, why the hell not offer some thoughts.

So what’s my approach to this video? Rather than talk about where the book succeeds, where it fails, and what it’s context is within the rest of the genre like every other review in the world does, I’m going to be selfish and use this platform as a way to remind future-me what may warrant a return to the book, should future-me need such prodding.

So, future Caleb, is this book worth re-reading: Yes.

The dusty paper book you’re holding in your hand right now (yeah, we used to use trees for books; it was a weird time back then) that book is basically a narrative history of the video-game industry after the video game crash in the early 1980s. It explores how video games rose from those crash-ashes to become a dominant form of entertainment, much bigger than even pre-crash days. The focus is on Nintendo and Sega, despite other companies existing, sure, but in America in the 80s and 90s, Nintendo and Sega dominated.

This book could have been about any two rival companies, Pepsi and Coke, perhaps (which are actually referenced in the book). It would still be a fantastic narrative history. Though the story works in part because it’s about the unique, and rocky history of video games as a cultural entity, it works more-so because of the personalities of the people that worked for Sega and Nintendo in the 80s and 90s. You can’t have a narrative without characters, and this book definitely delivers the characters.

These characters have names you’ve probably heard of if you’re still the video game nerd your past-self was. In the established crowd-favorite Coke-a-Cola corner, you’ve got Peter Main, Minoru Arakawa, and Howard Phillips, among others, of Nintendo. In the underdog, choice of a new generation Pepsi corner, you’ve got Hayao Nakayama, Shinobu Toyoda, Al Nilsen, and Tom Kalinske among others, of Sega. And, at the last minute, even a few mysterious characters from Sony make appearances, notably Steve Race, who I want to do an entire video about. Talk about personality. What this book does is assign a story to these individuals.

A couple additional notes before I go:

Though the subtitle of the book implies equal weight would be given to Sega and Nintendo, it’s more of a Sega underdog story. And because history is a real thing, we know that Sega is basically a non-entity today in 2016, so we kinda know how this story ends. But maybe you, future Caleb, are laughing right now because after an unexpected Sega resurgence in the 2050’s involving a Nights into Dreams mind-controlling experiment gone right, Sonic the Hedgehog’s face is now on our currency and Tom Kalinske’s head is cryogenically frozen and dishing out war commands from an underground fallout vault. It seems weird you’d know about such a plan. That seems like the kinda thing that the government would try to keep under wraps, but you’ve made it this far in life future-Caleb, so no more questions from me. All Hail Nights into Dreams.

Also, from a management, and business curation perspective–as a reminder, my day-job involves managing people at a young, 5 year-old company–this book actually offers some motivating insight into the importance of establishing business relationships and keeping smart people happy. That’s just a side note that may be worth considering, future Caleb, since you’re surely looking out over your empire in 2067 and wondering how video games may have played a role in all the business deals you’ve dealt. Well, this book may be that tenuous connection.

Well, I’ll leave you to your re-reading, future-me, and if you haven’t already, please force all of your kids and grand-kids to subscribe to this channel. You’d be making an young(ish) and definitely overweight version of yourself very happy.

Sources/Credits

Music Credits

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Welcome to The One Thing, a video game review series that does something a bit different. Rather than try to touch on all the features that make a game great, I attempt to distill a game down to a single element that I believe is integral to the experience of the game. This may not be the only thing that makes a game great, but if someone asked me to tell them why INSIDE works, I’d start with The One Thing.

And what is The One Thing? It’s the…well, I don’t want this video to be censored because I mention anatomically appropriate body parts, so let’s just say, it’s the lady parts.

Let me back up for a moment.

Video games are inherently a perfect medium for the storytelling technique known as in medias res, which literally translates as “in the middle of things.” The idea is that you can begin a story in the middle of a scene, and that fundamental storytelling elements such as exposition and scene-setting can be bypassed, and instead these details would be revealed as the narrative progresses. It would be the difference between starting the fairy tale Cinderella with “once upon a time…” vs. opening  with the evil stepmother in the middle of yelling at Cinderella. Film noir movies often use in medias res. Law & Order, and it’s many spin-offs have used in media res as a series defining stylistic choice for years (bum bum). Shit, did someone just get murdered?

With video games in medias res often serves to jump-start the sense of exploration that’s already central to video games as a medium. It’s a natural fit. But in medias res can be dangerous. A viewer, a reader, a video game player will only be on board as long as the promise of progression exists. Starting in the middle of things removes the narrative support that more controlled character development and scene setting can offer.

So back to Inside. Inside begins in medias res, so the player is primed to hunt for contextual clues about the narrative. Then comes the stealth element which eases the player into accepting the game’s mystery. And the game developers (Playdead) are smart storytellers because they put us in the body of a child, the implication being that children by nature are innocent, so the world by default is mysterious. Playdead used a similar strategy with their previous game, Limbo. Also an amazing game.

So we, as players, adopt that innocence and immediately being asking questions. Why are we hiding? Who are those guys trying to kill us? Why are these chicks following me? What’s up with those weird vapid people? We’re kept invested not only by these questions but also by the game’s design. The stealth elements transition to swimming, then to puzzles, then new enemy types, then more swimming but with a literal twist (the water is upside down…it’s a literal twist), and then, surprisingly–but not necessarily unexpectedly–you become a blob with a mechanic set that’s entirely different from your child character mechanic set.

Inside is fun and it’s beautiful. But most importantly, Inside is brilliantly paced, which is something in medias res narratives sometimes have trouble with. All of these things mean we as players remain invested in the experience.

As a player you are 100% on board with the mysterious narrative every step of the way. This is great, but when The One Thing reveals itself, that’s when the game does something really special. The game stops being mysterious and suddenly becomes…logical. The game makes you feel smart in a new way. When I recognized the use of in medias res, I recognized my own intelligence. When I recognized the use of a child protagonist to compliment the stealth and mystery elements, I again recognized my own intelligence. But when I recognized the vagina, I recognized the game developer’s intelligence, and by proxy, their insistence on making me, the player, feel smart. Making a player feel smart without dumbing down the experience is not easy to do.

I believe the vagina was intentionally placed by the game designers as a way to put the analytical crowd at ease. “Hey player,” the developer is saying “you don’t need to think anymore. We’re telling you right now that we’ve used the human body, specifically the reproductive experience, as a blueprint to inform the level design of a 2D platformer set inside a very mechanical factory-like environment. Okay. From here on, just play.” In a world comprised of hard-edged mechanical surfaces, the soft folds of a vagina stand out. And the developers knew it would.

But is Inside really that simple?

The Internet is rife with theories attempting to de-tangle the game’s theme, trying to organize the logic of the industrial and organic motifs into a single, digestible intent. Some say the game explores how cancer affects a body. Some say it comments on depression with areas where you’re essentially shutting down serotonin receptors. And while, at first, I was eager to jump into that analytical crowd, seeing the vagina near the end of the game, caused me to step back. I found a piece of the puzzle, but importantly not a hidden piece.

Again, the vagina tells the player to stop thinking. This directive to stop thinking is supported by the turn from a puzzle game to a game of simple fun now that you’re playing this amorphous blob, which I mentioned earlier. You get to literally destroy parts of the level, giving you a sense of catharsis against all of the obstructions you’ve carefully navigated up to that point. You don’t have to think anymore. Now you’re just supposed to have fun.

You even use fire at one point late in the game. Fire is a very typical no-need-to-think game mechanic, the type of common element that Inside had consciously avoided during the entire game prior.

Is Inside trying for a specific message, something about herd mentality and office work, as many of the prevailing themes discussed online would indicate? I don’t think so. I don’t believe the developers are hiding a deep message. I think they just wanted to make a cool puzzle platformer and they used the body as a blueprint.

Let me know in the comments below what you think of Inside. What do you think it means? Did you notice the vagina, too, or is it all in my head?

And please, if you like this The One Thing approach to video game reviews, let me know. When I get a thumbs up or comment notification on my phone, I seriously get giddy.

Oh, and one last thing before I go. If you ever find yourself constructing a narrative and you decide to start your story in medias res, just promise me you’ll do so carefully, and that you won’t do it just to be clever…oh crap, that reminds me, Welcome to The One Thing, a video game review series that does something a bit different. Rather than try to touch on all the features that make a game great, I attempt to distill a game down to a single element that I believe is integral to the experience of the game. This may not be the only thing that makes a game great, but if someone asked me to tell them why INSIDE works, I’d start with The One Thing.

Research/Sources/Credits/Inspirations (this is not a comprehensive list, as that would be impossible, especially the “inspirations” items)

Music Credits

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