Evoking the actual footage captured of concentration camps in Nazi Germany, Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was shot almost entirely in black and white, save for a single red garment worn by a small child, one doomed to endure the horrors of the holocaust but not survive such. Though not so monochromatic as either Schindler’s List or its predecessor Limbo, Playdead’s spiritual successor to the latter is so desaturated as to practically be shot in grayscale, save, of course, for a single red garment on a small, doomed child. The visual similarities to Spielberg’s classic do not appear to be accidental. Though the landscapes and architectural styles suggest an American setting, Inside is a thematic recapitulation of Hitler’s holocaust. Though grotesque, eerie, even eldritch imagery is scattered throughout the puzzle platformer, it is this juxtaposition of such a proximate setting with the very event which epitomizes evil in our cultural memory which imbues in Inside such a haunting quality.
From the first moments of the game the nameless protagonist is already a fugitive, hunted by the authorities. The reason is never revealed, but it becomes eventually evident that their pursuit is not for him alone. Not far off in the background, the familiar sight of humans packed like livestock into trains is seen shortly after coming across corpses of a farm-full of swine. One cannot help but think, as the train chugs forward forebodingly, the phrase “…like pigs to the slaughter.”
Moving forward, the protagonist finds himself among these unfortunate souls, standing in line at a processing facility to what could only be called a concentration camp. Though the character designs are minimalistic, free of any facial features, from their garb those running the facility are meant not to resemble Schutzstaffel, nor Sturmabteilung, but rather typical American officer workers. Such imagery works to disturb the player in opposite but simultaneously effective manners. The specificity of their apparel creates associations which are domestic and familiar, even routine and ordinary: the notion that what the Nazis had perpetrated could happen here at home; that what through the distance of decades seems to us so hateful was likely regarded by its perpetrators as blasé. Conversely, the generic character models, little more than vaguely humanoid grey blobs, give this image and Inside as a whole a universal scope, suggesting that everywhere men are capable of such cruelty and indifference, and showing the absurdity of the evils which some men perpetrate upon others by having no discernable difference between the character models of the persecutors and the persecuted.
Scenes of forced labor follow, the spirits of those doomed to the drudgery of the deep mines in which they toil utterly broken. At another point, bombs are heard exploding in the distance, the sounds and shockwaves getting increasingly closer till whatever war is being waged – even if it’s by some friendly forces like the Allies looking to halt the genocide taking place – becomes as much a danger to the boy as the regime from which he’s running. It’s a reminder that, as often as we tend to view the Holocaust as an event which took place in the background of the Second World war, from the perspectives of the Jew and the Gypsies and the various other victims, the military conflict was just background detail to their own story.
But such persecution, enslavement, butchery… none of it compares to the horrid heinousness which happens after. The surgical theater in which the boy finds himself takes clear inspiration from Josef Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz. And herein the game become truly macabre.
Prior to such, the boy seems to lose all purpose for progressing forward. At first it is to escape enslavement. In the labor camp, the puzzles seemingly focus on freeing these captives from their cages. But their liberations never last, and the boy is forced to press on, alone, having accomplished nothing. I grew up playing platformers; the first game I ever experienced was the original Super Mario Bros. at the age of about five. For the last twenty-five years I’ve been conditioned by the conventions of the genre to run across the screen from left to right, regardless of the story or my character’s motivations. But immersing myself into this boy’s world for just a few hours, I was struggling to understand what drove him. He seemed set on survival, but with such misery both behind him and before him, where was he running to?
Inside’s answer to this question is shockingly nihilistic. Whereas Limbo’s goal throughout the game was to avoid the morbid means of death to which its character could be subjected, there comes a point in Inside when, far from avoiding death, the player is seeking it out for the protagonist to release him from a fate far worse. The game does not tell the player to do so. But it inflicts such a torturous existence on the boy that the player, not caring that the character’s death is in video games a fail state, still wants such for his avatar every bit as much as he’d want death for himself in the same situation. In the midst of such misery I spied a conspicuously placed oven, its fires raging. The allusion was not lost on me, but I fought futilely to climb my way into it all the same.
Inside is nothing short of the Schindler’s List of video games. It is, is anything, more effective in conveying the horrors of the holocaust. Whereas Spielberg’s opus was from the perspective of an outsider, Inside gives an insider perspective of persecution. Whereas one can sympathize with Schindler, simultaneously regretting he’d not done more while uplifted for all the good he did do, there is nothing uplifting in the least to Inside. It looks unflinchingly at the worst atrocity ever perpetrated, forcing the player to empathize with those who’d experienced such firsthand, and offers no consolation for the severity of such evils.