Warning: major spoilers for Playdead's Inside ahead.
Inside, for all of its surrealism, is rooted in a heavy reality that could be our past, our present, or our future. Its fantastical elements are grounded by the figure of the tormented little boy fleeing his captors, and his excruciating death animations. The little boy could be shot, could be strangled by a man's bare hands, or could be mauled by dogs. Brutally matter-of-fact, these deaths impart a palpable urgency to the boy's quest: flee, survive, resist.
You encounter few other sentient beings during Inside. There is the little boy in a red sweater, who is running either away from or toward something. There are the dogs that attack you, the musical chicks that follow you, the pigs that are mostly indifferent to you. There are the humans who chase and slaughter you.
Then there are the seemingly mindless zombies. What they are exactly is unclear. Some call them husks, I call them zombies, my partner calls them drones. The point is: They are visually and physically "other." You're feel distanced from them. At best you're encouraged to see them as things you can use them to help you solve puzzles, much in the same way you were forced to view the musical chicks and the pigs. But they are more than that. They are your most powerful allies.
Then, of course, there is the water creature, a long-haired humanoid creature who poses the only threat below water other than drowning. The water creature is by far one of the most terrifying aspects of Inside. It follows you at an alarmingly fast rate, only being repelled by light. And if it catches you, it drowns you, pulling the furiously struggling boy deeper into the water, a death just as drawn out and painful to watch as when the humans enact their fatal punishment on the little boy.
The water creature had me anxious, desperately swimming as fast as I could possibly make the little boy go. The water creature was nerve-wracking, and somehow knowing that it was repelled by light only made it even more terrifying. It was horrifying to even think about, let alone try to escape from. That is, until the rebirth scene.
The rebirth scene in Inside is a powerful scene where both the player and the playable character lose complete agency. Up until this point, we've been taught by the game's system that we can escape death and the forces that are trying to stop us. But in this moment, all we can do is watch as our player character is caught, drowns, and drifts helplessly deeper and deeper into the murky water's depths. We cannot avoid this scene; this death is inevitable. But rather than being a traditional death like all the rest, this moment brings about either a transformation or a realization of a power that the little boy has had all along: the ability to breathe under water.
The water creature hasn't been trying to harm you. Narratively, it's been trying to help you.
But of course, not really, because all those times that frighteningly agile creature has caught you it's been a real death within the game's system. But with the rebirth scene, we're shown something else: What we were trained to see as an aggressive action in video games (an enemy killing you) becomes subverted. Each death you've experienced at the hands of the water creature prior to the rebirth scene becomes a lesson in learning to accept what you've been taught to fear. With this moment of change from the game's system that introduces an ability to make progress possible, one thing is made startlingly clear: The little boy is not alone. He is (literally) made stronger by the others around him, just as with the zombies.
Yussef Cole wrote about the importance of Inside's mechanics and individuals in a dystopian labour environment. Cole writes, "Inside's lobotomized masses, in one scene, are marched in orderly fashion, like cattle, in front of prospective buyers wearing protective masks; imagery disturbingly reminiscent of a slave market. When these upper-class buyers finish up and take their speedy, modern trains home, your character follows the cattle cars full of husks as they descend ever deeper into the darkness and the toxic muck."
Striking and upsetting, the scenes where the zombies are put on display for the humans reinforces the terrible cruelty humans are capable of toward sentient beings we don't fully understand—or beings we don't want to fully understand.
But Inside doesn't want you to fear the abnormal or non-normative; rather, Inside wants you to embrace yourself as part of the abnormal in order to find collective resistance to fear, isolation, and oppression. Positions of otherness become the site of real resistance, of collective strength, and of success. The zombies (the lobotomized masses that Cole writes of) are actually the strongest force of resistance. They start to help later in the game, after being still and passive in the beginning. They are different from the boy, but they are also the same as the boy, discrete beings a part of the same continuum. By combining their forces, they become stronger.
Without the zombies and the water creature—characters within this universe that are coded as other, as different, as monstrous—the little boy couldn't succeed against the overarching system he is so clearly resisting.
Now, the ending of Inside is a bit on the nose when it comes to these themes. The final level of Inside involves the little boy becoming subsumed into an organic mass, presumably other zombies or water creatures fused together in either experimentation or an attempt at survival. Walls, doors, and even enemies who were a threat or an impassable barrier to the little boy become literally nothing, crumbling beneath the feet of the blob as it careens throughout the laboratory. We don't know if the boy was purposefully running toward the blob, if he was being controlled by the blob, or if he just happened upon the blob without understanding his own role in the greater scheme of things. We don't know, and the game gives many clues, but few answers.
The one thing we can say for certain though is: The boy becomes stronger when he is not alone. Being amalgamated into the blob, the humans who previously would have murdered him without a moment's hesitation now watch, awestruck and terrified.
Oppressive, bullying, and abusive regimes traffic in isolating their victims. Oppressive systems cannot be changed without united efforts, and activists and heroes aren't born into vacuums: They are supported by systems that teach them how to effectively protest and resist. Media stories that herald single people as pinnacles of change ignore the reality behind how these people succeed. Lyn Mikel Brown, in her book Powered by Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists, says "The most important truth about effective social-change work: You don't do it alone."
We're encouraged to set ourselves apart from our communities, to be seen as a single force rather than a community working together. It's why, as Brown points out, media so often sensationalizes "special girls" who create online petitions that become national news. It's sensational, it's exceptional, it's an easy, seemingly inspiring story—and it further sets us apart from each other and then places us into competition with each other. The end of Inside demands that we let go of that aspect of individuality, the part of us that causes us to reject identifying with those we've been trained to view as "other."
The ending of Inside can be uncomfortable to contemplate, as you characters is subsumed into a thing you either don't know, don't understand, or didn't consent to. And that's the thing about Inside: It doesn't give us any answers to the questions it raises. It leans entirely on what the player takes from it.
For me, the ending is hopeful. Maybe not happy, but hope doesn't always come from a pretty place or easy experiences. But it shows what we can do when we join forces. We can knock down walls, and we can make those who we once feared tremble in our wake.