The Distancing Effect (Verfremdungseffekt) & Playdead’s INSIDE

How INSIDE Utilizes a German Performing Arts Concept...

The worlds in video games are not real, and we all know it for a fact. But so many times do we as players fell for them; do we believe that we are those characters, do we laugh as them, and cry as them…We are always entertained, but seldomly beyond “entertained”. Video games today are so stubbornly clinging to the most basic form of character and world building to provoke player’s emotion and the feelings of immersion, that when they are clearly capable of striving for higher, few actually do. A majority of today’s video games relay heavily on Aristotelian type (dependent on empathy) of character and world building that stresses the ideology of letting the player “be” the character. There is nothing wrong about the Aristotelian approach: a well-developed character could easily bring about moments of tears and laughter, satisfaction of victory, or misery of losing. But for video game as a medium to mature and be truly taken as a form of “art”, it needs a form of expression that makes the player ask questions, on a deeper level, dwelling not merely on feelings of empathy: the distancing effect.

The power of distancing effect is best exemplified by Playdead’s Inside. Inside’s playable character is a boy in red, with no spoken dialogue, no back story of the character, nor any explanation on what, how, or why. In creating such a character, the game deliberately cuts the possibility of using “character” as a conduit to elicit emotion and sympathy. In doing so, the players is “distanced” from the character: the player does not feel the pain the boy in red does, nor anger, nor fear…They stand on the opposite side of the boy in red; they are observers not involved or in a state to sympathize emotionally or to empathize psychologically.

To double the weight of the distancing effect, the game channels player’s attention elsewhere, to the world the player is brutally thrown into. The player is directly placed in a world with no introduction, no back story, nor explanation on how it progressed into the stage it is currently in. Through environment storytelling, Playdead ingenuously places of elements, objects and NPCs in a calculated and controlled manner so that the Inside forces player to piece fragments of information together, and to consciously think and make judgements about the world, on the question of why and how the boy is in it. In this process, the player is conscious that he/she is playing a game, rather than being merely immersed in ita.

But the distancing effect does not stop there. Inside is, at its core, a puzzle platformer, a continuous gameplay experience, without cutscenes or load screens, that orders the “distanced” player to consciously make sense of a world that is seemingly fragmented and disjointed. Around 1/3 of the Inside’s entire gameplay, the game builds a world not much unlike the US in 1930s: the stereotypical farm, the city landscape, the atmosphere…It creates for the players the illusion of familiarization with the game world, tricking them into believing that the world is one of normality. Gradually, however, the game distances the players from this world they are familiar with and thus taken-for-granted. In the rest of the game, the player enters an environment diametrically different from the first 1/3 of the game. The new environment features a company headquarter with otherworldly architectural structure and technologies far too advanced for the 1930s setting: the ability to shift gravity with a push of button, gadgets that allow mass mind-control, shockwave that obliterates any organisms for no obvious purpose, and phenomenon not explicable by science, but only fantasy. To push the effect even further, the game culminates in a final act that is outright unreal and fantastical, leaving the player in disbelief, confusion, awe, but most importantly, philosophical meditation of objectivity, existence and reality.