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Game Profile
 Written by Kyle Hilliard  on July 26, 2010

Special: And it's a hell of a lot more complicated than the Konami code.

Before I take a single step into the dream world of Inception and begin a discussion of all the game design philosophies and ideas that can be extrapolated from Christopher Nolan's latest brain exploder, let me offer this brief, but severe caution:


Now that we have that out of the way, let us continue into the sometimes nightmarish dreamscape that is Inception.

If you have read this far, then I can safely assume that you have seen Inception and found the film and its ideas to be worthy of further research. If you have not seen the film, yet continue to read, I can assume that you hate surprises, or are not interested in the film, yet for some reason feel compelled to read about it. You're kind of weird, but it's okay -- we still like you.

Regardless of what camp you fall into, let us establish a bit of narrative background, so as to either place the film into the context of the article, or offer a bit of a refresher. Leonardo DiCaprio is an extractor. He enters people's minds through their dreams in order to steal valuable secrets. Inception shows the team pulling a sort of reverse thievery. DiCaprio and his team are entering somebody's mind in order to place an idea in their head, rather than steal it. This is far more dangerous than extraction.

There are many elements of Christopher Nolan's latest epic that absolutely scream video game. For one, there are a lot of people getting shot very quickly. In the film, we have a small group of elite commandos (so to speak) taking on a larger group of nameless, faceless, enemies that serve to only make the end goal more difficult. These enemies are projections of the dreamer, so the mass murder antics of DiCaprio and his crew are easily and morally explained away, in the same way that someone like Nathan Drake's serial killer rap sheet can be disregarded. The people aren't really real, and they are trying to kill the extractors, so it's okay to kill them back. In the beginning especially, DiCaprio moves stealthily through the halls of Ken Watanabe's mind, shooting and disposing of threats without calling attention to himself. He could comfortably roll with a Snake or Fisher with relative ease in this tale of Tactical Espionage Inception.

Kind of looks like a game console, don't you think?

Inception is not exceptional in this regard. The shooting and action make the movie feel like a video game, but there are many action movies that feel like video games. The main goal of video games since the beginning has been to create the same feeling and spectacle of a good action film, so it is not surprising that over the years the line between the two media (games and film) would start to blur. Inception is far more closely related to gaming for reasons other than guns and explosions.

While we're on the topic of guns, explosions and death, let's delve a little deeper. In order to effectively remove yourself from the dream world in Inception, you must die. When playing a game, especially one that is good, often death will be your only means of mental escape. Obviously we are not physically connected to the games we play, but emotionally it's a whole different story. Once we are devoted, and we are sitting on the edge of the couch using as little of the seat as possible, and our hands are sweating, often the only way for us to return to reality and remember to eat or use the bathroom is to be killed. Inception shows us this, but presents it as scientific fact.

As mentioned earlier, DiCaprio and his team are trying to place an idea into somebody's mind. This is an extremely difficult and dangerous process that involves moving through the deepening levels of the subconscious. They refer to the levels of subconscious in the film as exactly that -- levels, a term we gamers are very familiar with.

Each level in the film is represented as a dramatically different landscape. The first level is a busy city street, filled with a steady rainfall caused by the dreamer's consumption of too much champagne before the dream began. The second level is a fancy hotel, beautiful and elegant. The third level is a guarded fortress aside a snow-covered mountain, complete with avalanches and Modern Warfare 2-esque soldiers on snowmobiles. The final level ? in which they descend into limbo ? is an abstract city collapsing under the weight of time and disrepair; here we are awash on the shores of the subconscious. The players' ? err, I mean characters' ? progression through each level requires certain goals to be accomplished. Gather this information, convince the dreamer of this, etc.

These different levels of subconscious have all been physically (or mentally, if you prefer) created by Ellen Page, or as she is referred to in the film, the architect (interestingly named ?Ariadne," who was the daughter of King Minos and helped Theseus out of the labyrinth. Well played, Nolan). What you can really call her, though, is the level designer. And therein lies the ultimate game reference.

DiCaprio and his team may be extractors in this futuristic science fiction world, but to the average gamer, they are just extremely talented game designers. The point of the film, and the motivation for all of the characters, is to create a believable world for the dreamer to interact with, and to convince the dreamer that he is in control. This is exactly what video games attempt to do. Take the player (or dreamer in this case), place him or her into a world that they have created and convince them that they are in control.

Game designers build their professional careers around giving players convincing and enthralling experiences. Even if the world that has been created is abstract and does not reflect the real world in any way, it is still important that the players believe that they can exist there, or can at least get absorbed into the setting. Even puzzle games without context require that the player accept certain elements as facts. Something like Tetris, while not placed within a specific world, still requires the player to understand and be part of the system, and as undoubtedly millions can attest to, it is a place where hours can be quickly and easily lost.

Inception spends much of its first act discussing and setting up the rules of the dream world. During this educational period of the film (or tutorial, if you will), much time is spent on how to convince the dreamer that the idea that will be planted in his subconscious is his own. If they simply tell the dreamer this idea, it will not stick, so to speak. The dreamer will not consider the idea his own, and will not pursue or contemplate its repercussions. Game designers must consider this same conundrum at each element of the game. How do you convince the player that he solved this puzzle on his own? How do we make them believe that defeating this boss came from their own intuition, and not from the clues we deceptively hid throughout?

The best game designs are the ones where the player can at least believe, with as little suspension of disbelief as possible, that the series of events that are occurring are due entirely to the actions of the player, and not because the designers told those things to happen. And this is what the extractors (or inceptors) are trying to do -- convince the dreamer that it is all his doing.

Surely all of this cannot be a coincidence. Nolan must be an avid gamer, one who understands the true draw of gaming. He must have played Modern Warfare 2 and decided to create an obvious reference to it in the second-to-last level of the subconscious, right? Soldiers falling from icy cliff faces, snowmobile combat, lots of people getting shot quickly. Nolan has to have reached Prestige Mode while shooting his film The Prestige, right? Tom Hardy throws a thumbs up towards the doomed snowmobile rider as he tosses an explosive into his backseat. That must be the equivalent of a PG-13 teabagging, right? What better way to show your combat dominance. Nolan must be a huge gamer!

Actually, and rather surprisingly, he is not. He does not even like technology. In an article discussing a panel Nolan was speaking on, he admitted to not having email or a cell phone, saying, ?It gives me a little more time to think.? And as far as all of those images calling in memories of sneaking around the snow in Call of Duty? Try James Bond, specifically, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Nolan told the BBC news, ?I've loved the Bond films since I was a kid. For me, they're always about the expansiveness of cinema.? He goes on to talk about how the influence of classic Bond films was very much intentional in Inception.

Basically, to sum up, Nolan doesn't seem all that interested in games. If he thinks that emails take up too much time, I very much doubt you're going to run into him during your trips into the online world of Call of Duty.

Time magazine referred to Inception and the team of extractors as a metaphor for making film. A group working together to craft an intricate ruse. They even call the film ?an elaborate video game, except that you don't play it; it plays you.? Which is a fair comparison, unless you consider that as interactive as we would like to pretend our favorite medium is, we forget that ultimately we are at the mercy of the original creators. All games play the player, and in that regard Inception is almost a video game, the only difference being we're holding a tub of popcorn instead of a controller.

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