This essay contains specific plot details from Playdead’s Limbo and Inside, insofar as those games even have plot details.
We don’t often think of Playdead’s two games as horror games. Developed over the course of a decade, 2010's Limbo and 2016's Inside consist mostly of physics-based platforming puzzles, whereas the horror game genre is built around sluggish, punitive action (Silent Hill, Alien: Isolation), abstract key-gating (Resident Evil), and careful distribution of resources (The Last Of Us). These games conspire to create a sense of panic and hopelessness, but Playdead’s games imagine horror as something you experience intellectually rather than physiologically, with a particular interest in the awful, video game-specific possibility of repeated, torturous death.
Games have long used the language of life and death to teach the player their rules, but Playdead’s works relish this morbidity, animating with great joy as your child protagonist writhes momentarily on a spike or gasps toward the surface of a lake in which he’s drowning. Among Inside’s many technological leaps is the variety and believability of its death scenes; you’re constantly being chased down, strangled, smothered, stunned, and dragged off-screen. Packs of sprinting, bloodthirsty dogs chase you through lakes and alleys and up and over fences, and when they catch you, it is awful to behold. And yet, after each grisly death, you pop back to life just where you left off, ready for more.
Many games dwell in this sort of limbo, but only Limbo is built around it, literalizing non-death as a maundering architectural dream that fades from forest to factory to rooftops and back again imperceptibly. With each death, the light of the boy’s eyes fades, such that playing the game can feel like flicking his soul off and on. Playdead seems less interested in the Catholic definition of limbo as a sort of waiting room between heaven and hell for the inadequately redeemed than a more modern, irreligious conception. It’s a liminal zone between existences, godless and lawless. The game’s exploration of this space climaxes in a rotating piece of machinery, in which the oscillating laws of gravity fling the child again and again to his death before a perfect button-press sends him shattering through a spectral pane of glass. He gets up, after awhile, and as he slowly walks to the right we see the sister he entered limbo to find. More importantly, to her right, a ladder reaches upward into the light—a glimmer of hope before the game cuts to black one last time.
Limbo’s is a terror constructed from the idea that underneath or alongside our world exists an unknowable realm built on the rule of monstrous violence. But Inside digs deeper into the concept, turning the space between life and death into a source of body horror. What happens if only the mind dies, leaving the body to dodder on? What happens if the body fails but the mind goes on, trapped in a corpse? The game develops this theme via the exploration of a half-submerged Brutalist megastructure, flipping the context of Limbo’s puzzles to instead emphasize hiding for dear life in an authoritarian surveillance state. Scattered throughout are lifeless mannequins as well as stumbling worker-drones, whose bodies you occupy by hopping into a mind-control helmet. The haunted ambient sound loops of the first game, which bloomed organically as the player progressed, become pulsing focal points for goose-stepping performances for the authority figures.
Eventually, deep in the bowels of the industrial wasteland, the boy makes his way to a semi-sentient mass of gurgling limbs that suck him inside, after which all the powerlessness and tense sneaking of the rest of the game is reversed for a riotous, almost ribald finale. Humans, dogs, locked doors, spike pits, fire—everything that killed the boy is trounced over as the gelatinous, murmuring pile of bodies heaves its way to freedom, finally collapsing through the outer wall of the facility and tumbling down a hill. It rolls to a stop in a beam of light beside a glittering body of water as the credits slowly roll, and the player is left to wonder what the fuck just happened to the puzzle game they had been playing.
Inside was designed to provoke this holy-shit silence, furthering its mystery with a set of secret puzzles that, when completed, allow you to return to the beginning of the game, where you crawl into an underground bunker and unplug one final contraption only to hunch over lifelessly. This alternate ending led to wild speculation about a shared universe between the two games, as well as infinite theories about what exactly that fleshy mass at the end of the game actually “meant.”
The designers called their climactic creation “the Huddle” during development, drawing inspiration from the titanic bodies of painter Jenny Saville, Rembrandt’s unlikely flesh hues, and footage of crowd-surfers riding along waves of independent but collaborating hands. Its emergence is an abrupt left-turn from the rest of Inside, but it’s also the natural endpoint of the horror begun on Limbo. They both derive their terror not from powerlessness or the grotesque (although those are both present) but instead from the mechanization of our deepest fear: a fate worse than death. The developers have sussed out the cosmology of a video game character and find it an almost unbearable existence of endless inescapable misery and corporeal manipulation, a terrible puppetry that only ends when the game itself does.
This blurring of the lines between human and non-human, autonomous and sentient, is a very old and potent fear; you can trace it from Frankenstein’s monster to The Human Centipede. It manifests itself as the uneasy feeling we get when looking at uncanny-valley automatons or at DeepDream images conjuring dog eyes out of inanimate objects. It’s the terror we feel at persistent vegetative states and the (sometimes apocryphal) stories of genetic abnormalities, like the still-living girl born without a brain and dressed each day by her parents or twins absorbed in the womb that go on to live parasitically within their siblings. These stories and images terrify us because they challenge our conception of what a human is, seeming at once like us and not. They render grotesque and literal the real-world horrors of dehumanization, whether it’s glib objectification, overt slavery, or torture, which is, by definition, a state of existence so awful that death becomes a relief. This, too, is the state that Playdead games force us to navigate. The Huddle, as well as the two games leading up to it, imagines the life of a gormless video game character subject to a player’s pleasure to be a form of aesthetic torture. Horror games are built upon on your desire to stay alive, but only Playdead games force you to yearn for death.