Inception as Videogame

Posted by on Jul 18, 2010 in Articles | 4 Comments

In the past year, I have been struck by how often I see videogames as informing other media productions. Up until recently, games were often thought of as struggling for legitimacy by trying (and inevitably failing) to represent/approximate “reality” and/or appealing to more respected art forms. Academics, designers, fans, and media have all been guilty of establishing these various limiting frames and viewing games through them. Fortunately, I think these trends are eroding. Games are being judged on their own qualities and attention is being paid in their design to what they do differently from film, books, etc. Moreover, there are an increasing number of non-game texts drawing inspiration from videogames. It’s clear that videogames are so well entrenched in culture that they have become, as all media eventually do, part of a network of remediation and intertextuality.

While watching Inception, I could not help but think of all of the ways its subconscious playground compared to the experience of playing a videogame. I believe the film is just a valuable as an exploration of gaming and affect as it is dreaming.

Below is a list of similarities I generated:

(Please note that I realize none of these similarities only apply to videogames. However, I do think that when taken as a group they form a convincing argument for Inception’s game-like qualities.)

1. The film is heavily invested in a set of rules and logics which guide the action and events. The first act is focused on helping the viewer, whose surrogate is Ellen Page’s Ariadne, understand the system.

2. Similar to theories about game avatars, the people within the dreamworld are projections of the users’ subconscious.

3. There’s a heavy focus on the navigation of space. The architect/designer building the world is tasked with creating appropriately challenging labyrinths.

4. The worlds have their own physics engines.

5. The ideas being quested for are locked away like treasures.

6. Time is sped up. (This particularly reminds me of the quick clocks in sports games as well as first-person shooter characters running 15-20 mph.)

7. There are different levels of increasing difficulty.

8. Frequent and/or addicted users have a hard time distinguishing between dream and reality.

9. There are single player and co-op modes.

Can you think of any others?


  1. Brendan Keogh
    July 24, 2010

    A good list.

    There is the one I mentioned on twitter, that Cobb (Decaprio’s character) essentially represents the player of a linear game who can’t help but to mess it up with his own emergence. Someone else creates a level for him, and tells him what he is meant to do in it, but he always manages to bring his own experiences into it to play it his own way–even when he does not want to.

    A more technical one that I do not have the exact words for, but noticed from my 18 months of a failed Multimedia degree is when architect girl uses the two mirrors to create the corridor of pillars. Essentially what she has done is made her own complex object out of a set of simple shapes and copy/pasted it. This reminds me of level design techniques designers use to save time.

    I’m sure there are still plenty more. Just as The Matrix was the perfect film analogy for games for the past decade, Inception will be all the analogies for the next decade.

    On a side note, am I the only one who noted many parallels between Inception and Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer? Essentially, Inception was a cyberpunk story, afterall.

  2. Imogen
    August 5, 2010

    How about the team of “Enemy” trying to kill you.

    And people’s bodies vanishing after you kill them.

  3. Tanner
    August 5, 2010

    @imogen Did they ever show the bodies vanishing? I can’t recall.

  4. Kimon Keramidas
    September 15, 2010

    I hadn’t made the explicit game connections when watching it but you are really spot on about a lot.

    You could even consider each of the dream levels in the final sequence as representing prominent genres of level design in games.

    The first level of immersion was very like a GTA sandbox where you can hijack vehicles, find warehouses to hide in, and are fighting off attackers from multiple vantage points. Not to mention you have the option of using either a rifle or heavy duty grenade launcher to deal with those pesky shooters.

    The second level in the hotel is a more typical closed world environment where both stealth and firefights are enabled/made more challenging by corridors, passageways, and bystanders (say Rainbow Six Vegas or the Splinter Cell games). In fact I would love to see more elevator shaft traversing in games like that.

    And the last level, well that was straight out of Modern Warfare 2, complete with snow, mountaintop encampments, foreign paramilitary on snowmobiles, high explosives, and automatic weapons fire.

    The whole movie could be seen as almost an homage to classic level design, where even the Paris scene was like a twisted ground level view of what it is like to play SimCity. Sometimes you create new and exciting things and sometimes you recreate the familiar because it is comforting.

Leave a Reply