Inception: The Game?

August 02, 2010

After watching Inception, one of my friends mentioned that one of the great qualities of the movie was that it was something that was completely suited to the medium: that no other medium could capture the ideas and story posed by Christopher Nolan’s film as well as film itself. In this I agree – while the specific action could be described by a novel, in a radio play or (and I kinda want to see this) in a musical, none of these mediums are as effective at telling this particular story as the filmic one.

In addition to this, Inception has gotten a decent amount of attention in the critical game community on its game-like characteristics. This got me thinking about how Inception would work as a game, both in terms of how you would bring across the same ideas in their complexity and whether this medium can achieve the dizzy heights of the film.

So how would I make Inception: The Game? We’ll find out, right after the kick…

(PS. Here there be spoilers! If you haven’t seen the movie, do yourself a favour and do so quickly before you find out too much as it’s best watched without any prior knowledge)

Before we start, a quick note on the distinction between Inception: The Game and an Inception-like game – an Inception-like game takes some of the ideas and world of Inception and put them into the gaming medium, while Inception: The Game takes the characters and storyline from Inception and maps it as well as it can to a game. During this article I’ll be looking at both, but my main focus is on Inception: The Game.

1. Good Gameplay Grief!

Inception is a figurative gold-mine when it comes to gameplay ideas, and I can think of a bundle of ways of making some incredibly interesting Inception-like games.

First, there’s the layering. The idea of playing in four levels of dream at once, and having to achieve certain goals in each before going deeper and/or synchronising the kick in multiple timelines is fantastic in game terms. In specific gameplay, you’d play each level in its entirety as that level’s dreamer, achieving your objective, hooking up the dreamers for the next level and creating the kick before heading to the next level and having to synchronise. At any point, you’d be able to head to splitscreen to see what was happening on the level above to help synchronise. And of course, gravity changes based on what happened in the level above.

In terms of the Inception story itself, this would make the first missed kick of driving off the bridge incredibly hectic for the player as they have to find a way of creating a new kick (which could lead to some interesting emergent gameplay).

Inception provides a number of great things that ensure that gameplay elements fit naturally within its structure. The most obvious example is shooting bad guys – we all know that games are brilliant at this particular mechanic, and Inception has made it an integral part of its fabric. The objective of stealing something (in terms of extraction) is easily realised through Thief-like mechanics quite easily (and this fits snugly into the ‘if you do strange things the projections start attacking you’ aspect as well). And the fact that the levels are mazes that fold back onto themselves both utilise the properties of games perfectly and fix the eternal problem of world boundaries incredibly elegantly.

In terms of levels, there’s a massive opportunity for including level design as a part of the gameplay process, which is incredibly exciting. Who you show the designs to is also important: as the movie illustrates, if a character with serious baggage learns the maze, their projections could sabotage the mission.

The fact that geography and projections inform characters means that deeper, more interesting characters can be externalised easily within the game, helping to solve the age-old issue of creating compelling characters without overusing cut-scenes or scripted sequences. The sequence where Ariadne enters Cobb’s mind would make for a thrilling exploratory level, which would probably be expanded to tell us more about his character.

At its heart, Inception is a heist movie, which is also an opportunity to do some interesting co-op (and as I write this I’m wondering why this hasn’t been done before). As per any heist movie, each character has a different role and characteristics, and so allowing players to take these different characters in a larger operation that requires all their special talents could make for a great game. The time dilation makes this one hard, however, as whoever’s the dreamer at level 1 could be stuck doing nothing for a while…

The team nature of such a game could make use of the projection issues that Cobb faces: you can choose which characters you tell about the level design, and doing so can both help them fight more effectively and allow any projections they brought with them sabotage you. Knowing the characters becomes a gameplay advantage, and could lead to the player creating missions for the core purpose of finding out more about their peers.

There is a bit of bad, and that’s that it would be hard to have the inception itself as a gameplay element (past ‘get person A here and then watch a cutscene of telling him something’). The nature of extraction is much easier to accomplish (and has an added bonus in terms of level design: you choose the safe you have to break into and thus the difficulty, and tougher safes will mean that the information the subject places within them is more valuable). Inception is much more subtle, relying on techniques of subterfuge and psychological technique which games are yet to master.

2. Length And Learning

It can’t have escaped your mind that Inception’s length would make for a pretty short game: there’s the initial level in Saito’s mind, the tutorial levels with Ariadne, a level or two in and around Cobb’s mind and flashbacks, and then the actual inception mission. While I don’t feel that gameplay length itself is important, this short level structure doesn’t explore the depths of the dream mechanic at all or train the player adequately for the final mission.

I’d probably leave the initial level fairly as is, and place the player in Saito’s shoes. As the person being extracted from, the player is allowed to learn basic movement and fighting techniques while being introduced to the ideas of extraction and inception, ensuring that learning the mechanics of these deeper ideas doesn’t overly complicate the game in its early stages. The second training mission as Ariadne is also well placed, but after this, I think you’d need to have a few extraction missions leading to the inception itself. Possibly, you’d want to perform extraction on Peter Browning (Fischer’s Godfather) to find out more about Fischer, or on Fischer’s father to learn more about their relationship. The real-world set-ups of these extractions could also make for interesting missions.

3. Spinning The Subtleties

The toughest thing about making Inception into a game is the subtleties in the movie. There’s a number of incredibly subtle ideas that beautifully make the viewer question what they’re seeing without giving any straight answers. The movie is as much about ambiguity as it is about Cobb’s story, and this ambiguity gives Cobb’s story a huge amount of resonance.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: that last shot of the movie. While the totems are a great game element, they do somewhat ruin their own point. In a game, you’d have to be able to test the totems at any time, meaning that the ambiguity of the last shot is completely lost (as you could just test the reality beforehand). The times that Cobb spins his totem and then knocks it over is also lost. The game has another avenue in terms of the totems, however: the fact that Cobb insists that no-one touch your totem when his is a hand-me-down (and thus his wife has touched it) adds another layer of ambiguity. A game of Inception would need to play this up, and possibly try to utilise this to imagine a new ending scene.

Another area of ambiguity that the game can nicely play into is the idea that in a dream, you don’t see how you move from one place to the next. In Inception, you only see the mode of transportation once (the helicopter at the start), and part of the beauty of the end scene is that you never see how Cobb gets back from Limbo. Games already have a convention that support this: their ability and predisposition to simply drop a player into a new mission after the last is over.

4. Conquering The Climax

This is possibly the biggest issue with the transformation of Inception: much of the climax of the movie is based in emotion rather than action. It was refreshing that we didn’t see an epic fight scene between Cobb and Mal in the movie. The emotional arc that concludes there is far more powerful and far harder to replicate in game form.

This is a problem with a lot of games, and I really don’t have an easy answer for how to turn something that’s built up to being a big boss battle into an emotional catharsis (which is, as the movie says, what it’s all about). While I’m sure there’s a way to achieve this, it’s something far more subtle and involved than can be covered by this wide brush-strokes article. I’m just gonna note it down as ‘hard’ and leave it at that.

5. Conclusions

Bar the ending (and other emotional nuances like the actual act of inception), there’s a decent chance that Inception could be made into a pretty ass-kicking game. Not that I’d want it to, however: Inception is very much about the little details, and turning it into a game would require changes to those details that wouldn’t jibe with the movie. Inception simply isn’t a movie to be transcribed.

But if someone wanted to make an Inception-like game, however, I would be stoked.