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Feel Battalion: the videogame logic of Inside Out

As I sat in a hot, crowded, stalled subway car on the way to an advance screening of Inside Out, the little Anger inside me went nuclear. My girlfriend and I didn’t have tickets, so we had to get to the Museum of the Moving Image at least an hour before opening to get in the standby line. And of course the MTA, dark lord of weekend transit, quickly found about five different ways to fuck with our plan. The 1 wasn’t running; the M wasn’t running; the R was delayed; the R wasn’t running to the right stop; as the R moved past the right stop, it decided to slowly, laboriously wheeze its way forward, as if in open mockery of our hubris. My blood boiled; my teeth gnashed; my eyes burst into cartoon flames. Dripping 200-degree flopsweat, my inner Lewis Black slammed on the giant, well-worn button that governs socially inappropriate outbursts: FUCK. THIS. SHIT.

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There are many ways to describe Inside Out. You could say it’s the first Pixar movie since Toy Story—a movie about three dimensional objects becoming animated—that’s truly self-aware: a new venture from the people who love to pull your emotional strings that is literally about someone whose emotional strings are being pulled. You could say it’s a modern restaging of the ancient theory of the “four humors,” with much less grotesque forces governing human behavior: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust instead of blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. You could say it’s an elaborate homage to Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts. All of these readings except the last one might be true: Inside Out is definitely the most self-aware Pixar movie, and it owes its existence to a long, venerable tradition of psychological allegories that have attempted to give form and meaning to the obscure workings of the brain. But here’s what I think is the best way to describe Inside Out: it’s like Steel Battalion inside your head, if Steel Battalion had co-op multiplayer.

Inside Out is definitely the most self-aware Pixar movie

Those of us who remember Capcom’s mech simulator remember it for one reason and one reason only: the giant, unwieldy, $200, 40-button monstrosity of a controller that the game required. Gameplay videos on YouTube inevitably feature the controller alongside the game itself in split screen, as the operator battles its obstinate complexity: buttons glow blue and red, switches are flipped in (hopefully) the right order, pedals are mashed below. I think it’s worth comparing to Inside Out because the film quite literally centers on a controller of Steel Battalion-esque magnitude, in the middle of the cockpit of the mind. In so many scenes, Joy, Sadness, et al. gather and bicker over a table with innumerable buttons, joysticks, and glowing trackballs, inputting commands in reaction to what they see on a giant screen. That screen is the mind’s eye of Riley, the girl they battle the controller—not necessarily each other—to guide.

The centerpiece of the film, the proof of concept, is like a three-way mech fight. Riley and her parents are sitting at the dinner table in their ramshackle San Francisco apartment, which they just moved to from idyllic Minnesota (I guess this wouldn’t be a self-aware Pixar movie without a background story about Silicon Valley disillusionment?). “So, how was the first day at school?” asks Riley’s mom. “It was fine, I guess…,” she responds. Cut to the team of emotions inside Mom: “We’re going to find out what’s happening, but we need support. Signal the husband.” Cut to the emotions inside the husband, which are currently distracted by football daydreams. But not for long: the scene turns into an ingenious, frenetic, and pretty complicated verbal/mental melee, with emotions mashing buttons and humans slinging barbs. All three teams end up using the nuclear option. “JUST SHUT UP,” Riley shouts; “GO TO YOUR ROOM,” her father commands. The little Anger inside Mom hits “escape” and brings up an old, reliable memory of her long-lost paramour, a Brazilian helicopter pilot.

having a stable, authentic personality means having a Magic Kingdom-like diversity of fun-zones inside you

The ludic dimensions of this scene are undeniable, and they hint at something that’s true of the film as a whole: almost all of its metaphors—and it’s basically one giant assemblage of metaphors—depend on different concepts of play. Memories are like the orbs in a baby’s bead maze, shooting along winding pathways from the command center to deep storage. Personality traits are figured as “islands” that look like theme parks (“Friendship Island,” “Honesty Island,” “Imaginationland”), implying that having a stable, authentic personality means having a Magic Kingdom-like diversity of fun-zones inside you, fully lit and operational. The stacks and corridors of long-term memory form a Borgesian labyrinth; the subconscious is a dungeon of lurking monsters; much of the movie’s plot is propelled forward by the rediscovery of an imaginary friend who was, in Riley’s early years, play incarnate. Which makes it all the more surprising, perhaps, that amidst all these simple, elegant, old-fashioned modes of play, the one that reigns supreme in the cerebral cortex looks like … Steel Battalion.

As Ian Bogost observed in a recent essay in praise of systems-based games like SimCity over character-based games like Mario, “Game design is a process of abstraction, and you can’t simplify a complex system like the operation of cities without consequence.” So, too, the operation of the mind, and this is something that Inside Out demonstrates in every way: it presents the kind of metaphorical model that feels so coherent, so elegant, that you end up wanting to apply it to your everyday life, but it’s a model that inevitably leaves aspects of reality on the cutting-room floor. At the Museum, director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera talked openly about the arbitrariness of their five-emotion paradigm: it could’ve been six (according to the schema of Paul Ekman, the psychologist whose work they drew on the most); it could’ve been 19. And yet, this is a film so aware of its own abstracting tendencies that it presents abstraction itself as a kind of meta-joke: a dangerous neighborhood of Imaginationland that turns living beings into shapes, and shapes into lines.

the everyday business of interacting with the world requires a bookshelf full of manuals 

Although it wasn’t the best game in the world, Steel Battalion deserves more credit than it’s gotten for being an explicit attempt to resist abstraction, an almost modernist act of defiance against the idea that the end-goal of control schemes is to be simple, direct, intuitive intermediaries. Contextual action buttons; analog sticks that can create every kind of movement; quick-time events that reduce spectacular stunts to a single, flaccid button press—all of these are abstractions that translate singular inputs into strings of complex operations. Steel Battalion went for something closer to 1:1, and the market did not reward it for doing so. Nor have movies been quick to draw from or celebrate the kinds of videogames that have giant, alienating controllers, but I think Inside Out presents a Steel Battalion-like model of play at the center of the mind precisely for this reason: to resist the reduction, the flattening, that lies at the end of any metaphor; to retain a sense of impenetrable, irreducible complexity in its image of what feeling things might be like on the inside. If everything is play, the everyday business of interacting with the world is the kind of play that (literally) requires a bookshelf full of manuals. In one of the darkest moments of the film, the controller is consumed by a wave of ashen blue, and it becomes inoperable by anyone but Sadness. Depression, in this movie, is the controller you can’t control.

At least until your fifth player gets her act together.

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When we got there, the plan was almost certainly a bust; there were about 30 people in the standby line, and showtime was imminent. But then something completely weird happened: a mother in front of us, there with four kids already, bought us tickets for no particular reason. “Just do something nice for someone else,” she said, waving away our cash. I felt a huge rush of joy and gratitude; I felt a huge rush of guilt and sadness—at the selfishness, the solipsism, that allowed me to be so pissed about not getting to see a movie early (god forbid!); at my own Ptolemaic presumption that the MTA was my own personal antagonist; at the idea that I would never think to do something so randomly generous. Had there been a memory-ball of that moment, it would’ve been a swirling cocktail of yellow and blue, rolling in the wake of a red.

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Psychological allegories tend to convey the same implicit message: We are not ourselves. We have little control over the forces that dictate our feelings, our behavior. We are hopelessly beholden to a team of multicolored talking beans, mashing buttons and pulling levers on a monstrosity that makes Steel Battalion look like Kirby Air Ride. Yes, says Inside Out, that’s all true. But maybe we should trust them anyway: after all, they’re a team. Inside Out isn’t just a film that asks us to behold the complexity of our feelings, which demand abstraction as much as they resist abstraction; it’s a film that asks us, through the games contained within it, to believe strongly and sincerely that those feelings are playing class-based co-op. In some ways that’s a dangerously optimistic message. You could view it as abstraction at the expense of the real, simplicity at the expense of complexity, a model of the mind that discards too much to make things neat and tidy. The fact remains that it’s a model constructed from images of play rather than conflict, and that’s something very different, something that shows us what games can give to allegories. And at least one other thing is certain: it’s better than Steel Battalion.