Video Games and Understanding Inception

Editor’s note: In a summer that houses the excellent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, might Inception actually end up being the movie that resonates with gamers the most? We’ve already seen Bitmob’s own Dan Hsu’s take on the movie and how it relates to games, and now Roberto provides an intriguing analogy between Inception’s dream worlds and the battlegrounds found in multiplayer shooters. Agree or not, let your opinions be heard in the comments. –Greg

Note: This might contain certain kinds of "conceptual" spoilers about the film Inception.

While one can argue whether video games can help people better understand the nature of emotionally complex topics, such as the human condition, there’s one thing games will undoubtedly help anyone understand this summer: Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

More specifically, similar to how a basic knowledge of computer science can go a long way toward helping someone understand how things work inside The Matrix, online multiplayer gaming can do the same for the working mechanics behind Inception's “shared dreams," where the characters in Nolan’s sci-fi heist film interact with each other.

I started thinking about this after reading the following user comment on Roger Ebert’s recent blog post about the film: “To my mind, the unemotional nature of Inception sprung directly from its positioning as a film taking place within the dreams of other people. Certainly one can think themselves into another reality, but to share feeling and connection with them is an entirely other matter altogether.”


In his initial reactions to the film, Editor-in-Chief Jim Emerson wrote: “The movie's concept of dreams as architectural labyrinths — stable and persistent science-fiction action-movie sets that can be blown up with explosives or shaken with earthquake-like tremors, but that are firmly resistant to shifting or morphing into anything else — is mystifying to me.”

This is a thought that many of those who have seen the movie — and that haven’t played online multiplayer anything — probably share with him. Why are the dreams in Inception so bland-looking and so much like actual reality? Our dreams are quite often a little more abstract and hallucinatory, are they not?

Yes, personal dreams are often way stranger looking and moving than those in the film, but those are our dreams. In our dreams, just like in a single-player game, we are the one-and-only protagonists. When playing by ourselves, we choose where we want to play and how we want to play — to a certain extent, of course. We can go to Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom, Aperture Science’s training facilities in Portal, or Cmdr. Sheppard’s Normandy starship in Mass Effect.

In an online multiplayer game, however, things change. In order for all the players involved in the game to be able to interact properly, they must inhabit the same environment, share the same context, and abide by the same rules.

A Halo 3 multiplayer match cannot take place in different maps (or architectures) at once — much less in the world of another video game. It cannot apply the rules of a regular deathmatch to a capture-the-flag one, and it cannot offer an unlimited amount of options to different players. In other words, for the match to work, it must take place under the controlled conditions provided by the game designer, the virtual world's architect.

Halo Bros.
Spartan: "Guys, where the f#$k are you?!"

This is exactly the case for Inception's "shared dreams.” The only way in which Dom Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) team can work together is if they, and their target, inhabit the same dream environment designed by its architect (the game's designer). They must know they’re navigating the same area of this world (the game's map); they must know how this environment works (the game's rules); and, most important, for the victim to not realize he’s dreaming — and, consequently, being mind-robbed — it must take place in the most familiar context to all players, including himself: reality.

So, the next time one of your movie-going friends says, “But why are the dreams in Inception so…” put your hand on their shoulder and let them know that after they experience an online session of your favorite multiplayer game, everything — or at least the dreams' nature — will make sense.

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