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  • Extracting Lessons from Christopher Nolan's Inception

    [08.27.10]
    - Christopher W. Totten
  •  As someone who teaches game design, I am always on the lookout for new material that can offer students important lessons and yield better quality work. Much of this material can be found in the usual places; Steam, XBox Live Arcade, game industry news sites; covering the usual industry topics. Imagine my surprise then, taking the rare opportunity to have some "me" time one boring Friday night, at finding a treasure trove of game design material in the movie Inception. The characters, situations, and most importantly, the design of the dreamspace all contain a great many lessons in the design of good games.

    Before I continue, let me say that if you have not yet seen the movie, you may want to stop reading right now. There will be a pretty heavy amount of spoilers ahead so let's get that out of the way right off the bat.

    Still here? Okay let's go...

    At the surface, Inception is a lot like The Matrix in concept: people enter a make-believe sensory environment that they can immerse themselves in and interact with. In The Matrix, however, this was done to the occupants of the sensory environment (for the sake of the article let's call these people our "players"), to fool them and keep them pacified. These people's minds were corralled in the Matrix so their bodies could be used as living batteries in a dystopian future where machines ruled the world. In many ways the virtual world of The Matrix resembles that of an MMO, a giant virtual world where people can live and interact separate from the real world, often engaging in no activities that have inherent conflict; the basis of most games. Some would argue that some MMO's are inherently NOT games, but are instead virtual social networks. MMORPG's like World of Warcraft have game elements, but ones like Second Life resemble games in screenshots only.

    Inception, however, uses its artificial worlds for more than just giving minds a place to live. During the course of the movie, the dream worlds are discussed as having three different purposes. The most basic of these is as military combat simulation environments; soldiers share a dream space where they can run missions and practice maneuvers without actually hurting one another. While this certainly has a direct correlation with the gaming industry, it doesn't have much to show us besides the idea that games can, and for many years have (Battlezone is among the earliest examples), been used as military simulations.

    The second I will mention, and the first to be demonstrated in the movie, is Extraction: entering someone's mind to steal, or "extract" some vital piece of information from them. This is mentioned as the typical reason shared dreaming is conducted in the movie's reality. The third is the titular Inception; designing someone's dreams for the purpose of planting an idea in their head that they will act on in the real world. These two go beyond the simple, "Oh I get it, the dream is like a video game" moment of the military simulations to a higher order metaphor where the design of the dream becomes analogous to the design of a game environment. Unlike many games, however, the stakes set up by the movie for the creation of these dream/games are much higher: Ken Watanabe's Mr. Saito wants to prevent a rival company from monopolizing world energy, while Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb wants to be reunited with his estranged family, a goal that Saito can make happen. Therefore, this "game" has to be good. It has to be flawless and well designed. It has to evoke the emotional response from the younger Mr. Fischer (played by Cillian Murphy) that the designers desire.


    This article will break down the design of the dream worlds in the movie Inception, beginning with the makeup of the team itself, and discuss how the design decisions they make not only correlate with the design of games, but how they have educational ramifications for the carefully guided student viewer.

    The Team

    As any good game design should have a good team, DiCaprio's Mr. Cobb has the challenge of collecting a crack team of experts for his mission of getting Fischer to break up his father's company. Obviously, each of these characters in the movie has an analogous role to someone involved in the game design process. That much is easy to discuss. However, the movie also takes adds the interesting element of having its designers PLAY their own game once they are inside it. Like in the early 90's CG cartoon show Reboot, Cobb's team enter the dream/game to act as NPC's that will guide the player, Fischer, towards his intended goal. In this way, each of these characters can also be analyzed based on how they play their own game and understand the artificial nature of the dreamspace. Observing these identities can be important for student designers, as they can see the dynamics of how a masterful player might interact with someone new to the game, and how each of these players bring to light other important game design concepts. These characters can also show what happens when someone becomes TOO immersed in the gamespace.

    Mr. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio): In the design team, Cobb fulfills the role of a game designer or design director. Once a great extractor and designer of dream spaces, we meet a broken Cobb several years after the death of his wife. We learn early on that he is estranged from his two children and cannot go home. We later learn that this is because he has been blamed for the death of his wife, a fellow innovator in the field of extraction, based on documents she provided to her lawyer soon before committing suicide. Together they had entered "Limbo", a void at the edge of the subconscious where people who stray too far into the dream world become trapped. In this space, Cobb's wife, Mal, becomes convinced that the Limbo reality is artificial. Upon escaping, she continues to believe that they are still trapped, and sets up a number circumstances she believes will help Cobb commit suicide with her, freeing them from what she believed was still a dream. The trip to Limbo and subsequent traumatic experiences have an interesting effect on Cobb as both a designer and player. He all but loses his ability to design the "levels" of the dream worlds for his extractions and must rely on other, often less thorough and talented, designers. This is directly tied to his identity as a player of the dreams. Having been beyond the edge of known dreamspace, he represents the gamer that has become too immersed in the game. In an early scene he holds a gun near his head and spins his "totem", an object that acts as an indicator of whether he is still trapped in a dream, planning to kill himself in the dreamworld to wake his sleeping self up if necessary. In many ways, Cobb is the type of gamer that is difficult to play with; he takes the game too seriously and is somewhat lost in the belief that the game has real-world ramifications for losing. His antagonistic projection of his wife Mal, who ruins many of his missions, is symbolic of his losing touch with the artificial nature of the dream/game, and among the other team members he is the one that displays the least control over the scenarios he designs.

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