No, You Do Not Have to Be A Gamer to Like Inception!

Last week, Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times ran a provocative blog post about the mixed reception surrounding the film, Inception, in which yours truly was quoted heavily.

Here is what he quoted me as saying:

If Inception plays especially strongly with a young audience, it’s probably because they instinctively grasp its narrative density best, having grown up playing video games. “When it comes to understanding ‘Inception,’ you’ve got a real advantage if you’re a gamer,” says Henry Jenkins, who’s a professor of communications, journalism and cinematic arts at USC. ” Inception is first and foremost a movie about worlds and levels, which is very much the way video games are structured. Games create a sense that we’re a part of the action. Stories aren’t just told to us. We experience them.”

Even though the density of Inception can be off-putting to older moviegoers, it’s a delicious challenge for gamers. “With Inception, if you blink or if your mind wanders, you miss it,” says Jenkins. “You’re not sitting passively and sucking it all in. You have to experience it like a puzzle box. It’s designed for us to talk about, to share clues and discuss online, instead of having everything explained to us. Part of the pleasure of the movie is figuring out things that don’t come easily, which is definitely part of the video game culture.”

Goldstein did a good job of compressing almost half an hour of conversation about critical response to the film into a few substantive paragraphs. In no sense do I feel misquoted there — indeed, he drew on my conversation as background to frame other parts of his discussion as well.

I have, however, been bemused by the ways that my claims here have traveled through cyberspace and gotten a bit more distorted by each new contributor. So, Entertainment Weekly‘s blog picked up on Goldstein’s story and shifted the ground just a bit. It’s headline reads “Inception — Only Good if You are Young?” And on Twitter, several people rephrased the claim, ” Do you have to be a gamer to like #Inception?” By the end of the week, when someone tweeted that they only “partially agreed” with my claims about the film, I wrote back to say that I only “partially agreed” with them too since people were responding to a partial representation of what I had to say in the first place!

So, let me take a step back and sketch out what I thought I was arguing. I start from the assumption that differing responses to the film are at least partially shaped by differing interpretive strategies. I discussed this concept back in my book, Textual Poachers, in relation to arguments made by reader-response critic Peter J. Rabinowitz about how genre impacts reading.

Peter J. Rabinowitz has suggested that genre study might productively shift its focus away from properties of fictional narratives and onto the ‘strategies that readers use to process texts,” seeing genres as ‘bundles of operations,’ conventions, and expectations that readers draw upon in the process of making meanings. As Rabinowitz puts it, ‘reading’ is always ‘reading’ as.”…Different genres evoke different questions readers want to ask and provide alternative rules for assigning significance and structure to textual content. Rabinowitz distinguishes between four basic types of interpretive strategies: (1) ‘rules of notice’ which give priority to particular aspects of narratives as potentially interesting and significant while assigning others to the margins; (2)’rules of signification’ which help to determine what meanings or implications can be ascribed to particular textual features; (3)’rules of configuration’ which shape the reader’s expectations about likely plot developments and allow the reader to recognize what would constitute a satisfactory resolution of that plot; (4) “rules of coherence” which shape the extrapulations readers make from textual details, the speculations they make about information not explicitly present within the story. The reader’s experience, he suggests, thus requires an initial decision about what genre(s) will be most appropriately applied to a given narrative and then the systematic applications of those genre rules to the process of comprehending the textually provided information.

Of course, the ability to mobilize the interpretive strategies associated with a genre rest on having access to and familiarity with that genre in the first place as those of us who teach freshman film classes discover when we try to expose students to westerns or musicals or any other genre which has not been part of their repertoire of consumption. That’s the sense in which gamers have an “advantage” — they have a set of skills, literacies, competencies, expectations, call them what you want, that they bring with them to the theater and which shapes the range of strategies they have available to them which helps them to make sense of a film like Inception.

So, this brings us back to my claim about games and Inception. I am not saying that it would be impossible for a non-gamer to enjoy the movie. It doesn’t represent, after all, such a dramatic break with other films which have come before it. In the interview, I drew analogy to the way D.W. Griffith cross-cut between four different historical periods, intensifying the movements between them as we neared the climax, in his silent classic, Intolerance. I would also agree with Entertainment Weekly‘s Darren Franich that it is less complicated than many art films or even, in his example, some classic film noirs. Yet, it interests me that the discussions around Inception are the kinds of discussions we might once have had around an art film in the 1960s or even an indie film like Nolan’s own Memento, yet they are occuring around a summer blockbuster. The genre elements are part of what makes the film popular, part of what makes it fun and pleasurable to play the game that Inception offers us.

David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson have offered a brilliant analysis over at their Observations on Film Art blog about the role that exposition plays in maintaining clarity as we move between the different levels of the film. Indeed, they suggest that the presence of exposition across the film replaces character development in many cases, insuring that we can in fact follow the different levels or layers at work here.

I would also argue that at the start of the film, the audience is required to make a leap of faith, entering into a world whose rules are not immediately clear (especially in the opening sequence) and which are still being laid out to us in the final segment. This is very much like the experience of a gamer jumping into the game without always knowing the rules or properties, trying out new ideas and bumping into walls, until they learn how it works. Bordwell’s discussion of the film’s opening segment (which he calls a “training exercise”) suggests that it may function as a “tutorial” or “sandbox” level — such as we see in games where our first level of play allows us to test our capacities and rehearses skills we will need later in the game. So, at the most basic level, I would say that gamers have a predisposition to embrace certain kinds of open-ended experiences, figuring out what’s going on as they go, which is different from the notion of clear expositional foundations we would association in classical Hollywood narratives. Indeed, gamers may have an expectation, as I suggested, that the film not lay everything out for us at the start but expects us to make an effort to figure out the pieces as we go. This is part of what makes an experience like this more intense and immersive. I couldn’t believe it when I realized how long I had been in the theater, not having glanced at my watch during the duration, indeed, not having breathed very much while watching Inception.

This is not to say that the film abandons us altogether to our own devices. Genre plays an important role here in terms of helping us to map what’s going on and understanding what matters in the film. We can read it as a straight forward action film or as a science fiction film — think Total Recall. But there is also the possibility of making sense of it in terms of the conceptual vocabulary that games provide us — so that we can understand the final sequence as moving between “levels” or “layers,” each with a well defined task or “mission”, each with a visually distinctive environment (not unlike the fire or ice levels in classic Nintendo scrollers like Mario Brothers or Mega Man), each requiring a different set of skills to master and a different set of obstacles to overcome. I am leaving aside claims that the film may pay tribute to specific games in its visual references: Bordwell cites Assassin’s Creed II, Meigakure, and Shadow of Destiny. And Kristin Thompson closely examines a claim that the film was inspired in part by an episode from The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion.

Entertainment Weekly asks, “Is Inception the first great video game movie? Not based on one specific game, but rather, on the whole stylistic structure of video game storytelling?” Well, not the first certainly, since I think there’s a strong argument, say, that Run Lola Run builds on a different set of properties from games, and the same could be said for The Matrix movies, but it does mean that cinema may be learning things from games which come through more interestingly when it is not trying to directly adapt games to the screen but is simply trying to produce movies that speak to a generation of movie goers who have grown up gaming. One reader asked why not just make an Inception game in the first place. I’d argue that these films deploy a language borrowed from games precisely to explore experiences which would be difficult to achieve in a game. I think thinking of Run Lola Run as a game helps us to explore the theme of choice and consequence which runs through the film, yet the filmmaker has the capacity to make every choice offered a meaningful one while in games, many choices are necessarily arbitrary and uninteresting.

Thinking about Inception as a game or at least a film for gamers might also speak to the ongoing critical discussion of its lack of development at least in terms of its secondary characters. Kristin Thompson writes,

“The characters’ goals, apart from Cobb’s, arise from the premises of the dream-sharing technology. Of course, they want to get paid, but that’s assumed. Their actions all arise from the need to keep doing what they must to sustain the dreams and later from the need to improvise solutions to unforeseen problems that seem to violate the rules they have previously known. Why they need the money, whom they go home to when off-duty, how they got into this business, and all the other conventions of Hollywood characterization, are simply ignored.”

This is consistent with an argument which Mary Fuller and I made about games in 1995. The very nature of an interactive narrative serves to strip characters of psychological depth — game characters are often glorified cursers, vehicles we use to move through the game worlds, rather than characters into whom we project sophisticated motives or anticipate character development. Their goals are assigned from the beginning. They are defined through their capacity for action and their missions. The need for an open-ended structure means that we do not expect them to learn through their experiences nor do we expect their actions to be motivated through psychological realism. Choices become relatively arbitrary, having more to do with resources and capacities, than drives or needs. I don’t think this lets Inception off the hook in terms of character issues, but it is interesting to think of this shift in the function and nature of characters as an extension of the game-like logic I am describing.

Bill, a reader, sent me an email with an interesting question about my argument:

“I agree with you in the LATimes article where you say gaming experience may have a lot to do with someone’s appreciation of the movie Inception. However, I’d like to propose another possibility. I’m not sure many members of past generations understand or accept the film’s premise. As DiCaprio’s character describes it, conscious experience is not a literal transcript of the world, but an ongoing process of virtual construction by the mind. Although this premise has scientific merit, it is not widely known or embraced by the majority of tradition-bound Americans.”

Here’s my response:

“I would agree totally with you that the film’s perspective on reality and perception also has a generational slant. It’s interesting though that the films and television shows which take on some of this philosophical/spiritual argument are often associated with games and other digital media — so I would see The Matrix, the final episode of Lost, and Inception, as all part of the same conversation about our relationship with the real world. We may as a culture be more open to such ideas because of our experience of the digital, just as people in the industrial age were more apt to think of a clockmaker god, or people in the early 20th century started to understand repetition compulsion in terms of a phonograph record in their heads. As Sherry Turkle suggests, we use technologies as tools to think with and a key question we use them to consider is the nature of consciousness.”

This exchange would suggest that the game analogy extends from the formal structure of the film to the spiritual or metaphysical level on which it also tries to operate.

Now, coming back to Goldstein’s original blog, he takes my discussion of gamers and maps it onto what he sees as generational differences in people’s response to the film. I would point out, however, that the age span of active gaming expands with each passing year: more younger players are entering the game market, more older players are continuing to play into adulthood, and more seniors are trying games through multiplayer worlds and the Wii controller, let aside casual games. So, let’s be careful about assuming there’s a correlation between being young and being a gamer. After all, I’m over fifty and I still play games.

I hope this at least clarifies what I meant. I have only seen the film once and I have a feeling that I would need to see it many more times before I could offer anywhere near an adequate analysis, so take these as provisional observations about a work which I am sure many of us will continue to debate for a long time. It’s exciting to have a summer film which sparks this kind of discussion!


  1. As I’m sure you know, there was a whole wave of films about virtual worlds in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but then they faded away after the final MATRIX movie (or, arguably, after the second MATRIX movie, but that’s another topic). It’s interesting to see the genre return with INCEPTION and the final season of LOST. It’s interesting also that INCEPTION and LOST treated the worlds as shared creations that give pleasure, not just as tricks to be escaped a la Plato’s caves. The only movies from the last cycle that I can remember doing that were EXISTENZ and, in a different way, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. (There’s a lot of similarities between EXISTENZ and INCEPTION, and I’d like to watch them back to back.) There was a funny irony to the MATRIX characters warning of the dangers of virtual worlds while the MATRIX transmedia franchise served as a virtual world people loved to enter. INCEPTION seems more self-aware than that.

  2. Henry, Thank you once again for elevating the conversation to a higher level by providing a variety of contexts for understanding how people are responding to the movie.

    Part of what has interested me is how people can’t seem to agree on what they are even disagreeing about in regards to what they actually experienced as an audience member, and how that doesn’t diminish the experience of the movie. Case in point, this attempt at a data visualization of the movie. What’s so fascinating to me about it is not that it’s wrong, but that the scifi geeks on this site (of which I count myself one) are mostly confident they know exactly what happened in the film, yet struggle to find common language to discuss it as they hold such divergent opinions:

    Finally, (Dr. Who Spoiler ahead), I might have missed it, but I noticed you haven’t connected Inception to the episode of Dr. Who from earlier this season which I presume you’ve watched with a strikingly similar plot: Someone has created a dream world, sending the Doctor in and out of it, forcing him to decide which one is real and signaling that choice by killing himself in the false one; once they decide and arrive back in the “awake” world the Doctor kills himself once again, having realized that 1) the alternative choice was also false, as both were nested together outside the real world and 2) the person who created the very dilemma was a part of himself (infected by an alien spore, of course). While less sophisticated than Inception in many ways (e.g. it offered the binary dream/reality rather than nested layers) it seemed to explore similar questions raised by Inception, but through television.

  3. John Hagel says:

    I wrote a similar perspective on why geeks love Inception – although I did not make the claim that only geeks could love Inception!

  4. Since this is a blog dedicated to confessions, I have one myself: I am the tweeting ‘someone’ mentioned in this piece. My original intent wasn’t to challenge your idea, only to say that it wasn’t, of course, the only way to view the film, and that there might be some other, perhaps less pronounced, ideologies informing Inception’s…reception. I assumed that there was more said in the interview, which was what your reply to me suggested, at least in my cursory 140 character glance. Thanks for clarifying your points at length here.

    Now a caveat: I’ve also only seen Inception once, but hope it holds up on repeat viewings. I also saw it in IMAX, which I think has a direct bearing on my view of it. Having said all of that, I still maintain that I only ‘partially agree’ about the relationship between gamers and an understanding of Inception. You have an incredible reach, Henry, and with it the means to influence debates such as these intractably. Inception is indeed a ‘puzzle box’ as you say, constructed almost too perfectly to produce infinitely indeterminate meaning. Even so, while the goal-oriented nature of Inception and the ‘level’ differentiation may work extremely well with a gamer’s understanding of spatial and temporal dynamics, I think that labeling Inception a film in which understanding is assisted by the modes of gaming obscures some of the more interesting things occurring with it. This isn’t to say that Inception isn’t being received as this type of film– the majority of online/offline conversation about it is centered on just this sort of relationship– but that instead the discussion shouldn’t end there, which I fear it might given the predominance of this perspective. Now I’m not dismissing the rich suggestive value in even that statement—there’s a reason why these views are circulating, and perhaps they are solely related to intepretation, and not the influence of items like the LA Times piece. So I’ll play the devil’s advocate here, and offer an alternative suggestion—that bringing a gamer’s slant to the film might actually add to the indeterminacy, and not alleviate it (I’ll leave the question of why this is valued to the end).

    In my follow-up tweet to my ‘partial agreement’, I mentioned Marie Laure Ryan’s notion of a narrative stack. Much like a computer algorithm with commands that influence each preceding level, Inception works by establishing a certain order of influence– each layer of dream is affected by the preceding layer, a logic that results in what many perceive to be the film’s plot holes (i.e. why weightlessness only occurs in one layer, etc.). Regardless, the effect is that in order to make sense of the film, we must construct a mental image of depth-with-influence, working our way ‘up’ through the layers, even though we know (if faintly) that no one’s moving at all—they are all asleep on some plane. And this ‘up’ is important, I think, since it signals that if Nolan was influenced by gaming and game design, he’s actively working against it here. Not many games require the player to move ‘downward’ as a sole means of achieving a goal (even a game like Metroid, for example, requires downward exploration, but only insofar as it relates to the exploration of a particular area). There’s also the relatively overstated role of the ‘subconscious’ agents as enemies in the film: the closer Cobb get to their goal, the more difficult and insurmountable the odds against them get. While this is the case with most games, in Inception there can be no real victory over one’s adversaries, only a certain negotiation of time while they converge (and, as many have suggested, Inception might just be about time, and not space or games). This isn’t unlike what Natalie Bookchin did in her game ‘The Intruder’ ( a while back as a play on a Borges’ story—force the gamer into situations where she must actively work against what she knows in order to progress (i.e. do harm to the avatar rather than save it from harm). Most of the characters are more or less impotent in this regard in Inception—they can defend themselves but are subject to the whims of stuff like Fisher’s subconscious training, or Cobb’s own issues. Mainstream games work oppositely—the further we get, the more control we gain over our environment and abilities.

    Things like this, I think, add up to something novel for most gamers. While gamers might understand the conventions that Inception is based on, they most likely also feel most profoundly the ways that they are violated. So perhaps we’re saying the same thing in different ways, Henry, but I don’t think that gamer’s ‘get’ Inception more profoundly than other audiences might, but that they possess the skillset most profoundly violated by its vectors.

    There’s also the issue of Nolan’s increasingly interesting take on IMAX and large-screen aesthetics. In The Dark Knight, Nolan employed full-screen IMAX shots as vertical movements that covered a lot of ground quickly and with some sense of scale (although many have said it wasn’t nearly enough). In Inception (and again, I’ll need a couple more viewings before I can say this with some certainty), he does the opposite, using lateral movements that I think resist scale and environmental exploration. Inception felt purposefully ‘flat’ to me, and not just in characterization (which I think could be alternately explained if we view all of Cobb’s team as his own subconscious agents protecting him); we were introduced, for example, to new ‘levels’ of fire and ice, but then immediately forced into close-up. It was only through the stacking of these layers—both formally/visually and narratively—that Inception gained a sense of depth, as there was much to suggest scale, but not a rich environment. This is why I called Inception a 3D film shot in 2D. Given Nolan’s resistance to 3D technologies, this is something worth considering, I think. There’s a great interview online with the author Richard Powers ( where he speaks about the ability to create a sort of conceptual 3D or parallax view with narrative. In it, he references James Joyce’s ability to create a ‘doubled’ view of his characters, even while working in one medium, by incorporating what he calls ‘Knowledge by incoporation’ with ‘Knowledge by exposition’, thereby producing ‘three dimensions out of two complimentary planes’. Inception does this both visually and via story, but this sort of thing happens all the time with transmedia properties as well, where character and locational perspectives, object orientation and directed contexts all work towards achieving a similar sort of cognitive parallax. In this sense, Inception might reflect a sensibility aligned just as much with transmedia fictions as with games (something each of the properties you mention above also reflect). Transmedia fiction is, at its best, a means of creating a mental image with depth, something I feel Inception coerces us into doing throughout.

    Of course, I’d be wrong to suggest that any of this explains why pronounced indeterminacy speaks so fluently to the gaming population. Yes, it’s meant to be pored over and analyzed acutely online but, as you point out, LOST and The Matrix also tapped into this sort of thing years before Inception (as did many other projects). Meaning and interpretation are a game to be solved by eagle-eyed narrative sleuths, but all of these properties appealed to far more than ‘just’ gamers. Maybe you’re right—these stories all are about our relationship to reality, and maybe my suggestion that an understanding and acceptance of indeterminacy in a film that could ostensibly be about indeterminacy means I’ve just been talking in circles here. But it’s worth reiterating that perhaps gamers don’t understand Inception more than other folks, they just don’t understand it in far more concrete ways.

    And yes, it’s quite nice to have a blockbuster that has us talking this way again! Especially after a (potentially very unformed) first watch!

  5. Thinking about Inception as a game or at least a film for gamers might also speak to the ongoing critical discussion of its lack of development at least in terms of its secondary characters.

    This doesn’t seem like an unusual level of development for secondary characters in a heist movie (which is essentially what this is). Films of this type often have a sequence in which the hero (who does have a significant motivation for taking the job) flies around the world to assemble his crack team, and the stated motivation for each of those characters is either the money or the extraordinary challenge this particular job represents. That’s how I read this film, and it seemed to me to be well within the conventions of that genre.

  6. What a fascinating posting on Inception and its connection to gaming experience. Nolan did a great job stringing the levels of narrative in a sort of gaming format. I particularly liked your reading on how the start of the film asks viewers to make a “leap of faith” into the narrative world. The opening of Nolan’s film clearly departs from the traditional or classical narrative model. Could we see more complex narratives such as Inception in the future? Maybe Tron? I think your point is well made that Inception engages discussion.

  7. Marc, Sorry to be so slow responding. My travel schedule last week — Rio and Cambridge — left me with little time to react and this clearly requires more thought than a typical reader comment. I would need to see the film again to fully work through your argument, but taken at face value, what you are saying is very interesting. I would still argue that someone who knows games well would be in the best position to recognize the violated expectations here — that your claims makes sense only if we are looking for the ways the film does and does not follow the conventions of games. This is in part how genre works as a reading hypothesis — it is not that we simply recognize when our hypothesis is confirmed but we also recognize (and intuitively at least) react when it is contested. I would argue that a large number of contemporary works are dealing with issues of predestination/conspiracy on the one hand and chance/coincidence/indeterminancy on the other. Games gives us a language to think about both sets of issues since the interactive experience often rests on giving away or maintaining control over our own actions. Anyway, I really loved what you had to say here and will ponder it more deeply the second time I am able to watch the film.

  8. Rebecca, you make a fair point and one which I had not considered. You may be right that the scaled down characterization reflects the conventions of the heist film. On the other hand, I still think those characters will be given their own mini-missions and motivations in a heist film which will be resolved by its conclusion — such as the old guy pulled out of retirement to pull off one last heist and prove that he still has chops, the young married man who enters to set aside a nest egg for his wife and child over the wife’s objection and who ends up dying in the process, the man who made a fatal mistake on the last mission which he needs to work through in order to regain his confidence. Only the central protagonist really has this kind of mini-mission in the film which is way some critics describe it as having impoverished characterization.

  9. Barry, I had not thought about the Doctor Who parallels here — though I have spent a lot of time thinking about that particular episode. It is a topic that would be interesting to explore.

  10. Marc Ruppel says:

    Henry– MY apologies for missing your reply until now!

    I agree with you re: genre, however I think there’s a big difference between games-as-genre or, more specifically, games-as-mode (which can then be deployed in other media) and games-as-medium (or platform). At any rate, I shouldn’t say any more until I see the film again as well, which I hope is still IMAX-possible with Avatar’s re-release.

    More after that….

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