Inception's Usability Problem

If the movie Inception is like a video game, how do its rules and the way it teaches the audience its rules compare to video games? Writer Kirk Hamilton sorts it out in an essay we're delighted to republish here. There will be spoilers.

After seeing Christopher Nolan's new film Inception, I found myself thinking about video game tutorials.

In-game tutorials are both hugely important and difficult to pull off, and today's game-designers have gotten pretty clever about putting them together. Usually placed at the game's start, a tutorial must not only communicate the game's unique control scheme ("Hold the left trigger to take cover, press the right thumbstick to aim your weapon"), it must also impart the rules that govern the game's particular universe ("If the guards spot you, they will be on alert for 30 seconds unless you can knock them out or hack the alarm. Also, they get sleepy after the sun goes down"). On top of all that functional stuff, most tutorials also integrate themselves the fiction of the gameworld ("OK, soldier, let's get that new suit of yours optimised. First, walk forward. OK, now look at the four corners of your screen. Would you like your camera control to be inverted?").

In theory, a good tutorial gets out of the way as quickly as possible, but the more elaborate a game's systems, the longer its tutorials can drag on. Games that take place within massive, fully realised worlds like those of Assassin's Creed II, Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption will often wind up imparting new information many hours into the "proper" game.

It can be distracting, but it's a shortcoming for which I cut game designers a lot of slack, mostly because it's accepted as a handicap of the form. After all, a player must understand a game's mechanics in order to properly experience it and no two games play exactly alike. What if, I often ask, the first track of each of my albums was required to musically explain its instrumentation, key signatures and tempos before listeners could properly hear the music? What if every film had to begin with its characters demonstrating how to sit and watch it before viewers could appreciate the story it's trying to tell?

Actually, now that I've seen Inception, I have a pretty good idea of how much of a drag that would be. For me, Nolan's dreamjacking caper was the film-going equivalent of sitting through a video game that is all tutorial and no play.

For those of us in the gaming set, one of the coolest things about Inception is its narrative set-up. Here is a video game movie that isn't based on a game, it's simply... a video game movie. In other words, rather than adapting an existing game's story a la Prince of Persia or Hitman, Inception presents an original story built on the fundamental tenets of video games. It's a tale of people transporting their consciousness into a construct where notions of life, death, time and identity become quite different than in the waking world. So I suppose it's appropriate that the film's biggest shortcoming feels so fundamentally game-y in nature.

I found Inception's script to be an overwhelming stream of unfettered information, the likes of which would be inexcusable in a modern-day video game. For the entire run of the film, characters do nothing but deliberately, forcefully explain and expound upon the ever-more-complex rules and systems that Nolan has designed, leaving the audience no room to actually internalise any of it. Forget about fleshing out characters, establishing the plot and making the audience care about what's happening onscreen - Nolan seems far more interested in giving us a harried, unending crash-course in metaphysical dream navigation, usually delivered on-the-fly and always accompanied by Hans Zimmer's relentlessly driving musical score.

It's both exhausting and oddly adolescent. I'd be willing to bet that mining the script for data would reveal around 95 per cent of the film's dialogue to be exposition. It's no wonder that even though it runs for nearly two and a half hours, we never get to know any of the supporting characters - no one has time for that! There's far too much to explain!

Right from the outset, protagonist Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) sets about grimly detailing the laws governing dreams and dreams-within-dreams; we are shown how the drug box works, we see that dream-death results in waking up, we see someone get dropped into water in order to force his awakening. We meet Cobb's wife, Mal, learn that she's dead and are given an inkling that she lives on within his subconscious. And through all of this, we're of course bracing for what movie-logic suggests will be the eventual twist... even this is a dream!

But as setups go, I thought the opening sequence worked. It was exciting if exposition-heavy, and just like in a dream it dropped us into the action with no memory of how we got there. So when Ellen Page's character turned up and Cobb started teaching her the basics of level design, it seemed like a natural place for Nolan to slow down and explore the impressive amount of ground he had already covered. (And hey, maybe actually let us get to know Page's character a bit or something. I mean, I like Ellen Page.) Unfortunately, Nolan chose instead to breathlessly plunge into new territory, most of it even denser and more jargon-addled than what had come before.

Look, I'm not a slow guy when it comes to these sorts of films. I'm pretty fast, actually - show me something twisty and complex and I'll usually come out of the cinema with a firmer grasp on it than most. But even though I "got" Inception, it still felt like too much, too fast and, most problematically, too sloppily delivered.

I'd barely gotten my head around the fundamental framework of the host/architect/subject relationship before I was being told about "totems" that anchor dreamers to the real world and "kicks" that wake them up, that going deeper into a mind's subconscious multiplies the passage of time and that the only way out of those sublevels is to synchronise multiple bumps, which is tricky since time moves slower the deeper you go. Got that? Good, because also something about a safe, or at least the suggestion of a safe, and here's a guy with some special drugs that can put you under in unique ways and also here are some people who live in a dream world. Now some warnings about the hazards of going into one's own memories and, oh yeah, a "forger" can learn someone else's mannerisms and look like him or her and, hey, as it turns out inception isn't impossible but the only way to plant an idea in someone else's mind is to have him think of it himself which will require that aaaaaaa.

All that happens in the first hour or so. Too much, too fast, too sloppily delivered.

Compare that to the opening scenes of one of Inception's clearest spiritual ancestors, 1999's The Matrix. During that film's first 45 minutes, the Wachowski brothers showed us their universe with no exposition at all. It worked, and the reason it worked was that it was executed in such a clear and elegant fashion that once we did know what was going on, those earlier scenes were reborn in a new light and greatly informed the scenes we were currently watching. The importance of the red-pill moment cannot be overstated - beyond the exhilaration I felt when I finally learned what The Matrix was, I was also able to retrospectively construct my own understanding of how it worked. I understood how Trinity was able to take out those cops, why she ran for the phone, why she was so afraid of Agent Smith and how she escaped the dump truck. I understood where Morpheus's voice was coming from and how he was able to guide Neo through the cubicles. The mythology of The Matrix was no less complex or heady than that of Inception, but its core mechanics were demonstrated and then explained with far greater economy and clarity.

That kind of "reverse ah-ha" is also what good heist films are made of. In Ocean's Eleven (another of Inception's clear influences), part of the fun of the movie was that we - the audience - weren't quite sure about the particulars of Danny Ocean's plan. We knew the basics as we watched the crew go about their various tasks around the casino, but it wasn't until the film's final 15 minutes that we finally saw how it all came together. A good heist film should do just that - strike a balance between letting its audience in on the plan and playfully misleading them so that the eventual reveal (the "prestige", if you will) is both unexpected and retrospectively comprehensible.

But after two and a half hours of Nolan-penned exposition, my friends and I walked out of the cinema still fuzzy on some of the most basic tenets of Inception's mythology. It could be argued that that's on us, but I say it's on Nolan. By accident or by design, his film gave us no chance to breathe, not even a minute to process the rules we had just learned, to observe them in action.

Any game designer (or teacher) will tell you that an effective tutorial must strike a balance between imparting new information and allowing players to practice what they've already learned. What's more, there is a reason that every game's tutorial section must end in order for the proper game to begin - at some point we need to stop learning and start experiencing.

Of course, films and games don't adhere to the same rules, and a film can be utterly confusing and still "work". But all the same, I felt that Inception's biggest problem was one of usability. It wasn't so much that the fiction was unclear or impenetrable, it was that the constant stream of new information made it it all but impossible for me to get invested in what was happening on screen. For all the film's blaring pomp, its constantly shifting foundation left no room for tension.

Nolan is no stranger to the fine line between artful obfuscation and mere confusion - from Memento's slow-burn musings about truth and memory to The Prestige's sick take on identity, his dark stories have long been steeped in a compelling blend of the known and the mysterious.

But I believe that with Inception, he has bitten off more than he can chew. Like a game designer who crams too many rules and mechanics into his creation, Nolan expects his viewers to digest and master a bevy of complex, foreign concepts without giving them the time or the space to do so. As abstractly fascinating as those big ideas are, Inception is the first film I've seen that feels like it would have benefited from more playtesting.

Kirk Hamilton is a musician and writer in San Francisco. He is editor of the gaming site Gamer Melodico and writes about music, games and culture for a number of publications. He can be found at and jabbers away about games and stuff on Twitter @kirkhamilton.


    "But after two and a half hours of Nolan-penned exposition, my friends and I walked out of the cinema still fuzzy on some of the most basic tenets of Inception’s mythology."

    I think that's more you then the movie.

      Yeh, it did kind of feel like you were being explained the rules the entire length of the movie, but I don't felt that detracted from the experience. It may mean that a second viewing could be dull - nothing left to discover.

        I'm going for a second viewing tonight. I don't think a second viewing would be any less amazing.

    I realy enjoyed the movie.
    Didnt find it hard to understand or follow.

    Granted they could have explained some characters more but that would be my only gripe.

    Apart from that it was great fun :D

    Just like you at the cinema, I stopped reading this article before then end of it.

    The difference being that the movie was entertaining.

    I've seen it twice now. It rocks, many of the things (I read half your essay and got bored...) you complain about are things I liked. This is not a drama, this is not a rom-com. It was fast, gripping and very different. Which make it awesome. Too many movie follow the same formulas. It is great when you get one that breaks away and does it so well. I am sick of 'Hollywood' movies hand-holding the viewer the whole way though, I loved the unabashed info dumping throughout the movie. It's a clever movie that gives credit to the intelligence of its viewers.
    Granted, I watched it the 2nd time because my wife was not able to make opening night. I was a little worried a 2nd viewing would not add much (I too 'get' movies easily, yay for us). But there were sever subtle, yet clever video/directing(?) tricks used in the beginning dream sequences that followed through the movie - when you actually knew what was going on. Like the slow motion falling of the chair into the tub to show the passage of time in the second dream level, the use of a totem to verify reality. I found this strange on the first viewing (It happens before the time compression is explained) 2nd time round I could appreciate the consistency of the simple visual aid.

    Yeah, I don't agree with much of anything here. The game-tutorial bit got me to read and I like the link.
    For a while I was expecting a Fight Club/Sixth Sense-like twist, because I though that would be the logical path for the movie (and based on reviewers saying multiple viewing to get everything would be needed). When this did not happen I was relieved. Expectations denied! The final scene made the movie for me. Pure genius!

      Someone switch this for the article and put the article in the comments section.

    Agree. Completely. Your article says everything I was trying to explain to my sister when asked "how was the movie". Although much, much more articulately.
    What could have been a thrilling film was weighed down by it's own mythology. At no point did I get caught up in the action, as the exposition was constantly tripping up the plot and action.

    Great movie. One that requires multiple viewings to truly understand everything. Why should everything make sense and be explained upon one viewing?
    The way i saw it was that the basic story is rather straight forward and easy enough for anyone to understand and enjoy.
    Then for those who wish to they can delve deeper into the mythology and spend viewing after viewing dissecting the film.
    Yes i agree there was a lot going on and it was hard to take it all in but no i dont agree that this is an issue.
    Nolan clearly understands what he's put into his film and i can see it being talked about analysed for decades.

    Agree completely. But it doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad film by any stretch, just that it could have been better, more refined, given some breathing space for the exposition scenes to soak in.

    For those elitist snobs who think they're king just because they got what was going on; what makes a great film is not just what makes for a fresh, mind-bending concept, but also how you execute and present those concepts in a clear, and well paced fashion that avoids confounding the audience.

    i think the main clash of views here is due to the fact that some (including myself) might have unsuccessfully attempted to percieve this movie in perspective with our reality, while others just sit back and enjoy the ride of this imaginary story. not to mention that i think it's fairly obvious nolan did intentionally attempt to blur the lines between the movie's reality and our own by bombarding the audience with lots of non-sensicle information, reudicng their ability to comprehend the difference between real and imaginary (not to mention the fact that the probable point of confusion - reality - just happened to be the theme of the movie)

    the movie definitely lacks clarity, and if it made sense to you it's either because you don't fully understand physical reality as it is understood today and are able to accept the gleaming errors and inconsitencies in this movie as possible, or were able to differentiate this movie from our reality comfortably (in which case i'm in awe of you, this had me working my but off to keep up the whole time and i lost - it's only in the days after that i'm starting to make sense of it)

    nolan has said himself in an interview regarding this film which can be found on youtube he just tagged bits and pieces of stuff about people and our perception he found interesting on here and there to get it in there, not necessarily because it fit a clear, consistant picture (which would have made the experience more enjoyable for people who did notice them). it's not dissimilar to the jj abrahms approach, write something that makes no sense at all and deliver it in a way which implies it does and people will hang on for the answer (after all, if you accept the rules of the "reality" in which the story occurs, it "does" make sense). this style of film plays on human insecurity, or more specifically a reduction in cognitive ability due to an overwhelming volume of new info which doesn't fit what is already understood. much in the same way a very short sighted and desperate sales person may attempt to overwhelm a customer by confusing them to the point that they just accept and buy the product because they are so flustered they just want it to end

    i can't say i enjoyed the movie for much the same reason as the author of this review, too much too soon which suggests either an agenda (someone trying to force feed you their point of view) or just a confused director. given that i keep reading this about nolan in reviews from people who honestly do not seem unreasonable in the way they deliver their perspective, i'm starting to get the impression that this one is infact on nolan

    it really does seem like he is intentionally tring to make people unsure with inception, which is actually a bit sadistic? i'm not sure why nolan would want to make people feel uncomfortable about their version of reality. maybe he's trying to shake things up so we all land in the same place once we're done? if so, it's a bit of a twisted way to go about it. or mayeb he's just a bit lost in his own head and needs a hand sorting it out? perhaps it's both of the above. either way it demonstartes that something can be learned from everything. even if he's not trying to deliver a message in a bit of a sick (but possibly brilliant) way he's shared his uncertanties with millions which will ultimately result in answers

    an idea is a "resiliant parasite"? no, an idea is maleable. for example, the world is flat. in our heads it was once, but in 'the' reality it was always a sphere (well as long as it was in it's current form anyway). you can question that, but why would you? is there a reason not to believe the world is a sphere? we have pictures, there are people and instruments in space looking upon it confirming it right now, we can see it's curvature with out own eyes

    in the same way, nolans menacing "we don't know what's real" message only rings true until you understand better. an idea isn't a resiliant parasite, people can be resiliant parasites. and when's someones vested interests lie in an idea, they will fight tooth and nail to keep it that way, not because what they believe is of any consequnce to the reality, but because they want to believe it

    what will i think ultimately come of this movie and those like it in future which prompt us to question our very selves, is knowledge and understanding. THE great equalizer for the human race. afteral, when we're all living in the same reality, what's left to fight about?

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