It’s been a while since I’ve come across a game as difficult to parse as iS: Internal Section. Not that the game looks that difficult on first glance. It’s clearly a rail shooter, and it’s clearly operating in the tradition of games like Rez and Lattice 200EC7. Unlike those games, though, Internal Section is a complete visual mess. As you rush through the game at high speed, it constantly assaults you with a glut of colors and symbols. Surprisingly, this is exactly what gives the game its value. It’s this aesthetic that gives the game the cadence that sets it apart from its peers.
Not that “cadence” is something iS is known for. Usually when I see people discussing this game, the first point they discuss is its similarities to previous games. This mostly involves comparisons to Tempest. The parallels between the two games are obvious. While I don’t see those comparisons as being wrong or invalid, I still think they’re missing the point. Yes, they look and play very similarly, but where Tempest focuses on mechanical challenge, Internal Section focuses on aesthetic pleasure and sense experience. The iS experience is a highly visceral one; one of various shapes and colors speeding by you to the beat of an energetic synthesizer. Its imagery is so abstract as to bypass any grounding in reality. Yet even if the imagery could find such grounding (which it sometimes does), everything flies by so fast that you can’t process it. All of this combines to lend the game an undeniable and enticing charm. Stylish and ethereal, Internal Section finds a lot of parallels with Rez.
However, the game also makes some very important breaks from Rez.* For one, its visuals are far less abstract. Although it draws from the same artistic well as iS, Rez’s world and the objects within it are much easier to connect to our own. This represents a human, this represents a forest/valley/ocean that it’s navigating, etc. More than that, though, Rez is also coded with a powerful sense of spirituality. It’s a game about the marriage of technology and spirituality: by embracing these new tools man has created for himself, he can transcend his own human limits and achieve something greater. The message becomes especially pronounced in the game’s final level, where you free the singing goddess from within the machine.
Internal Section lacks any such dimension. It is a spiritual vacuum; a Max Headroom-esque smattering of random visual patterns and pop culture symbols. One part of the game sees you shooting a renegade newspaper to bits, navigating the waves of kanji it spews at you. Another has you fending off what I can only describe as “Chernabog on the dance floor.” (Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of this section of the game, and there aren’t any good videos of it anywhere. So you’ll have to take my word for it.) However, I don’t think the game is rebelling against these images, or anything that trite. Indeed, iS actively celebrates and reifies these images, which is what makes it work so well. The game doesn’t deny the chaotic mess it lays before you, but it doesn’t allow that mess to make our lives worse, either. It confronts the situation head-on, not with the intent of sorting everything out, but of creating beauty within the chaos. That’s why you see computers and technology baked into the art design, from the hexagons to the audio bars to the raw numbers to the whispering Lain voice to the etc. And that’s why you see it manifest in the gameplay, such as solving a sliding number puzzle by shooting at it.
In fact, the gameplay is one of the best places to see Internal Section’s concepts in action. The abundance of game imagery makes this clear, from the Gradius ship boss fight to the danmaku bullet patterns that litter the world. Yet each time the game evokes this kind of imagery, it does so only that it might complicate it. The focus isn’t on the challenge of navigating dense bullet patterns, as you’d expect from a shooter. Instead, the gameplay aligns itself with the visuals and music to give the experience a tantric rhythm. While they barrage the senses with disembodied imagery, the gameplay short circuits conscious thought so that it might operate at the raw emotional level. It’s like a careful dance with heavily scripted steps. So integral to the game is this dance that I don’t think iS would be the same without it. If you were to remove the danmaku patterns, then the experience would feel dissonant and lacking in artistic depth. Thankfully, though, the patterns are here, and the game is all the richer for their inclusion.
The only gameplay system I’m willing to criticize is the weapons system. The idea behind it is simple: as you race through the courses, you can freely switch between twelve weapons. They’re all named for signs of the Chinese zodiac, and they all behave according to their namesake. For example, the bird flies toward enemies, the snake winds in front of you before darting at a target, the ox plows through obstacles, etc. Looked at on their own terms, the weapons are actually very cleverly designed. Not only do they have well defined personalities, but they also allow the player to modulate the play experience however they wish.
Looked at in context, though, it’s hard to see what purpose any of them serve. Remember: Internal Section speaks to a lack of spirituality in the modern world. Why, then, would the game include blatantly spiritual symbols in a context that doesn’t suit them? You could argue that these weapons are meant to contrast against the pop culture mess that comprises the levels; that the game’s answer to the flurry of symbols is to return to older, simpler ways. However, that argument would ignore the celebratory tone the game applies to these symbols. So in the end, the weapons remain irrelevant and maybe a little gaudy.
“Gaudy” might be an odd choice of words to criticize something in this particular game. After all, iS: Internal Section is a game full to the brim with gaudy imagery; with markers of a distracted consumer culture. I see these markers criticized so often that it’s refreshing to see something embrace them in their own right. I won’t deny the problems that iS’ vision presents. The game might make some people feel uncomfortable and disoriented. At least for me, this game’s vision is one that I can ultimately support. It’s an energetic celebration of technology, wrapped in an aesthetically dense yet unified package.
*Technically speaking, Rez came out after Internal Section, and would therefore be breaking from it. But I still think these differences are worth noting.