Sometimes a little indie video game can, uh, color outside the lines, ultimately growing far beyond what even its creators may have hoped for. The surprise T-rated hit Bendy and the Ink Machine is that kind of game.
This survival-horror adventure title dribbled out slowly at first as a chapter game revealed gradually over the course of the last few years. And it was recently released as a full game for the PC and all major consoles. But along the way, Bendy and crew garnered such interest and devotion that fans created millions of online videos about it. And a whole market of plushies, T-shirts, action figures, bedspreads, backpacks, LEGO-like playsets and even a mobile phone spin-off soon followed.
So now that this “little game that could” is ready to insert its inky presence into your family room, let’s see what Bendy and the Ink Machine is all about.
The tale starts off with you slipping into the shoes of a guy named Henry Stein, a retired cartoon animator who receives a mysterious note from his old pal Joey. Henry and Joey were partners some 30 years back. Together, they created the popular black-and-white cartoon Bendy, a little guy with a cheeky smile and all the 1930s charm and “Hiya, guys!” friendliness of good-ol’ Mickey Mouse himself.
In fact, Bendy’s whole animated world looks like something right out of Steamboat Willie. And his good bud Boris the Wolf couldn’t be more Goofy-like unless he started crowing a hearty “Gaarsh!” in your direction. However, when you look a bit closer, you note that there’s more devil-horn darkness draped about Bendy and his pals than you may have first recognized.
That revelation plays into the story at hand as Henry steps back into the deserted sepia-toned rooms of his old cartoon-creating stomping grounds. What was once a cheery and happy workplace has now become sorta creepy, shadow-strewn and slightly alarming. Henry moves deeper into the murky studio and finds the walls dripping … ink? The building is empty and crumbling and suddenly seems much, much bigger than he remembers. Its many levels include projection studios, orchestra rooms, a massive warehouse and an underground amusement-park creation lab.
Henry finds notes and recordings left behind by other animators and creative types who were once part of the company. And he soon discovers a massive, bizarre machine that seems to pump a steady stream of black ink through pipes in the walls—like a beating heart pumping blood. Bit by bit, Henry realizes that the sprawling Joey Drew Studios is a wickedly strange place—and a wickedly dangerous one, too.
The cartoon characters themselves seem to have been brought to life somehow. But now, they inhabit unexpectedly twisted and sinister forms. Some rooms sport pentagram-like symbols on the floors. Creatures of dark malevolence rise out of the inky black pools. Oh, and Henry is now trapped in the dripping, deadly place he used to call home.
Gameplay wise, players have to keep Henry moving forward through this torture dungeon of cartoons and gushing ink by solving environmental conundrums, digging around in puzzle-piece-gathering quests, and by hacking and stabbing at myriad inky beasties that rush in his direction. Weapons include an arsenal of pipes, axes, needle-like implements, plungers and the like. There’s no blood. But there is plenty of constantly gushing ink to wade through.
Players encounter creatures-leaping-from-the-darkness jump scenes as well as pummeling violence. And all of the previously cute cartoon characters are brought to life in the form of ghoulish attackers, deformed monstrosities and straight-up demonic entities.
In fact, it’s that gushing and disquieting demonic inkiness that pushes this game toward truly wince-worthy extremes at times. As Henry pieces together the Joey Drew Studios story, it becomes clear that Joey himself created the Ink Machine through both mechanical and darkly spiritual means. There were rituals performed, creating characters comprised partly of ink and partly of human souls … ripped from the company’s workers. (At one point, we enter a macabre room populated by goopy husks of hunched-over former employees.) In fact, this grim process drives one guy to the point of worshipping Bendy as a god and killing human victims for him in sacrificial rituals.
All of that said, it’s easy to see why Bendy and the Ink Machine has become the runaway hit that it is. There’s certainly a charm to the sepia-toned, ink-line artistry here. And we’re in an age in which taking images of Disney-like cuteness and innocence and twisting them into corrupt, nightmarish stuff will appeal to some.
But parents need to know that this game descends into its own brand of shadowed madness, one that can’t be avoided. And that freaky-and-frightening journey is definitely not very nice or cuddly, no matter which cute Bendy bedspread you might be wrapped in.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.