Inception and the Rules of Writing about Virtual Worlds

Upon seeing Christopher Nolan’s Inception, I was filled by both joy and sorrow. Joy because Inception is an outstanding film created by a craftsman at the top of his game. Sorrow because it made my own novel about imaginary worlds, Evermore: Call of the Nocturne, look amateurish in comparison.

Upon closer inspection, however, Inception demonstrates why it is so difficult to write stories that take place in a broadly-defined “virtual world”.  The problem with writing stories in such places is that it can difficult to come up with challenges for the protagonists than are not easily overcome. For example, if you can do anything in the dreamworld, then what’s to stop your hero from magically solving every problem that comes his way? “Oh no. There’s a tiger blocking my path.” Shazam! “I’ve just created a laser cannon. Problem solved! Where’s my cake?” Thus for a story that takes place in a virtual world, writers must adopt the following rule:

Rule #1: The rules of the virtual world must be established early on in the story and must limit the power of the protagonists.

Stories that take place in virtual worlds must come up with a series of rules that limit the options available to the protagonists. These rules must be clear, concise, and explained early on in the story.The first Matrix movie works well because it effectively defines the rules governing the world early on in the movie in a way that is easy to understand. Morpheus teaches Neo, and by the extension the audience, the rules of the Matrix by demonstrating them visually. These rules and the consequences that bind stick with audience as the action moves into its exciting third act. Without these rules, the action at the end of the movie would be rather meaningless and ultimately confusing.

Christopher follows this rule to the letter. The first half of Inception is dedicated to introducing the dreamscapes of the not-so-distant-future and the rules that govern them.

1) If you die in the dreamworld, then you wake up safe and sound.
2) However, if you are too heavily sedated when you are killed in the dreamworld, you will not wake up. Instead, you will go to a special place called Limbo where you will trapped for eternity while your brain turns to mush.
3) If option #1 is not available due to heavy sedation, then you can still use a ‘kick’ (sensation of falling) from the host of the dream in order to wake the everyone up.
4) if you are in a dream, you can enter a dream within a dream using the same methods as before (sedation).
5) If you are in a dream-within-a dream, then you can step out of the innermost dream through death in the innermost dream or by a kick in the surrounding dream.
6) If you are in limbo then you can escape it by killing yourself. Even if you are heavily sedated.


In accordance with Rule #1, Nolan establishes these rules early and demonstrates them in a visual way that the audience can understand. However, right from the get-go, Nolan encounters a problem with his rules. At the beginning of the heist, death is not a likely threat. It is established early that when killed inside a dream, they simply return to the outlying world, free of harm.

Thus the second lesson that we should draw when writing about virtual worlds is the following:

Rule #2: The protagonists must be able to die or suffer a fate worse than death in the virtual world.

The threat of death or a fate worse than death must remain a possibility. Sure, part of the fun of writing about a virutal world is the cool stuff that your characters are permitted to do.  Run up walls, stop bullets, learn kung-fu in second. But without the threat of death, our characters never seem to be in any real danger and thus the action falls flat. Thus we must maintain the threat of death in the virtual world. For the Matrix, the solution is easy “The mind makes it real.” If you die in the virtual world, the mind believes that it is dead and thus kills the otherwise healthy body. In Neuromancer, you could have brain fried and end up a vegetable. In Inception, you could end up in Limbo.

The Wachowski brothers encountered a problem with this rule when they tried to make a sequel to The Matrix. How do you make the action exciting when you’ve essentially turned your main character in to a god? If he’s too powerful then it doesn’t really matter what he does. The Wachowski brothers tried to get around the problem by creating more powerful enemies and simply removing him from the action. Think about it. The most enthralling action sequences are those in which Neo is not involved. This is because for him, death is a distant possibility. Instead, we find ourselves identifying with Morpheus and Trinity because their deaths remain a likely possibility.

In Inception, death is not possible. However, under certain circumstances you and end up a place called Limbo. In Limbo, time is infinite. You can spend a lifetime doing whatever you while only seconds pass in the real world. Losing the ability to tell the difference between the real world and the dream world, your mind degrades into mush. The concept is an interesting one and would certainly satisfy the requirements of Rule #2.

The problem for Nolan occurs when you examine the rules more closely. At first they can enter minds and be killed without consequence. Then it becomes that if you are heavily sedated, then death will put you into Limbo. However, if you already in Limbo then death will pull you out of it. If the ending is a dream, then Ariadne and the mark must have escaped from Limbo by the sensation of falling (a kick) inside Limbo at the same time as the kick is done in the next outer level of dreams. Once you start to examine it, Nolan’s rules fall apart under the weight of their own logic. The rules are inconsistently applied and instead of reflecting the realities of the dreamworld instead seem to exist solely to serve the conveniences of the plot.

Inceptions’ problems result because it hadn’t followed a third and final rule.

Rule #3: The rules governing the virtual world cannot change.

A rule is a rule is a rule. There can be no exceptions or changes to the rules. Otherwise, you will confuse the audience and weaken the cohesiveness of the virtual world you have created. This is what happens in Inception. Christopher Nolan spends the first half of the movie explain the rules of the dream world but then throws them out the window when the plot demands it. The abrupt changes in consequence immediately confuses the audience and the excuse of heavy sedation is not compelling. A better excuse would be the training that the mark has received makes it more dangerous for people invading his mind. Neuromancer used something similar. When hacking in virtual reality, the threat of having your mind fried from counterintrusion measures was a likely possibility. It is to Nolan’s credit as a filmmaker that we don’t notice these inconsistencies when we watch the movie the first time. It is only upon reflection that we realize that the logic of the movie doesn’t work and the reason that it doesn’t work is that the rules are inconsistent.

So how does my own story, Evermore: Call of the Nocturne, stand up against these three rules? While not as innovative and original as Inception, Evermore: COTN (after many rewrites) thus conform to the roles listed above. When you enter Evermore, your mind is protected by a series of security protocols. These security protocols make sure that no matter what happens to you in the virtual world of Evermore, you will be able to wake up in your bed safe and sound. If the security protocols are disabled and you are killed in the game world, then your mind believes that you are dead and induces brain-death in the real world (just like the Matrix). This is important as Evermore is a commercial MMO like World or Warcraft or Second Life. If people could be killed inside the gameworld, then nobody in their right mind would enter it. The security protocols justify the virtual world’s existence while leaving the door open later for possible danger. No matter what happens throughout the novel, this general rule doesn’t change. If the safeties are on, you are safe. If the safeties are off, then you can die. Thus Rule #1 is satisfied.

Evermore: COTN satisfies the second rule as well: there must be threat of death or a fate worse than death. The whole plot of the novel is pushed forward because someone figures out how to bypass the security protocols and kill people at will inside the game world. This threatens the lives of everyone inside as well as the fiscal viability of the online world itself. Thus the minute the plot begins, the protagonists are very aware that they can be killed when they find the killer. They are also racing against the clock as the more time passes and the more victims appear, then it becomes more likely that the public will discover that they can die inside the game world. If the public realizes they can die, then mass panic and eventual shutdown by the authorities would ensue. Thus it satisfies the second rule: you can suffer a fate as bad or worse than death.

As for the third rule, the rules that are applied early on in the novel are in place for the entire story. They never change. The security protocols remain the guarantor of safety throughout the entire novel. The audience is not surprised by a new rule and the events that fall within these rules make sense to the audience. The third rule is satisfied.

But does following these rules guarantee that the the story you have written will be a success. No. As Nolan has shown, Inception is a masterpiece despite the house of cards that it’s founded on. Following these three rules won’t make your virtual reality story great, but it will make it coherent. To tell a good story is a far more challenging task.

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