The Meatly’s vintage indie horror serial Bendy and the Ink Machine has been fascinating gamers since its first chapter dropped in February of last year. Putting you in the shoes of former cartoonist Henry Stein, the game leads you through the remains of an old-time animation studio. You’re on a quest to “find something” for your former partner, Joey Drew—but what that “something” is isn’t clear until the very end of the final chapter.
There’s a lot going on under the surface of Bendy, as you might guess. Taken literally, it’s a survival horror game with a 1920s twist, and no supplies at your disposal but bits of machinery and random cans of bacon soup. Inky demons roam the impossible buildings, cartoon characters emerge as twisted versions of themselves, and former employees become cultists spouting some really unpleasant lullabies.
But taken metaphorically—as we’re heavily encouraged to—it’s the story of Joey Drew’s company in a tailspin, eating up employees and destroying lives along the way. I won’t give away the ending, as it’s worth experiencing for yourself and in context, but suffice to say there are layers to this game and its meanings.
Regardless of how you choose to view it, one thing becomes awkwardly, painfully clear once you reach the all-important final chapter: everyone in Joey Drew Studios has suffered from the ink. And for anyone who’s ever had to bail out of a failing organization, the victims of the ink read like a Who’s Who of the personality types attempting to survive the fallout—because, sadly, this sort of situation breeds the same monsters and the same victims no matter where it happens.
The Ones Who Got Away
At the top of the list is our protagonist, Henry. He has his own happy, fulfilling life, and is returning to the studio at the behest of his old friend Joey. He’s a free, casual observer, since he made it out before the Ink Machine and its monsters took hold.
Except, as in reality, that’s never really the case.
For the purposes of the game, Henry is asked to drop in on the studio. But the people who left before the major fallout aren’t necessarily asked to look back on where they were—they can do that just fine themselves. Knowing you made the right decision for yourself isn’t always enough to keep one’s emotions in check. Sometimes the “survivors” wonder what they could have done. Could they have seen the signs sooner? Was it their responsibility to warn people? Should they come back and save who they can? Henry even replays the words of his peers, scattered throughout the studio on audio cassettes, the way one might replay an old conversation.
Henry’s “survivor” status is reinforced in the final chapter, where he receives a gadget that allows him to see literal writing on the wall that warns him of people’s personalities and actions. Not only that, but later playthroughs of previous chapters let you keep this gadget, enabling Henry to revisit the entire debacle with increasing hindsight on every repetition.
Every organization needs people at the bottom to make it work. Day-laborers, bookkeepers, overall grudge-workers who may never see what happens at the top but trust that things are all right provided they can’t see anything breaking. They’re the individual cogs that make the machine run no matter where the organization is going. And that’s both a blessing and a curse.
Never seeing how the sausage is made also means that, if one day the company changes the recipe, you’re not likely to find out. Gossip happens in companies, but people at the bottom can continue their job for months, or even years, before they know that there’s a rot starting. Sadly, if those people don’t discover what’s happening and get out, they can unwittingly spread the company’s damage and chaos simply by continuing to work for it, all the while slowly being more victimized and not entirely sure when a change happened.
Like any company, Joey Drew Studios is full of those sorts: everyone from musicians to janitors to animators. A few get names and voices thanks to the cassettes throughout the levels where they vent their frustration, but it’s highly unlikely we saw or heard from every individual employee eventually affected by the ink. Judging by the sheer number of ink monsters the studio throws at us, though, it’s pretty easy to tell where they went.
Sunk cost—the idea that time, money, or other investments already made can never be regained—can lead people to make some pretty horrible decisions. When a company is on the brink of death, those regretting sunk costs the most may cycle into escalation of commitment: no matter how bad things get, they are still on board. It’s “ride or die” to the extreme, seemingly ignoring the fact that the word “die” is fully 33% of the equation.
To be fair, having committed time and energy and potentially even money to a prospect, only to watch it start to spin out, is terrifying. It makes us wonder about our own judgment—should we have seen this coming? Is it safe to peace out and say we want nothing more to do with any of it?
Instead of leaving while they can, though, the sycophants go the other direction entirely: they go with it. It could be because they’re terrified of having to admit to others that they chose poorly. In some cases, their dedication to the company in question may truly be that cultish—they may really believe that their boss and their company can do no wrong, and be perfectly willing to ride through the gates of Hell alongside the whole mess.
These can be, but aren’t always, the decision-makers. Music director Sammy Lawrence certainly wasn’t an underling, but Bendy wasn’t his creation, and Joey Drew Studios wasn’t his business. He was, however, a creator and a decision-maker, and eventually believed only a major sacrifice would set things right. In the world of the game, that’s Henry as his “sheep.” But for a tired, confused worker, it may well have been going all-in and putting himself after the needs of the company in hopes that it would help him in turn.
A lot of people will have given all they had to a project, only to watch it fall apart. And while some will become sycophants and lavish praise on the company as it burns, others won’t take quite so kindly to the result of their sunk costs.
Bendy and the Ink Machine has two Alice Angels: in real-world terms, the two different actresses who voiced her. Susie Campbell stepped into the role after doing background voices, and got assurances from the aforementioned Sammy that Alice could be her ticket to stardom. The collapse of the studio meant no stars would be made, but her betrayal came even before the studio began to fall apart.
Susie in the world of the studio is a monstrous mutation, only vaguely reminiscent of the character she helped to create. In the time before Henry’s visit, though, Susie was recast, removed from the role in favor of Allison Pendle. The studio wasn’t in dire straits when this happened to her—but in its death throes, she’s in her element.
Sadly, companies that eventually crash and burn tend to have form, and there’s a metaphorical “body count” long before the major damage happens. Sometimes those people stay within the organization, aware that they’ve been wronged and waiting for a chance to get back a bit of their own. Sometimes they re-emerge when the carnage begins. Unfortunately, even if they were truly wrong and deserve reparations, this response—especially in modern times, when words fly faster than you can judge them—rarely gets the desired results.
The Ones Left Behind
Way down in the inner workings of any organization near its demise will be a few hangers-on who are just doing their best. They’re aware of what’s going on and where things will end up. They want to help people avoid being hurt. But their hands are tied.
The final chapter of Bendy and the Ink Machine takes Henry to the lowest, wildest point of the studio, where he meets Allison Pendle—now Allison Angel, the “True” Alice—and Thomas Connor—now Tom, a partially animatronic clone of Boris the Wolf. The player knows both of them from previous tapes: Allison was Susie’s replacement, and Tom was the mechanic who kept the Ink Machine running. In other words, these two were integral to the late stages of Joey Drew Studios, just as it was adopting whatever practices would eventually sink it.
Allison and Tom are the only true friends the player gets during the course of the game—and even then, Tom isn’t particularly trusting at first. The two are presented as something akin to post-apocalyptic survivors, separate from the drama of the studio and yet linked to it by their very nature. All they want to do is get by. They’d like to escape, but the potential seems further and further away. They will, however, help who they can.
People like Allison and Tom are the unsung heroes of an organization’s collapse: the people who believe they’re stuck without an escape—or who, perhaps, really are. They’re so deeply entrenched in the company’s inner workings that leaving is difficult. Maybe it’s a financial issue. Maybe there’s a fear of repercussions. Either way, they’re on the inside, able (like those who escape) to see the writing on the wall but feeling helpless to do anything about it.
The story of Bendy and the Ink Machine as an ending for a business empire is a painful one, unfolding amidst its bizarre survival horror. But as you’re fighting your way to whatever your old pal Joey sent you to find, don’t forget to spare a thought for the victims of the Ink Machine in all their forms—they might help you understand the victims of real world blowouts a little better.