The end of the year was the perfect time for me to take a vacation of sorts, allowing me to recharge & not even think about work or worry about the constant emails I get on a daily basis. Fortunately this also coincided with several year-end game sales, thus allowing me to aid in this recharging by spending uninterrupted hours catching up on some games I was interested in but hadn’t gotten around to buying. Playdead’s acclaimed Inside was one such game that I completed in a single sitting. I’ve gone on record of saying that Playdead’s previously acclaimed game, Limbo, was a visual feast but suffered (in my personal opinion) from some frustrating puzzles & impenetrable story. So have they improved with Inside?
As with their previous game, what exactly is going on in Inside is debatable, but what’s apparent from the plot is that you control a faceless boy who must traverse a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape while avoiding armed guards, rabid beasts, human-hunting machines & apparently failed human experiments to reach some indeterminate end goal. What is the boy’s goal at the end of his journey inside the imposing factory? Does he even know?
Inside is 2.5D sidescrolling puzzle-platformer. Kid (as I took to calling him as he’s never given a name) must navigate a series of obstacles & puzzles to continue forward. He can run, jump, climb, push & pull. There are also sections where he must utilize mind-control helmets to control drone-people to help him solve puzzles, as well as an underwater section involving diving tank.
Narrative: There’s a fine line between being open to interpretation & being as opaque as a brick wall, but I feel Inside strikes the right balance between telling us what’s going on & letting players interpret events. The term “visual storytelling” gets thrown around a lot in game media, but Inside is an example of putting this idea into practice & doing it well. Without a single line of spoken dialogue or text (in fact, I don’t think there’s any text anywhere in the entire game), Inside perfectly portrays its world, & we instantly empathize with the challenges the Kid has to overcome. The very first moment of the game is the Kid climbing out of a hole in some rocks & coming across a barrier, with mindless drone-people being loaded into the back of a shady truck, all while surrounded by glowing tanks & armed, masked guards. Whatever’s going on, it’s not good.
Inside also does an excellent job of exemplifying “transformational media,” or the idea that each person who views a piece of media will take away their own unique experience. Because the plot is just vague enough for us to never truly be sure of what’s going on, we build our own interpretations, & thus the story changes a little bit for each person. The way I interpret events might be different from the next person. Who is the Kid? Did he intend for the outcome? What really happened to this world? But it leaves just enough questions unanswered to make us what to see what comes next.
I also have to say I really enjoyed the setting for Inside… if you can enjoy an oppressive, potentially doomed world. Not only are there strong Orwellian, 1984 vibes, but it reminded me a lot of a short-story we read in high school called Harrison Bergeron (check it out if you’re a fan of dystopian science fiction). Everything is dark & depressing, & each obstacles builds on the horror, making us think the worst of this world. Outrunning guards, controlling drones, watching what remains of society staring blankly on as they seemingly purchase these drone-people, failed experiments, & finally the Hive Mind… I found the ending genuinely distressing. Not something to be “happy” about, but if that was the goal of the developers, they succeeded in spades.
Overall, an intriguing mystery that will have you thinking about the game long after you’ve stopped playing.
Mechanics: I really feel that Playdead perfected the mechanics they set out to create in Limbo with Inside. The controls are simple & responsive. Heck, there’s only three controls, really. Movement with the left stick, jump & grab. Simple, but everything controls like it’s supposed to. I didn’t experience any frustrating lags in the Kid doing what I said or ungainliness like I did in Limbo.
The puzzles are also vastly improved. Playdead seemed to realize that the fun & challenge in a puzzle should come from figuring it out, not in precision timing. Of course, that might also be due to Inside being less about the futility of action & being stuck in a limbo of death & failure. The puzzles have just the right amount of difficulty, with the solutions coming very naturally from the player’s experimentation & exploration of the environment. There’s also a nice variety of puzzles or obstacles, mixing strategic thinking & timing. I think my favorite was in the flooded base when you have to bait the water baby/siren thing to different parts of the water to give you time to reach the next switch. Yes, these require timing, but to the point of making you feel tense as you try to swim away from the water baby, & not frustrating. Although you will probably die several times, it never became frustrating to me, & the checkpoint system is very forgiving so you’ll typically restart right before you died.
Overall, smooth, solid controls & great puzzle-platforming design.
Aesthetics: I find it funny that when I initially saw footage of Inside, I immediately thought it was from Playdead. The art style is very similar to Limbo, utilizing atmospheric lighting, heavy shadows & imposing scenery. The art style is suitably gloomy, & the developers clearly paid a lot of attention to detail. For example, the Kid’s red shirt is some of the only color in the game. Everything feels muted. Another detail that makes me wonder about its narrative significance is the fact that people don’t have faces, but specific people are shown wearing masks with faces on them, like the guards & “regular” citizens. What does it mean? And while I’m a little loathe to do so, I give Playdead credit for creating something that made me feel a bit nauseous. The Hive Mind at the end seriously grossed me out. I’m not sure if it’s a body horror thing, a blob thing, or the way it moved, but it was very effective.
The musical & sound direction were also spot on. There’s actually not a lot of “music” in the game, but in its place, we have atmospheric sounds that really help with immersion. I actually paused the game in the beginning to see if my TV had a headphone jack so I could take in every little sound (sadly, it didn’t). But again, I think it’s the attention to detail. Little things like the irregular sound of rain, or that deep booming tone that sounded straight out of Inception, or even how everything goes silent & muted underwater. Without proper dialogue, everything’s portrayed through noise. And portrayed effectively.
Overall, shows supberb attention to detail both in terms in visual presentation & ambient sound.
Replay Value: Moderate. While this could certainly be a one-&-done game, I think there’s a lot to it that makes it replayable. For one, it’s fairly short. I think it took me about three hours. There’s also an alternate ending that requires you to find all the secret orbs hidden throughout the game. You can replay from any checkpoint, which is fairly frequent. And just the mystery of the plot makes it so you’ll want to play again to try to understand it better. To really take your time & explore to uncover all the mysteries. Score: 4
Final Score: 5
Final Word: I didn’t realize until writing this review that I literally have nothing bad to say against Inside, & that’s never happened before, not even with my favorite games. That fact alone means I can’t help by recommend this game to every gamer. While the open-ended story might not appeal to everyone, the only people I can really see not finding something to enjoy about Inside are those who only play one specific franchise (like Madden or Call of Duty).
Consoles: PS4, PC, XB1
Publisher: Playdead Release Date: June 29, 2016