Inside – Review
Xbox One, PC
Playdead is an independent studio that burst onto the scene thanks to their work on 2010’s critical darling Limbo. The game, originally exclusive to the Xbox 360 eventually stretched its wings, landing on every platform known to mankind, allowing millions of people to enjoy the marvel that had generated the studio enough money to presumably last a lifetime. Not content with their mountains of riches and endless praise, the team at Playdead returned to the drawing board, pouring over their next piece of work, and so Inside was born. While not linked by narrative, there are a great number of similarities shared by the two games, but can the game achieve or possibly even surpass the Limbo’s incredible success story?
As with Limbo before it, Inside is a game that doesn’t bog you down with unnecessary exposition, in fact not a line of dialogue is uttered throughout the entirety of the experience. The story begins with the player sliding down a rocky hill, emerging in a forest. It appears as though you’re escaping somewhere, with masked guards, accompanied by some particularly ravenous dogs all eager to put you down. You’ll eventually escape their grasp, but you’re not out of the woods yet, you will encounter a number of other threats in your travels to come. Given the non-existent dialogue, and mysterious narrative direction, as I hit my third hour of game-time my anticipation for the game’s ending was at fever pitch. I was filled with anticipation and dread, wondering how all the tense gameplay scenes were about to culminate, but the I couldn’t possibly have expected the outcome I was greeted with.
There’s undoubtedly going to be some significant debate surrounding the higher order meaning of what Playdead was going for with the ending of Inside. While I cannot discuss what that ending was, for fear of spoiling the game for you, I have to say I was extremely disappointed. Initially, I was baffled by it, but then it quickly became frustration. While I’m acutely aware that Playdead intentionally left an open-ended conclusion, one that is designed to let the player’s imaginations run wild and develop their own meaning for what they saw – the initial impression I got was one of shocked disappointment. The final 10-15minutes are amongst the most ludicrous I’ve seen in the video game, and as each moment rolled by my patience wore thinner and thinner. While big picture ideas are excellent, and these most certainly need to be discussed (in other forums), there must have been better ways to accomplish the same result, without delivering the ending that players are served up here. Playdead dropped the ball in this facet, and while there’s an alternate ending for those in need of it, I wouldn’t blame anyone for opting out of a second run through based on that ending.
With a minimalist approach to story-telling, it’s left to the moment to moment gameplay to carry you through Inside’s three-hour experience, but thankfully in this respect, the game ticks every box in this area. Inside has been stewing in development for the better part of six years, and it shows in every facet of the gameplay. Inside, as Limbo did before it, successfully blends puzzles and platforming into a seamless experience; puzzles will not bog you down for too long, but will provide sufficient challenge, while the platforming is fluid and polished. Inside is your typical 2D platformer where you’ll be moving in one of only two directions with occasional elements of verticality. Sometimes you’ll need to backtrack due to requirements of puzzles, while the game’s one underwater segment adds a few different mechanics to the mix whilst ensuring things don’t get too repetitious. Inside is a joy to play, it puzzles but never frustrates and the formula shifts often enough to ensure you never get bored.
Of course, Limbo was known for a lot of things, but even amongst all of its praise presentation was one of the major highlights. There are some stylistic similarities between Limbo and Inside, though Inside still has its own separate look and feel. Low humming background sound effects are only broken by the crunch of the environment under your feet and other simple sounds of the environment you’re in. Visually, Inside straddles a few different lines, looking hauntingly beautiful yet terrifying at the same time. You can see small dust particles drift through the air, light distorting and reflecting off of objects it hits, and while the perspective occasionally shifts, the camera gradually moves with it to ensure you’re only ever getting the best view of the action. Contrast is extremely important with the majority of the game taking a darker tone; the occasional splash of colour (more often than not red) is used for effect – whether that effect is more gruesome (when you die) or to direct your attention to an important feature. Every animation has been finely detailed, right down to the point that when the boy desperately leaps, you can see his arms and legs flail much like a puppet’s limbs would.
As with Limbo before it, your penalty for failure is graphic. Throughout the duration of my playtime, I was shot in the head, mauled by a dog, blasted into oblivion and much more. I got no gratification from this, nor did it stir up some internal bloodlust, I felt confronted and was prepared to fight tooth and nail to ensure I didn’t fail again. For a game that says so little, I quickly felt attached to the little boy and often felt my heart racing as I barely survived a close encounter with a trio of monstrous dogs, or dodged the line of sight of people trying to find me.
Inside does so much right, and while it doesn’t outstay its welcome, after three hours I felt completely satisfied by what I’d played. Sure the conclusion will continue to irk me until I take some time to really analyse its higher order meaning, but everything that led to it was as close to perfection in the genre as you could ask for. Finely polished gameplay, audio/visual design and puzzles kept me invested from the first moment, and the game’s minimalist tones are a perfect contrast to the bombastic assault of all senses that I’ve become so accustomed to from the entertainment medium. Inside, like Limbo before it, is a must play game. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but what it shows is the continued development of the industry, and a different side of the medium – one that we don’t often enough get to experience.