Review Platform: PC
Release Date: June 7, 2016
Review Copy Provided By: Playdead
Inside‘s simplicity is it’s greatest weapon. Though it is little more than a 2D puzzle-platformer, it always manages to feel like something more, thanks to it’s gorgeous art direction, its high level of narrative intrigue, and relentless suspense. Playdead is building off a formula that’s entirely familiar to those of us who played their previous game, Limbo, but fear not, Inside feels like an adventure that is entirely it’s own, and is a near-masterpiece in it’s own right.
Playdead throws you right into things, as the boy you take control of stumbles his way down a hill in a forest. It’s immediately clear, through the boy’s body language, the stark use of lighting, and quiet-yet-oppressive soundtrack that this world is thankfully a long-shot from the one we live in. It feels familiar, if only because of it’s initial reminders of an Orwellian society – though by the end it feels much more like Brave New World than 1984. The objective is never outright stated, but because of our understanding of the game’s unspoken language, it’s clear you mustn’t be caught by these mysterious men in masks nor their dogs.
Inside is every bit as brutal as Limbo. The shock of seeing a child mutilated before you never wears off, nor does it feel particularly exploitative. Violence is used in this case to create a sense of dread and panic at the sight of one of the game’s villains. Being chased by a hound is appropriately terrifying, but being caught is something far worse. Throughout Inside‘s 3 hour runtime, I made a greater effort to not be killed than I have in most games, not because I’m some kind of bleeding-heart who didn’t want to watch the kid die (or that video games have taught me dying is bad), but because death is used effectively – again, along with the art direction and sound design – to make failure feel worse than in most games.
Puzzles are very similar in Inside to Limbo. They’re usually solved by one or two button presses, or by moving a particular box to place on a switch. Puzzles become more complicated and intense as the game progresses. The ones that involve hiding in shadows from a mysterious light stand out as particularly impressive. I found that there were moments where the solution to the puzzles seemed a bit on the obtuse side, only to find the solution and realize that it was far simpler than I’d ever thought. These moments led to me either feeling like the world’s smartest man, or the world’s biggest dolt. At the very least, they’re never unfair.
Inside continues a tradition found in some games where it allows the environment – be it the background or foreground – to convey it’s story. I’ve never seen an effort pushed to the extent that Inside pushes it. In fact, I fully expect that once more players have seen the ending, many will hate the the game’s lack of straight-forward narrative. If broadly told stories with even broader endings sounds like your thing, then Inside is bound to be a game that you’ll treasure for years to come. There is no dialogue; nothing is written on walls telling you how we got here; there are no cut-scenes. Everything related to narrative is implied, and thus we get an ending that’s just as out-there as one might expect. I found it insane and brilliant, much like an old Cronenberg film.
Ultimately, Inside does leave some stuff on the table. There are a few mysteries that I’m not sure we’ll ever know the meaning behind. Perhaps the inclusion of something a bit more traditional could have helped clear the air, but at the same time it’d also be going against the game’s very design philosophy (at least in regards to storytelling).
In all of this, there is but one minor gripe: using a keyboard does not feel ideal for Inside. The game asks you to use the arrow keys to move and the right-control button to grab onto items. That in and of itself is not something to complain about, but holding a single key for an extended period of time, especially with a finger that rarely gets exercise in PC gaming caused me a fair amount of finger fatigue and soreness. Playing with a game-pad is certainly recommended over the keyboard for this reason alone.