Running and running from.
My earliest memories of a video game are of running towards something. The game was Super Mario Bros. 3 and I was running through levels, over Goombas, under Piranha Plants sprouting from pipes, shooting for the flag, trying to save Princess Peach. We’ve been running towards something for almost as long as there have been video games, be it the flag at the end of the level, a star, a puzzle piece, the next chest of treasure, or the next gold brick. It’s the nature of platformers; there is a goal, and you move towards it.
When the faceless, red-shirted boy dropped down the side of a rocky cliff in Inside, the second effort from Limbo studio Playdead, I wondered what he was running towards. As I guided him down the murky trail, through the mud and over branches, as people in the distance were captured and herded into trucks, as searchlights flickered through the rain, as dogs and men scoured the night for people who are not with them and not like them, I realized that the boy was not running towards anything. It wasn’t clear if the searchers were specifically looking for him, or if they were merely rounding up people indiscriminately, but what was clear was that it didn’t matter. The boy was not running towards anything. He was being hunted. He was fleeing. There was something he was running from.
"You will get the most out of it if you go in blind, with your perceptions uncluttered by my opinion, or anyone else’s."
At least, that’s how it starts. Even when you’re running away, you’re always running towards something. To say any more, I feel, would spoil the best parts of Inside. My best advice to those of you already interested would be this: stop reading this review now, and go play it. If you would like to know if the game is worth your time, it is. But you will get the most out of it if you go in blind, with your perceptions uncluttered by my opinion, or anyone else’s. Inside is a game of discovery, and by describing the opening I fear I have already gone too far, and may have robbed you of the chance to do some of that yourself. For those still interested, however, I will continue, and try to spoil as little as I can.
Like its predecessor, Inside is a wordless game – there is no dialogue to hear, no audiologs to collect, no journal entries to find. The game’s story is told entirely by the environments you travel through, and the things you see just beyond them, the glimpses, the surprises. It is left to you to connect how the disparate parts of Inside’s world fit together, what the world they inhabit is, and how it came to exist. The game is essentially a mystery, and it asks you to piece together the fractured bits of the world you see into a coherent whole. It is disquieting, often disturbing, and that feeling, established at the outset, never lets up, even when you believe you understand what is going on. There are no easy answers here – I can still concoct multiple explanations myself – but the level of ambiguity improves the game, asking you to pay attention, to scrutinize every detail, to decide for yourself.
The details, it is clear, are something Playdead has spent a long time perfecting. Despite its bleak atmosphere, morbid areas, and muted palette, Inside is a beautiful game, as detailed in animation as it is in the areas it presents. The attention to the small is incredible, often bordering on obsessive. Shafts of light break through windows and over the horizon, adding visibility, clarity, and occasionally color to otherwise monotone rooms and areas. Dust particles float in the air. Water ripples as the boy trudges through it. Elements move in the background and foreground. The camera moves through the environments, adding the illusion of 3D to a 2D game. The sound design is worthily restrained but no less excellent. There’s little music, adding to the impact of the sounds you do hear: the footsteps of the boy, the sound of a car, a dog barking, a machine whirring to life after a long period of inactivity. It drives home one point very quickly: you are safest when it’s quiet.
"Playdead’s puzzle design is both simple and smart. The best puzzles emulate the design of Nintendo titles, introducing new elements, building them to a natural conclusion while testing your knowledge of the mechanics in question, and then discarding them."
Inside is a simple game. The boy can walk, jump, and interact with objects. Moving through the world requires you to solve puzzles requiring everything from moving boxes to allow you to jump higher to chases that test both your knowledge of the environment and of your abilities and the abilities of your enemies. It is when Inside seamlessly marries that level of detail with its gameplay that the game is at its best. These moments come when the chases, puzzles, and environments mesh organically and feed off of each other’s momentum. It’s in these moments that Inside feels most alive. You don’t feel like you’re solving puzzles to solve puzzles, you feel like you’re solving puzzles to advance through this area, to avoid detection, that this couldn’t happen any other way.
These sections of the game are cathartic and clever, and that almost unshakable sense of momentum and pacing is one of Inside’s key strengths. Playdead’s puzzle design is both simple and smart. The best puzzles emulate the design of Nintendo titles, introducing new elements, building them to a natural conclusion while testing your knowledge of the mechanics in question, and then discarding them. Impressively, Playdead manages to maintain this level of design while balancing it with their method of storytelling for most of the game. Unfortunately, however, they don’t manage to do this for the entire game.
The weakest section comes about halfway through. It happens because the game starts leaning too heavily on its puzzles, placing you in areas that are not interesting or relevant to the “story,” that do not maintain that overwhelming, bleak atmosphere. Worse still, this stretch of the game involves puzzles that you’ve already solved repeatedly without providing any of the variation that marks the best of what appears both earlier and later in the game. At best, this is Playdead extending a gameplay idea far past its lifespan without realizing it. At worst, some of the puzzles actively waste your time, requiring you to perform the same rote movements over and over again, while forcing you to wait on triggers in the environment. At these moments, the game isn’t being interesting or challenging, or even fun. It’s padding itself. That’s problematic in any game, but in a title that takes less than six hours to beat, even if you explore all of the optional areas and obtain all of the collectibles, it’s akin to design sacrilege.
"That disquiet is something special. It pervades nearly every scene, and speaks to the peaks Playdead can reach when they’re firing on all cylinders."
Things get better, admittedly. They pick up quickly after that section and result in a climax that, if nothing else, proves that Playdead is equally adept at knowing when and how to break its rules as it is about meticulously building them. I can’t help but feel, however, that while the finale achieves something that is immensely satisfying from a gameplay perspective, it sacrifices the tone that makes the rest of the game so special to do it. Opinions on the ending will no doubt vary, but I feel the decision to throw aside of the disquiet that the game spends the majority of its runtime building for a few minutes of cathartic gameplay is significantly to its detriment, especially since the final scene seems to take the game’s title a mite too literally (in a couple of ways) and shifts the tone the rest of the game has struggled mightily to build to one it does not fully earn, even if it does fit the narrative.
That disquiet is something special. It pervades nearly every scene, and speaks to the peaks Playdead can reach when they’re firing on all cylinders. It may disappear in many places after your protagonist meets his first violent and occasionally disturbing end and the cold, mechanical reality of the puzzle you need to solve asserts itself, but that’s an inevitable part of being a video game, and not something Playdead has done wrong. Still, the ability to build that feeling again and again, to have it seep into the soul, and to be able to combine it with the wonder of discovery is special, and Playdead almost never fails at it.
It is that feeling, more than anything, that makes Inside a good game, in spite of its flabby middle, iffy (if memorable) ending, and high price of $20 for a relatively little amount of content. You probably won’t feel the need to replay it again once you finish it, knowing the solution to the puzzles and how things play out. But that first journey can be something special. Take my advice: go in blind, and let that disquiet seep slowly, expertly into your soul. You’re always running towards something.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Excellent, legitimately disturbing atmosphere. Strong visual and audio design. Some great puzzles. Environmental story that’ll keep you hooked. Memorable ending.
The middle section drags. Some puzzles actively waste your time. Price is rather hefty for the amount of content. The ending sacrifices the game’s atmosphere for a cool gameplay segment.
Instilled with a pervading sense of disquiet and a knack for the disturbing, Inside is a memorable, beautifully realized puzzle-platformer. The game’s middle drags as it leans too heavily on puzzles, and the game’s short length and ending will no doubt put some off, but some strong puzzle and world design and an engrossing, murky narrative makes Playdead’s latest is an adventure worth taking.