Format: PC, Xbox One (reviewed)
Released: June 29, 2016 (XBO), July 7, 2016 (PC)
Copy provided by publisher
Describing Inside is difficult, not because one can’t find the words, but because it has to be seen to truly be believed. At first glance, one could easily mistake it for little more than a spiritual successor to Playdead’s previous effort, the critically acclaimed Limbo.
In fact, both Inside and Limbo start exactly the same way – you’re a lonesome young boy in a forest, and you’ve got to make your way through an increasingly deadly environment by pushing blocks, swinging from ropes, and solving simple puzzles in a neat little platforming package.
At a certain point, however, the two games diverge wildly, as Playdead’s newest offering turns into something more… disturbing.
Narrative is implicit, with only visual cues and environmental details provided for a player to piece any story together. The protagonist is presumably on the run, starting his adventure by avoiding sinister masked men in the woods. Early obstacles revolve around staying hidden from the torches and vehicular headlights of pursuers while staying one step ahead of vicious attack dogs.
As the adventure unfolds, we learn more about the world and what it is our red sweatered hero might actually be running from. Again, nothing is explicitly stated, but we get an idea that he’s escaping some twisted dystopian society – if indeed it is a society – and the grotesque ideas it seems to be realizing at the expense of others.
If you thought Limbo‘s deceptively simple aesthetic hid a nightmarish undertone, you’ll either be disturbed or delighted – hopefully both – by the direction Inside takes. Themes of conformity, violation, slavery, and outright body horror all run through this progressively haunting game for the handful of hours it lasts.
Like its predecessor, Inside is a mechanically tight puzzle platformer that hides clever environmental challenges behind a simple interface. Interaction with the world is limited to pushing, pulling, and climbing, yet Playdead does fantastic things with such restriction. Simple block puzzles give way to intricate hindrances, especially once the player encounters bizarre homunculi that can be made to follow commands through questionable technological means.
I’m loathe to say much more about the creatures encountered throughout the game, because this is definitely an experience where even slight snippets of information could ruin formidable surprises.
Suffice to say, the game only gets creepier as the world is further revealed, leading to a final furlong that manages to feel empowering and appalling at the same time.
Inside has more color than its monochrome predecessor, but the palette remains muted, giving the entire game a foreboding, overcast look. As a result, bright lights stand out and starkly contrast against a world rife with decay and emotional bankruptcy. There’s a beauty in a visual style so utterly bleak, the same kind of eerie allure found in such games as Dark Souls.
In a similar vein, audio is limited, with only sparse interludes of music underscoring the sounds of industrial machinery, howling winds, and rushes of water. Sometimes there’s no sound at all as the camera pulls back to create a scene of mute isolation.
It’s not all loneliness and silent introspection, however. Inside knows when to punctuate the atmosphere with a scary chase sequence or some tense test of stealth.
Not a single trick is relied upon too heavily. Some of the game’s best puzzles are so good because they only appear once.
An incredible nerve-wracking sequence where the player has to hide in plain sight and perform specific actions to avoid raising suspicion is powerfully intimidating, but never repeated. It remains its own special, uniquely unnerving, challenge. Likewise, a bizarre game of chicken against a starved and violent pig is disturbing yet inspired – and remains so due to its oneness.
Other games will introduce gimmicks and tricks before repeating them consistently, becoming perfectly familiar to players long before the credits roll. This works in some productions, but a game like Inside is about the creation of moments that truly stick with the player. Any one of its creepy tricks could become repetitive, used again and again as easy filler. They never do, instead retaining a sense of true remarkability.
To say much more would be to expose this game’s hand, and I absolutely do not want to do that. I want this to be played, and I want it to surprise and shock its players, to make them shudder in disgust and tilt their heads in repulsed bemusement.
It should go without saying that Inside is an easy choice for anybody who enjoyed Limbo. At its most basic, Playdead’s newest presentation is a continuation of its prior work – a macabre puzzle-platformer with a gloomy visual style and forsaking atmosphere.
Beyond that, however, Inside is so much more…
Something more… fleshy.
Oh the flesh.