Inside is Playdead's second release and it follows 2010’s indie hit Limbo. While the game is remarkably similar to its predecessor, it’s not hard to see, hear and feel that Playdead put 6 years of time and effort into Inside as what they released is a simple, elegant and well-polished puzzle game, equal in quality but less challenging than Limbo. Your character, a nameless boy in a simple red t-shirt, moves within a 2D plain and his environment is presented in three-dimensional goodness. As simple as the game appears at first with its minimalist design, underplayed story, basic mechanics and reserved color scheme, it is that simplicity that makes the experience enjoyable, as you explore and interact with a world that has a lot to say and says all it needs to without words.
As Limbo before it, the story and context are simply conveyed through what is seen in its city, office buildings, farm and final testing facility and your interactions with the world and its reactions to you. This means that level design, character animations and the camera all need to work seamlessly in order to deliver a worthwhile experience and Inside certainly delivers. The environments and sound manage to create an unsettling ambiance throughout the game. All of the environments feel authentic and each is distinct. The environments tend to mirror the gameplay. As you work your way through the game, the world begins to appear more developed (going from the woods, to a farm, to a city and so forth) and the game throws tougher game mechanics and more complex puzzles your way (albeit not too complex, as I will touch on that later). The environments in the game are creative and look beautiful. They provide a rather stunning backdrop for the mysterious quest your young boy finds himself on. To compliment the stunning environments, a dynamic camera zooms, pans and shakes at just the right times. This made the environments, set pieces and puzzles more impactful and there were many moments where I took a few seconds to absorb how great the game looks. With the lack of conventional storytelling devices, each environment tells its own story and the years put into the game can truly be seen. The attention to detail is magnificent. The character animations are subtle, fluid and realistic. After landing a particularly daring jump, my character’s legs seemed to buckle just the right way and occasionally his head slightly turns toward something in the environment which could prove useful. These small touches throughout the game add up.
The world of Inside is a very enigmatic and interesting. The game does well to convey the story wordlessly and its subtle approach makes the events more impactful. Perhaps a bit more explanation would have helped. By the end its ‘story’ it gets downright outrageous. To the point where I had no idea what was going on. As outrageous as it is, many discussions have been sparked online and the themes and motifs explored are worth an analysis of some sort. What little you can piece together provides interesting commentary on free will, the human condition and perhaps even politics. I did find that I was eager to uncover more about the world as the game unfolded and the ending sequence certainly did not disappoint in scope.
The game has a rather simple soundtrack, one that is hardly noticeable. I found this to make the experience more immersive as the sounds throughout are fantastic, from the pitter-patter of feet on the ground, to the barking of dogs in the woods. This helped in making exploration immersive and enjoyable and made the many deaths I experienced harrowing. Death is not an uncommon occurrence, as each failed attempt at a puzzle, an escape, or a wrongly timed jump, likely ends with you staring at the mutilated corpse of your pre-pubescent character. My deaths often felt anticlimactic, which only added to the unsettling atmosphere, because underplaying the death of a child just doesn’t quite sit right. However unsettling, each death felt rewarding, as my deaths were never unfair, and I always learned from them. They gave me valuable information about the world and a sense of triumph when I conquered whoever or whatever was responsible for my demise.
Unlike its predecessor, Inside does not boast mind-bending puzzles. The puzzles in Limbo had me pulling my hair out and had my fingers twitching to ease my frustration on an online guide. Instead, the puzzles are more akin to slight hurdles in your journey. The puzzles have you moving boxes, manipulating the game physics and mind controlling zombie-like NPCs. No puzzle had me stuck for more than a few minutes. This is a missed opportunity and the game had the chance to increase its length and provide some stiff challenge for gamers. The truly rewarding experience of besting a puzzle, which has had you stuck for the better part of 20 minutes, is lost in this game. Some of the puzzles are creative and make good use of the simple mechanics, but much more could have been done to make the game more challenging (even slightly so). There are collectibles in the form of glowing orbs found in secret rooms, which provide very subtle secrets about the world, scattered throughout the game. They are not easy to find and provide a challenge for those dedicated enough to find them. However, I found them tedious to spot as each environment had to be thoroughly searched. New mechanics and ideas are introduced regularly and are used for a small period of time, then thrown out. I found myself in a submarine exploring flooded offices, outmaneuvering wild dogs and wilder men and dodging sonic waves. Many of these mechanics could have been used in more creative ways and fleshed out. More of my enjoyment came out of exploring the world and enjoying the environments than from completing the puzzles. Tough puzzles coupled with the unsettling atmosphere are where I got my enjoyment out of Limbo. Inside nails the aesthetics, but falls slightly short in terms of game mechanics.
Jumping, ducking, puzzling and dying my way through Inside, I was impressed by the aesthetics, the atmosphere and the intriguing world. The game is polished and shows attention to detail. A rather short experience, clocking in around 4 hours, but not a disappointing one as I could feel the time, effort and care put in by the development team. While the puzzles are not as satisfying as its predecessors, it’s surprisingly replayable, with many checkpoints throughout the game that can be loaded up at any point once they have been reached. At $20.00 the game is well worth your time and money and I look forward to seeing what else Playdead has in store for us.