Developer Playdead arrived on the scene in a big way with their moody puzzle-platformer LIMBO only a few years ago. They’re back now with INSIDE, a game that embraces the lessons learned from LIMBO and takes them a step further.
INSIDE is so good that I don’t want to spoil it one bit for anyone who hasn’t had a chance to play it yet. However, the trouble with writing a review for a game like INSIDE is that it’s really hard to avoid them (and to keep myself from throwing adjectives and descriptors around like a Pitchfork writer). I will do my best to steer clear of both for this review, but if you’d prefer to go in completely dark the feel free to stop reading here and know that I absolutely loved it.
Like LIMBO, INSIDE keeps things rather simple in terms of mechanics. There is no dialogue, no tutorial, there is just the title card and the handing over of the experience to you. The early stages of the game hearken back to the era of the Eighties and early Nineties, a time when games would teach you how to play as a function of their design. Push buttons, figure it out. Credit must be given to Playdead for this because, despite this doggedly old-school approach, INSIDE never feels anything less than intuitive.
It’s also the sort of game I found I could only really play in short bursts. It’s one of the bleakest games I’ve ever played. Right from the jump, its stillness and eerie quiet make you feel as though you are watching the game’s lead character — a small, unnamed boy — through the eyes of some malevolent creature. In those moments where the action heats up and you must flee from danger, your heart pounds and your hands shake around the controller.
INSIDE wants to make you feel uncomfortable. It wants you to squirm and it wants you to find the dark humour in the grim scenarios and locations it presents.
Its premise is quite simple. You are a mysterious boy who appears to be on the run. From whom, it’s not entirely clear. This immediately evokes memories of LIMBO which had a similar “boy lost in the woods” thing going on, its physics-based puzzles further cement this. But then things begin to diverge.
INSIDE uses spots of colour to highlight certain parts of the environment or to otherwise fill you with dread. Red lights blink in the background, flashlights blind you — everything about the presentation is is of an incredible quality. The enemy animations are crafted with obvious care and each have a certain flourish that make them memorable — there was a simple sequence involving an underwater humanoid enemy that freaked me out so much I had to leave the game for a while. The world around you is beautifully crafted and the backgrounds, which are your main conduit for understanding the story) are lovely to look at as they crawl by.
The sound work is similarly brilliant, with echoing clangs and crashes hinting at something larger going on just out sight. The truly remarkable thing about the sound work, however, is its restraint. As I said earlier, the game is filled with long stretches of quiet, broken only by the sound of your character’s shoes on the ground and his grunts as he climbs over objects and makes the world that much more isolating, oppressive and creepy. The quiet is only occasionally broken by white noise, the clanking and rattling of machinery, birds taking flight as you run towards them.
Where INSIDE truly departs from the LIMBO template is in its puzzles. It begins with the same push-pull puzzles that have been a mainstay of the puzzle-platformer genre for years, but begins to experiment wildly and creatively with the form shortly thereafter. Given that the push, pull or climb element is so front-and-centre, you could be forgiven for wondering if the game might get a bit repetitive — the answer is no. Playdead have worked hard to ensure that you’ll rarely encounter the same puzzle twice and they only get meaner the further in you get.
Only rarely does this slow, creeping dread give way to blind, action-packed panic but when it does, you’ll be white-knuckled the entire time. What this results in is a game that has a clear ebb-and-flow, and it works hard never to signpost anything. To play a game in which you genuinely didn’t know what would happen next, moment to moment, was refreshing.
After reaching the game’s absolutely insane conclusion, I could easily imagine writer Laurids Binderup grinning evilly to himself as he planned the ways in which to roll the story out to the player. There’s a surprising amount to take in, enough that it warrants a second or even third playthrough, because so much information is hidden in those gorgeous backgrounds.
Playdead set the bar for what could be done with the puzzle-platformer genre in LIMBO and they’ve raised it again with INSIDE. It is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had playing a game this year, and this is especially surprising given how stripped back it would be considered compared to other indie titles coming out today. It will get under your skin and it will sit within you, hours after playing it, as you turn its dreadful weight over and over in your mind.
Highlights: Incredible design; Clever puzzles; Incredibly moody
Lowlights: I was very sad when it was over
Release date: June 29, 2016 (Xbox One, PC), August 23, 2016 (PS4)
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Windows PC