Inside is an experience that pulls audiences into its grasp due to a brutal atmosphere, but that convinces them to stay through the way its gripping gameplay and cruel setting simultaneously augment each other, creating a journey that is equally relentless in wonder and horror
Inside is the second game released by indie development studio Playdead, and the numerous comparisons that can be drawn between it and its predecessor, the 2010 hit Limbo, make it flagrant that – at least as far as its first two efforts are concerned – the company is firmly betting on a very specific line in both artistic and game design terms. Limbo was a dark and ominous walk through sinister environments where gruesome deaths could occur at any second, as the haunting vibe that underlined its cartoonish look exploded to the surface every once in a while via murderous enemies, torrents of blood, torn limbs, and impaled bodies, as if to show its dangerous creepiness was not merely aesthetic, but an integral part of the world it portrayed.
That very same long-winded definition could apply to Inside. The way its setting changes seamlessly – with no pauses, intermissions, or load screens – as players move deeper into the game’s maw makes its journey feel like one big and dramatic quest that can come to a brutal end if a single mistake is made. Furthermore, whatever entity it is the adventure’s protagonist is running from, it sure knows how to use its numerous tentacles quite viciously to enforce the notion that trying to get away from it is, besides hard to accomplish, also frequently met with stomach-turning conclusions that can get quite graphic. Yet, despite the fact it uses many of the same tools employed by Limbo on its way to success, Inside is somewhat distinct from its older brother.
That distinction comes on a few fronts, but first and foremost it can be seen in the game’s visual style. Limbo was all shadows; its hero, the scenarios that surrounded him, the enemies that chased him, and the traps that waited patiently for a piece of his flesh were black blobs standing against a gray background, a decision that served the purpose of keeping the budget low while also giving the game a very unique look. Inside, on the other hand, adds colors, details, and textures to the elements that appear on the screen. That does not mean the darkness is subdued, though: the brightest tone players will come across during their trip is the protagonist’s red shirt, and scenes that instigate positive feelings – such as hope, happiness, or relief – are nowhere to be seen. As it turns out, Inside nevertheless finds a way to evoke a forlorn vibe.
Silence permeates its soundtrack, with looming hums or brief compositions just occasionally showing up to add a bit of flair to the title’s musical component; consequently, most of the time, gamers’ ears will be entirely dedicated to listening to the starring boy’s footsteps and to the noises emitted by the environment around him. In addition, the fact the hero is quite fragile, being immediately killed by anything that hits him, joins forces with Inside’s knack for creating settings that feel permanently hostile to guarantee that players will invariably be on the edge of their seats during the short four hours the journey is bound to last. Finally, although – differently from what happens in Limbo’s art style – the bodies of the game’s characters can be seen with some details, they totally lack facial features, a choice that paints Inside with an uneasy outward layer that is cold, creepy, and inhuman.
All of that kicks in as soon as the game starts. In the middle of a dense forest, the boy crawls out of the vegetation, goes down a slope, and rests on a relatively flat piece of soil. From that moment onwards, gamers will be in control of him, and with no explanation whatsoever about who he is, what is going on, what the protagonist is running from, and what his ultimate goal is, it is their task to – usually in traditional left-to-right fashion – guide him on his mysterious quest, one that smoothly transitions from a forest to a farm, from a farm to a city, and in-between many other environments filled with all sorts of dangers.
Regarding these plot-related questions, Inside is an effort that keeps it all quite close to its chest; so close, in fact, that it does not really disclose any information: not blatantly, at least. True to its mysterious aura, the game is completely silent; relying, instead, on visual cues to tell its tale. As such, those with a liking for endings that dispel curiosity entirely may not find satisfaction in it. After navigating through guards that shoot or unleash dogs as soon as the boy comes into sight, hordes of citizens that move as if hypnotized, distressing encounters with disturbing beings, and unsettling research facilities, players do get a look at what exactly is taking place, and it is indeed quite intriguing. However, rather than answering queries, what they get to see will merely work towards opening the way to vague interpretations, and – to some – such a resolution might not be sufficient.
Still, even if the conclusion of its journey carries a nature that has the potential to make it ambivalent to some eyes, the gameplay of Inside is thoroughly enthralling. In general, the boy does not have many abilities: other than walking, he can merely jump, swim, climb the occasional ladder or rope, and interact with objects, such as activating switches, pulling levers, and moving boxes. If that list sounds predictable, that’s because it absolutely is, for it mentions just about the basic set of moves available to all heroes of the platforming genre, as games of the sort usually find a defining characteristic on a creative extra skill that stands at the very top of that pile. In the case of Inside, though, there is nothing else; that is the completely catalog. Yet, despite all of that simplicity, the quest it contains does not stop being engaging for a single instant.
Part of that achievement has to be attributed to the overbearing atmosphere of the game, because the omnipresent suspense simply makes even the most straightforward of actions feel significant. At an early portion of Inside, for example, the boy walks through a large stretch of land on which absolutely nothing happens; he simply moves untouched from one end of the area to the other. However, the underlying feeling that something may be lurking out there, ready to attack, turns what would otherwise be a peaceful stroll into the equivalent of moving through a minefield. Meanwhile, another piece of the laurels have to be directed at Inside’s gorgeous animation, as even the most uncomplicated of tasks, such as pulling the planks that are keeping a door shut or squeezing through a tight space, have the boy making motions that simultaneously capture a huge physical struggle and an inherent frailty, which become even more apparent in the harsh conditions of Inside’s world.
Above it all, though, the gameplay of Inside is gripping due to the simplest of reasons: the fact that it is a very well-designed adventure. The segments that lean towards action, like when the boy is trying to hide from armed patrols or quickly escape from incoming violent dogs, are heart-pounding and demand fast reasoning. The moments when it embraces horror are utterly disturbing, as the game is unafraid to unleash a small but potent arsenal of shocking imagery and terrifying foes. At last, the sections when it embraces a combination of platforming and puzzle-solving succeed in being smart and fresh without ever stretching out too much, as they are – for the most part – fully contained within the length of a screen.
Even if it tends to mix and match those three currents to form a very varied fabric, Inside is more intensely dedicated to its puzzle-solving vein, and the way it manages to do so much with so little is truly impressive. With the rather mundane box-pushing, lever-pulling, and switch-pressing routine alone, it already goes pretty far, but it truly unearths magic in the boy’s ability to control the zombie-like human beings that populate many of the game’s settings. Whether via a handful of special helmets that let him move the poor creatures from a distance or by simply walking close to them so that they follow him, the unlikely protagonist can be aided by them in a few ways, as they can help the boy move objects or open doors that are extra heavy, propel him to great heights, or even break his fall when necessary.
The obstacles of Inside, therefore, come in a level of variety and quality that are already enough to put it a few steps above Limbo in terms of sheer quality. The main reason why it is able to surpass its predecessor, though, is related to its general design. The main downfall of Limbo was its habit of putting players in situations from which they could not possibly escape without previous knowledge of what was about to happen; in other words, it had the habit of degenerating into unfair moments when repeated trial and error was needed to overcome a hurdle. Inside achieves balance and avoids frustration by learning from that mistake, and it does so in two manners.
Firstly, because even though some of its opportunities for escape are too tight for comfort, they are always fair, meaning that if players are able to reason quickly enough, they can get away successfully without failing even once. Secondly, because its checkpoints are extremely well-placed, as all the small challenges that make up the entirety of its journey are preceded by restore points to which the character will be returned immediately in case he dies.
With so much excellence coming from so many different areas, the main complaint gamers may have regarding Inside will probably have to do with its length, as even by going through it on a relaxed pace, one is unlikely to spend more than four hours to reach the end of the adventure. The title, however, has a solution to that problem, and it comes in the shape of fourteen orbs that are hidden in its world.
If all of them are destroyed, the boy will gain access to a bunker – which is also smartly tucked away – leading to an alternative ending that, very much like the standard conclusion, opens the way to a myriad of interpretations about the meaning and substance of the game’s quiet narrative. And although Inside does not provide much in terms of clues about the locations of the orbs, hence forcing players to simply explore its world as thoroughly as possible, it is nice enough to let them freely warp to dozens of points in its map, which goes a long way towards facilitating the task for those who are willing to tackle it.
As a whole, Inside may be a game that undeniably chooses to walk quite closely to its predecessor, Limbo; after all, it uses many of the same strategies to muster a level of tension and darkness that is almost suffocating. At the same time, however, it is able to move beyond it quite smartly, whether it is in the elimination of harmful level-design vices, in the expansion of its puzzle-solving component, or in the creation of an intriguing setting whose imposing questions are given answers that are haunting in their vagueness. Thanks to those qualities, Inside succeeds in being an experience that pulls audiences into its grasp due to a brutal atmosphere, but that convinces them to stay through the way its gripping gameplay and cruel setting are linked by an immaculate synergy that works towards simultaneously augmenting the impact each one of them has, creating a journey that is equally relentless in wonder and horror.