Inside is a game of close calls. Every puzzle. Every moment is one that you will escape by the skin of your teeth. If at all. It is also a game that asks some really big questions.
The opening moments of Inside remind of me of 2016’s Doom. I know, I know. It is just that both games start out so strong. No tutorials. There does not need to be. Not even a dedicated title screen, really. Simply press a button and jump into the action.
The game opens in a dark wooded area with only the light of the moon showing the path onwards. We see our boy (who I will hereby refer to as “boy”) skid down a rocky, root-strewn ditch, clearly evading someone. There are only two commands: Jump and grab. The movement is fluid and really sells the idea that, while this boy is a rough and tumble character, he is also human and fragile. His movements are uncertain, slightly off balance.
The game gives an almost 80s-Spielberg-ET-feel to start, with a boy evading some secret, shadowy organization. Of course, that whimsical experience is shattered almost immediately upon encountering your first Game Over. Death is quick and brutal in this game, made even more so by the reality that you are playing as a child. Puzzles gradually increase in complexity as the game goes on, but they never feel unfair. Sure, I may have hit some roadblocks more than once, but it is so gratifying when things “click” and it all becomes clear. Even tired puzzle tropes reveal themselves in disturbing new ways. It is a new experience entirely when the trusty “crate pushing” puzzle uses a submissive animal. The way it slumped over as I pushed.
By curiosity, I grabbed the animal’s tail and pulled it off. I felt genuinely terrible as the game does a nice job of conveying a struggle when pushing and pulling objects. Also. many of the puzzles have to do with controlling a hive-mind of people to help you from point A to point B, some going to Inception levels of complexity. The puzzles are interwoven into the narrative in a very effective way. As I was solving a number of puzzles, I questioned the morality of using these people for what I ultimately want.
This game is a true spiritual successor to Limbo. The nebulous nature of the story, the movements, the puzzles: everything speaks to the indie darling of 2010. However, this is a bolder game. One that goes to the kind of places that Limbo merely hinted. The story is subtle, and told in the background. In the way hordes of people march on the street as the boy is running from building to building. In the way our surroundings are decrepit and empty. We aren’t told the story in “Inside”: We are taking part in it.
The sound in the game is used as a subtle tool. The drips of water, the pitter patter of feet on factory roofs. It gives a sense of realism to the experience. Usually providing an undercurrent of dread to the surreal landscapes, but occasionally stopping altogether, punching a pivotal moment. The sound increases in intensity as enemies come closer, making those close calls even more nail-biting.
Inside is a game steeped in mystery and it definitely should stay that way. Describing the plot would give away more than a few surprises. It is best to jump into the game knowing as little as possible. My advice is to play this as soon as you can; you do not want the twists and turns of this game spoiled folks.
If I have any complaints, one would be that a few of the puzzles feel a bit too trial and error. It felt as if I was meant to die a few times before I was truly allowed to take a look at a puzzle. Not so much a flaw as a design choice that could feel slightly frustrating. However, the puzzles are so well designed that frustration is fleeting.
The other issue… [SPOILERS]
Still reading? Great. Beyond the occasional trial and error, I want to talk about the latter half of the game. That part. It was amazing. It goes to such unexpected places and had my jaw on the floor. Now, I know I may be in the minority, but I felt so disappointed at where the credits decided to roll. As our beaten down monstrosity lays on the ground, I was glued to the screen, waiting for movement, or some kind of indicator that it was dead. Something. But, nothing. Credits.
I know this is an artistic choice, and that’s fair. However, given the absolutely amazing narrative Inside paints during its 3-hour playtime, I wanted more explanation. Who was the girl? Why did she help you? Why is there a blob of people? Was it a mistake? Open ended conclusions can make for stimulating conversation, but in this case, I wanted the developers to be bold and give a definitive ending. Whatever that may have been. It is still a powerful, thought-provoking ending, albeit a confusing one.
Those small caveats aside, this is an astounding game. Each scene lovingly crafted. Every moment filled to the brim with hold-your-breath intensity. It is a short ride to be sure, and pricey for 3 hours of playtime, but make no mistake: You are paying for quality and detail and masterful game design. 2D platforming at its best. Inside feels like the best example of what’s possible for indie games on next-gen platforms. Not in the gameplay, but in the detail. The way subtle lighting illuminates things. The movement of characters and the way they interact with the world. This is what indie games look like on next gen, and if Inside can be considered the starting point, I’m fascinated to see what’s next.