- Format: Xbox One (version reviewed), PC
- Unleashed: Out Now
- Publisher: Playdead
- Developer: Playdead
- Players: 1
- Site: http://www.playdead.com/games/inside/
- Game code shared from freelance work
2010’s Limbo instantly became – and remains – one of the industry’s favourite indie darlings. Its distinctive monochrome aesthetic, combined with its determination to be Deep and Abstract and Moody, means (to some) that it is objectively Art. Developers Playdead have now released their second game, Inside, doubtless hoping to inspire their audience once more. But which wins here: style, or substance?
It’s not fashionable to say so, but Limbo is not a perfect game. It is clever, and it is enjoyable, but the controls are a little too fiddly for certain platforming sections. Also, while it’s one of the most famous proponents of ‘don’t treat the player like an idiot’ gameplay and presentation, there are a few too many times where gameplay grinds to a halt while you try to figure out what, exactly, you are expected to do. Inside follows closely in Limbo’s footsteps, but at a steadier pace and with a more confident gait.
Like Limbo, Inside casts you as a nameless young boy. Like Limbo, the situation you are in is slowly, and incompletely, explained to you purely through your environment. Like Limbo, there are no tutorials or button prompts whatsoever; and, like Limbo, the graphics are dark and dank throughout. Inside differs on each point to an extent however and, importantly, always for the better. The graphics for example, while murky, carry a lot of detail; and though it’s very much a matter of taste, we’d say that it’s a much more pleasing and effective aesthetic than Limbo’s.
It’s extremely difficult to discuss Inside’s story without spoiling the experience on various levels. Due to the design which weaves narration and gameplay together until they are almost indistinguishable, what you do and what you understand about what’s going on are interchangeable. What can be safely said without divulging detail is that, as previously stated, there’s absolutely no hand-holding here. The level design in this respect is absolutely superb, though – much better than that seen in Limbo – so that you’ll never be stuck for long. For example, it’s true that if something can be moved or held, it definitely serves a purpose. It’s not always immediately obvious what you can interact with, though; that’s for you to uncover where appropriate. Needless to say, a bit of brainpower is usually needed to work out exactly how to use said object, too.
It’s not a long game – just three and a half hours or so – but the experience remains fresh throughout partly because of this. It’s clear from the opening moments that the boy you’re controlling is trying to escape, but from who and/or what is a mystery. As the details surrounding his situation slowly become clearer, this leads to wilder and more unexpected – and therefore more interesting – gameplay elements being introduced. Tight controls married to puzzles of ultimately sound logic keep you engaged throughout. We finished the game in two solid, fascinating sessions.
This is a game dripping with top-quality atmosphere. There’s a constant background of menace, with fear bursting to the fore in a few surprisingly creepy sections. The exception is the final leg of the game where… well now, that really would be telling. The thing is though that, although Inside is enormously successful in its sense of immersion, its storytelling leaves something to be desired. When the credits roll, you’re left with an incomplete picture. That’s entirely intentional, but some of the missing pieces are a little too big and a little too important. One can’t help but feel that this could be a lazy way to avoid inconsistencies and plot holes being highlighted. Or – even worse, perhaps – an art design choice for art design’s sake.
There are a series of strange mechanical spheres hidden throughout the game. Finding and interacting with them all allows access to a final hidden area, and a secret ending – which, predictably perhaps, still falls a long way short from a satisfying conclusion. The internet is already crammed full of theories about both endings and the story as a whole; but this state of affairs says more about (some of) the theorists’ desperation to appear intelligent than the quality of Inside’s storytelling. Quite the opposite, in fact. Had concrete clues been laid with skill, one detailed plotline would by now be repeated across the net, and accepted as the definitive answer.
We don’t want to emphasise our negativity here. Inside is great fun to play, and an excellent example of brilliant level design from skilled craftsmen. There’s plenty to stop and take note of in the background too, to help form your own opinion of exactly what’s going on. People who feel inexplicably guilty for enjoying videogames will eagerly hold this up as another example “proving” that games are art. The rest of us can concentrate on enjoying it while we play.