Themes from Playdead’s Inside and Limbo are mentioned below, and may be considered spoilers.
I recommend playing both games entirely before reading.
As the credits flashed onscreen after I finished Playdead’s new, haunting adventure, I put my head in my hands and thought,
“What just happened?”
Inside, Playdead’s latest since the critically-acclaimed Limbo, is one of those beautifully disturbing games that raises more questions by the end than it answers along the way… and that’s OK. If ten people played through it and were immediately asked “What did you just play?” they’d probably come up with thirty different answers, and each of those descriptions would probably say more about the person answering than the game itself.
Inside plays exactly like Limbo. The world is presented in 3D, but controls as a side-scroller. Only two face buttons are necessary for jumping and grabbing movable objects. It begins with a young boy sliding out of some bushes, and he appears to be on the run from someone. As players take control, it’s not long before sinister figures in white masks cross paths with the boy, and he must run and hide or he’ll face a quick and brutal death.
To me, Inside dips a toe into several topics such as strict military states, mind control, cloning, sacrifice, artificial intelligence, pushing scientific experimentation to its limits, and many others. Although it doesn’t outright say anything about any of those topics, I still sat stunned upon finishing with lots of feels churning in my head—I was able to both “get it” and still not understand what I’d just experienced. Inside takes some unpacking, to say the least.
I realized one thing for sure though—games with abstract stories always leave the biggest impressions on me. Playdead’s earlier game, Limbo, was abstract in exactly the same ways. In fact, Limbo shipped with only a single sentence describing the setup.
“Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.” Boom. That’s it.
Is his sister alive? Is he traveling through Hell to find her? Is he stuck in Purgatory? Is he even alive? These are all questions the player might ask and not have an answer to when the credits roll.
Inside does the same thing. Its tagline—”Hunted and alone, a boy finds himself drawn into the center of a dark project” is all players get, and neither Limbo nor Inside‘s taglines are presented in the games themselves. I had to look them up online to find them. The games want players to know as little as possible going in. As further proof, neither of the games feature a single line of dialogue, yet they have so much to say. I’ll most likely be thinking about Inside for weeks as I ponder different controversies the game pokes at.
On the opposite end of the spectrum with triple-A games, I recently played Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. It features hundreds (maybe thousands?) of lines of dialogue and cut-scenes between each mission. A lot of effort was put into making characters believable and full of personality, but the story and characters in Mirror’s Edge are the weakest aspect. New characters, motivations and cut-scenes are constantly being shoved down the player’s throat when, most likely, players are just here to run and climb in a beautiful city. I know I didn’t give a shit about the story, and by the time the credits rolled, I was glad I didn’t have to sit through any of the below-average writing anymore. I like Catalyst an awful lot, but the story is garbage.
I can’t help but smirk when I think that triple-A developers hire staff rooms full of writers (sometimes even successful Hollywood vets) to make players passionate about breezing through a game and give meaning to the waves of enemies they’re murdering. Then I look at Playdead, which has crafted two of the most haunting and memorable games I’ve ever played and neither feature a single line of dialogue. But, I guess that reflects triple-A development in a nutshell—it’s not generally known for subtlety. In this case, leave it to independent developers to pick up the slack.