1984: The Game
HIGH Discovering the experiment.
LOW Dying literally forty times in a 3.5-hour game.
WTF Those creepy water-baby monsters…
Playdead is a trendsetter. Although its critically-acclaimed title Limbo didn’t launch until 2010, it helped set the stage and legitimized the presence of independent games on consoles. After six years of downtime, Playdead’s followup to that seminal work is here.
Inside can best be described as a spiritual successor to Limbo, and players who’ve spent time with that shadowy adventure will feel immediately comfortable. Like its predecessor, the environments are presented in 3D, but sidescrolling movement and puzzle-platforming are what it offers. And, also like Limbo, several puzzles and chase sequences can end in quick, brutal deaths for the player if any mistakes are made.
At the start of the adventure, a young boy jumps out of some bushes. He’s on the run from something when players take control. Pretty soon some bad guys—a gang dressed in black with creepy white masks—appear to chase him. Inside doesn’t feature dialogue or onscreen text to guide players along. All story and context is given through environmental design, player progression, and observing NPC behavior. As players continue on, they pick up bits of info about what the gang is doing, for whom they work, and what kind of dystopian world the boy inhabits. That’s all I’ll share for now, because although it feels cliché to say it, Inside is one of those games players should know as little as possible about before going in.
However, now that I’ve finished Inside, I can say that players will either love or hate this brand of storytelling. Those looking for concrete, crystal-clear narrative won’t find it here, and might be quite bewildered by the time credits roll. Me? I’m a sucker for the sort of ambiguous, open-ended storytelling Playdead offers, so this is my jam, and Inside is more about the experience than the victory. I was happy to let the muted visuals and ambient music lead me through from beginning to end. Bleak is the best word I can use to describe it, but Playdead doesn’t sacrifice beauty to craft its world no matter how depressing it seems. Inside is constantly fascinating to view and listen to, and I rarely disengaged.
The few times that I did disengage? They were due to my progress halting abruptly thanks to the easy deaths that come form failing traps and puzzles. Inside is the kind of game that wants to challenge players regularly, and although I found it more accessible and compelling than Limbo, I was frustrated from time to time. For example, the men in masks sometimes appear in the background and give chase. In these situations, the game doesn’t always make it clear if it wants players to run, hide, or perform some kind of contextual escape. Choose the wrong option and the boy dies in a split second. I also died repeatedly in areas that featured timing puzzles and, oddly enough, rhythmic movement puzzles.
Of course, Inside would lose some of its allure if players were able to run through it without having to work for its suspenseful payoffs, but there’s a line between challenging and unfair. It seems to me that Playdead intentionally blurs that line so that the player can learn from it, but the ever-so-slight waft of pretentiousness hit my nostrils when faced with cheap losses.
In regard to these deaths, it’s worth noting that (also like Limbo) most of the death scenes are graphic and disturbing. I’m the guy who’s quick to roll his eyes when someone complains about violence in games, but seeing my young boy protagonist viciously ravaged by three attack dogs after botching a chase was enough to make my stomach turn. In moments such as these, Inside reminds players that despite its slightly cartoonish visuals, the subject matter is dark, oppressive and meant to be taken seriously.
Although I’ve qualified every comment on Inside by saying “It’s like Limbo, but…”, I want to be clear that Inside has its own identity. Where Limbo was black and white and featured a predominantly forest-like, primal environment, Inside plays closer to science fiction. Several environments are indoors, futuristic technology is often present, and it has a beautifully nuanced color palette. Mechanically, it also presents different ideas and a more compelling narrative, and given the long span of time that’s passed since Limbo, it never feels like a copied-and-pasted experience.
I adored Inside, and it’s been churning in my head for days after I finished it. Its vividly depressing, yet wondrous world proves that Playdead is still the master of atmospheric side-scrolling platformers, and it quickly became one of the best games I’ve played this year. Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Disclosures: This game is developed by Playdead and published by Playdead. It’s available on Xbox One (June 29) and PC (July 7). This copy of the game was obtained via publisher code and reviewed on the Xbox One. Approximately 5.5 hours were devoted to the single-player mode, and it was completed 2 times. No multiplayer modes exist.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains blood, gore and violence. The protagonist is a small boy, and he can be killed by gunfire, drowning, falling to his death, being torn apart by dogs and more. The sequences shown upon death are sometimes unnecessarily brutal and stomach-turning.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Inside contains no dialogue, so no subtitles are necessary. The music is ambient and quiet throughout. A few puzzles contain significant audio cues to help complete them, and failure equals a death and respawn. These moments aren’t impossible with no sound, but will be much more difficult without it. Due to the overall quiet ambience of the sound design, I’d recommend wearing headphones no matter how keen a player’s hearing is.
Remappable Controls: Vibration can be toggled on or off. The only movements are running side-to-side, climbing, jumping and pulling items around, so only two buttons and one joystick are used. However simple the controls, no buttons can be remapped.
Colorblind Modes: No colorblind options are available.
He has a Bachelor’s in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri. He also has a personal blog (who doesn’t?) that he updates sporadically. He’s been writing for GameCritics.com since 2012 and has appeared on the podcast a handful of times.
If you want to dive deep, type his name into a Google Image search and you’ll most likely be treated to a scandalous picture of his Deus Ex tattoo. He also has a music background from 7 years on high school and college drumlines, and last but not least he’s dabbled in parkour. Don’t let those activities fool you about his ambition – he’s in his late 20s and still has no idea what he wants to do with his life.