SPOILER FREE (I promise)
Inside at its core is a relatively straightforward 3-4 hour long indie 2D side-scroller with a heavy emphasis on physics-based puzzling. I wouldn’t blame you if you were to look at that description and find it hard to get terribly excited. But then again by now you may have heard that Playdead’s long awaited follow up to the beloved Limbo is being hailed as the latest indie “masterpiece”.
You may well have forgotten that it was even in development as I did until I began sifting through the onslaught of praise it received post embargo. I don’t blame myself for forgetting about Inside prior to a few days ago. After all, Playdead appears to be a developer with seemingly no interest in reminding us that their game exists every five minutes, opting to go with next to no press coverage or self-promotion via Twitter and other social media outlets. Perhaps they are that way inclined so as to keep a certain level of mystique around themselves and their games or perhaps they just can’t be bothered with it all. Either way, it’s refreshing. It shows a confidence that obviously not all developers can afford to flaunt but in this case I feel it highlights an awareness of the incredible quality of their work.
Inside begins in much the same way that Limbo did. You’re a young boy on his own clearly in search of something in a place where he shouldn’t be. That’s all I have to say on the story. What is immediately apparent beyond the aforementioned similarity to the introduction of Limbo is the six years’ worth of polish clearly evident on screen. Everything from the oppressive opening environments to the subtle animations of the characters feels polished to perfection. It instantly achieves an aesthetic that is both beautiful and slightly off. Clearly this is a world where the sun rarely shines; its inhabitants engulfed by an ever-present gloom.
Limbo’s world felt very much confined to what the player could see. Despite the backgrounds attempting to give the illusion of depth, I never quite got a sense that there was much beyond the horizon. However, the world of Inside clearly reaches far beyond the two-dimensional plane that your character exists within. A broad range of well-implemented sound effects also did wonders for the game’s ability to immerse the player within this not so delightful space. And the added congruency of the environments (which Limbo purposefully avoided) certainly helped to make every intimidating concrete structure and dilapidated barn feel real and pre-existing within that world.
Its level of restraint early on and into the mid-game is admirable. Even in its weirdest or most violent moments it still doesn’t feel annoyingly showy or calculated to shock in a way that feels forced. That being said there are multiple events later on that you should absolutely not have spoiled for you, the pure WTF factor of the ending is worth the price of admission alone. It’s telling of the developer’s ability to inspire thought and discussion that I’ve seen people arguing over how Inside is a game about everything from animal cruelty to global warming.
The pace builds nicely from the onset with puzzles feeling naturally inbuilt within the environment rather than some forced hurdle that was implemented because there needed to be a puzzle. There are few solutions that will require more than a matter of minutes to deduce but this comfortable level of difficulty means that the game never grinds to a halt. It achieves a constant intensity even in its quieter moments as the pressure slowly mounts until the point when you’re forced to run. That being said you could argue that the puzzles here aren’t a radical enough departure from the familiar gameplay beats of Limbo and those who detest the “gotcha” style instant death traps of Limbo will be saddened to see their return.
So despite my love for the game I can still recognize where it may falter for some. As I said it certainly won’t revolutionize the 2D puzzler, nor does it offer anything startlingly new in the mechanics of its environmental puzzles. You could also argue that it does feel like a walking simulator done right rather than a typical puzzle game even if I fail to see that as a negative. And if you’re the type of person who regards ambiguity as lazy storytelling then you’re certain to feel short-changed by the lack of answers that the game readily presents. It’s sure to become a point of discussion in the “indie darling” debate for these reasons.
But despite this, I can’t deny the way Inside made me feel at the time of playing it and the way it still makes me feel whenever I think about it, which is a lot. It boasts a clarity of vision in terms of world design and tone that too few games ever achieve. With more standout moments in its 4 hours than most can muster in 40 and an ending that is bound to engrave itself on your mind whether you want it to or not.
So for me, Inside was as good a gaming experience as one could hope for and an indie genuinely capable of standing toe to toe with AAA heavy hitters as one of the most refined and fully realized games of this generation so far.