“Shock & Awe”
Format: PC, Xbox One (reviewed)
Released: June 29, 2016
Inside is unlike anything I’ve ever played. The highly anticipated follow-up to 2010’s excellent Limbo, created by the now established developer Playdead, is a smart, subtle, and ultimately superb game that learns from its spiritual predecessor’s strengths and weaknesses. While the comparisons between Inside and Limbo are easy to make–as both titles share a great deal of polish, emphasis on atmosphere, and nonverbal storytelling–Inside is a different, more complex beast entirely. The tenants of Limbo’s magnificence are all here; just better.
Clever, if not somewhat straightforward puzzles, place agency in the hands of the player, while the surrounding environments sing in atmospheric hymns that deepen the richness of the world. Inside is a beautifully hypnotic and melancholy venture into a place seeping with unanswered questions that beg tangible explanation. While those answers might not be at all what you were expecting, they’re certainly of thought-provoking consequence and bona fide uniqueness. Playdead’s latest is a confident, peculiar piece of distinct art, coming with few strings attached to its spectacular highs. For as minimal and dank as Inside’s drab, achromatic interiors are, it’s a game that ironically succeeds on almost every level with flying colors.On the surface, Inside encompasses the mechanical makings of a physics-based, 2D puzzle-platformer. Much like its predecessor, you’ll find yourself exploring evocative environments with a creepy presentation, categorically filing the game under the umbrella of platformers centered around solving puzzles. However, when looking deeper than simply its immediate visual layout, Inside is concealing one of the finer experiences to be had this entire generation, regardless of genres. Playdead has crafted a disturbing, intellectually-stimulating experience seemingly shielded by an inviting presentation rooted deeply in mystery. Landing its hooks in with breadcrumbs of haunting, mysterious word-building and cinching down with sustained tension, Inside managed to keep me engaged and invested from start to finish. Placed in the shoes of an unnamed young boy and given only two inputs of control: interact (X) and jump (A), the story nudges the player along at a brisk pace with environmental hints. While the whole process may sound simple, Inside is never too far away from revealing one of its many complexities. From the smallest of details within the animation, to the unexplained, yet masterfully teased state of the world, Inside never ceased to amaze me with a constantly creeping stream of surprises.
INSIDE IS IMMERSIVE, UNNERVING, AND PERPLEXING ALL AT THE SAME TIME
Stylistically, Inside is a triumph. For being visually confined to the 2D puzzle-platforming genre, its a stunning looking game, conveying immense care and detail in every meticulously crafted frame. The sheer amount of polish crammed into each sequence is unbelievable, and while the apparent lack of vibrant colors sometimes seems overly lifeless, it lends to the game’s masterful tone. Shifting from beautiful to horrifying in an instant, each scene is emphasized by astounding animation, atmospheric lighting, and a chilling array of faint musical cues and environmental sound design. The entire process feels like an elaborate nightmare, invasively feeding off of your fears and thoughts about humanity. As its deep, mature, and painstakingly hidden themes begin to reveal themselves in progressively creative ways, Inside achieves a level of stark beauty conceived by pure unfettered artistry. I also found myself consistently taken aback at the phenomenal camera work prevalent throughout the entire game’s duration. Not a single frame went by where I wasn’t transfixed on the screen, admiring how the cinematography played with foreground, lighting, and representation of scale. It’s in these moments where the six year development cycle shines brightest, displaying the commendable attention to detail and stunning level of aesthetic polish as the camera swings from one side of the screen to the other.Even days removed from completing my first playthrough of Inside’s short, yet extremely satisfying adventure, I’m still reeling from where its incredible finale left me. For reasons I’ll avoid spoiling here, Inside’s last chapter is full of some of the zaniest, most disturbing, and original moments I’ve ever witnessed in a video game. Taking the project places you’d never of guessed and concluding with an impactful, if not dumbfounding resolve, the ending section of Inside is a truly bizarre marvel. Though you may leave still yearning for answers, the nature of the story rides on reveling within the uncomfortable corners of the unknown. While functionally a platformer, almost all of Inside’s various elements act as a backdrop to the title’s eerily overbearing atmosphere and deeply riveting use of nonverbal storytelling. For an experience void of any spoken dialogue, Inside magnificently figures out a way to say more than most 100 hour RPGs. There’s a genuinely moving and acutely disturbing tale here, comprised of moral dilemmas and provocative questions of existence to be deciphered.
PUZZLES ACT AS A BACKDROP TO THE SHOCKING, YET SUBTLE NARRATIVE
In immediate hindsight, Inside is one of the few games in recent memory that didn’t leave much more to be desired following the roll of its credits. Playdead’s 2D platformer is a lean, yet incredibly robust and polished experience that proves less can be more. Never once did I find myself stuck or considerably challenged for a substantial period of time, for Inside funneled me through its just over three hour runtime at a consistent, swift speed. The redeeming trade off for this lack of notable opposition, would be the exemplary pace allowed due to the graspability of each new obstacle set in your path. It’s not as if the game’s puzzles are dumbed down to simply cater to a more accessible audience, as there’s narrative and design justification to why they’re that way. Inside is an extremely logical game that abides by a concrete set of rules, while also managing to always have something new to introduce and subtly teach as it goes. Upon further, more thoughtful reflection, it became clear to me that the ease of Inside’s puzzles aren’t actual a problem as much as they’re a playable example of balance and slenderness. There are few games I’ve ever played that have been able to present a way of challenging the player with the clinical efficiency as effective as the one Inside hangs it hat on.Conclusion: Inside feels like the kind of game we’re only given two or three times a generation. It’s a unique project dripping with atmospheric style and thought-provoking messages that will surely provoke passionate discussion regarding its true intentions. While I wish some of the puzzles called for a bit more involvement on the player’s part, it was a rather insubstantial missed opportunity when looking at what the absence of extensive challenge allowed. Due to Inside’s easily understandable puzzles, the game is able to maintain an immaculate pace, ripe with shocking twists and impactful subtlety. Within Inside’s prolonged moments of stirring, thoughtful silence, Playdead’s follow-up to their impressive debut title achieves a level of profoundness not seen in its respective genre too often. Most importantly, Inside is a living and expressive exercise in what refinement can accomplish. Building off what made Limbo special, Inside embraces and strengthens the highs of what preceded it. Outstanding sound design, phenomenal art direction, and an overall haunting narrative give Inside the necessary components to surpass its stellar predecessor in almost every way imaginable. Suffice it to say, Inside is a must play and one of the finest modern examples that video games are art.