When a game leaves your jaw dropped in amazement by the time its credits roll, it’s usually a sign of a bold new entrant to the medium, someone pushing games in new directions, doing something that’s just never been done before. By contrast, Inside is more refinement than revolution, the sign of a developer sticking to their strengths and working on their weaknesses, producing a game that’s instantly familiar and yet unmistakably better.
Inside is the second game from Playdead, whose Limbo remains one of the finest games to emerge from the early boom of console indie side-scrollers. Anyone who played Limbo will immediately find themselves in similar territory here. There’s the same 2D puzzle-platforming, minimalist controls, and muted color scheme. We even once again open simply, a small boy in a forest, nowhere to go but right.
The same balance of meditative puzzle-solving and tense, breathless chases is here as you work through the forest and into an industrial complex and… to say any more would be to say too much. The secrets of Inside are best experienced firsthand, the slow unravelling of its themes and plot too striking to dare summarise. It all builds to a final act so unbelievably, breathtakingly insane that I’m glad it falls squarely in spoiler territory — I don’t think I’d have the words anyway.
The breakneck escape from a giant, silhouetted spider was always the clear highlight of Limbo, a game that nailed its astonishing opening hour and then found itself with nowhere to go. By contrast Inside doles out its finest moments gradually — many of them capturing that same intense rush of terror. Early escapes from snarling dogs were enough to get my heart pounding, but it was a persistent enemy in the game’s middle hour that really got to me, filling me with a kind of shaking, pounding fear that I wasn’t entirely prepared for.
I want to talk about the game’s expansive, ambitious themes. I want to talk about its imagery, moments and visuals that will stick with me. I want to talk about the points that made me feel sick to my stomach, that made me question everything I was doing, and why, that made me look at my juvenile avatar in a stark new light. But I can’t, because I worry that to do so would spoil their fragile magic, and I wouldn’t do that to you guys. It just ain’t right.
So let’s talk mundanities like ‘gameplay’ and ‘difficulty’ and ‘length’. My playthrough clocked in around three hours, which seems in line with most. Some puzzles are simple, some challenging, but none seem unfair. All are careful to rely on the game’s simple, established interactions: grabbing, pulling, pushing, jumping, and a small set of interactive objects. As in Limbo, failure usually results in death — grisly, grimy, gory death, at that. But checkpoints are frequent, and so gameplay echoes Playdead’s own development from game to game; it’s a process of constant refinement and iteration, each attempt bringing you one step closer to understanding, to progress. Mechanical skill is rarely essential: once you understand how to solve a problem, executing it won’t often be what gets in the way.
I don’t know if Inside is a Great Game. It’s slight — both in length and in narrative — and it’s themes, while fascinating, are occasionally maddeningly opaque. But it left me thrilled, scared, horrified, saddened, confused, and elated over its three hours, and I can’t think of a much stronger recommendation than that.