Though it certainly wasn’t the first, the superlative Limbo helped popularize the fledgling puzzle-platformer genre back when it was originally launched. Blending highly stylized black and white graphics with thoughtful gameplay that challenged both mind and reflexes alike, along with a rich atmosphere and surreal storyline, it was one of the standout releases of 2010. So what do you do for an encore when your debut is so successful? If you’re indie Danish developer Playdead, you keep everything that worked so well the first time (just about everything), sprinkle in a little (very little) colour, submerge a large portion of it in water, add an astounding last-act twist that turns the experience on its head, and call it INSIDE.
If you’ve played Limbo, you already know what to expect of INSIDE. Though not a sequel or related to its predecessor in any way, the main difference between the two games is that the new one isn’t played entirely in silhouette. But while it’s no longer monochromatic, it almost may as well be. This new world is every bit as grim, dark, and hopelessly oppressive, each screen infused with blacks and greys and only the faint tinge of light penetrating the darkness. The young protagonist has a subdued red shirt that helps him (slightly) stand out, and he now has a visible face, though curiously without any distinguishing features, not even the same gleaming white eyes.
If you haven’t played Limbo (and really you should, if you have any degree of dexterity), INSIDE is a (largely) side-scrolling adventure starring a little boy wandering alone through a nightmarish world that seems like a more sinister, empty-shell version of our own. Who the boy is, where he is, and what he’s doing here are left completely to the imagination. The game doesn’t even open with an introduction of any sort. For those used to being told when to start, INSIDE refuses to do even that, simply waiting for you to make the first move and thrusting you into the game proper. It’s abrupt, surprising, and entirely effective. With no context at all, you can only press forward and hope to make sense of it all.
So what is it we’re “inside”? A mystery, that’s what. And while intriguing new details emerge along the way, the completely wordless story only ever raises more questions than it answers. It’s both frustratingly obtuse and deliciously motivational: the more determined you are to piece together the narrative puzzle, the more agonizing its impenetrable secrets become, driving you ever onward. At first there are masked men with trucks and dogs chasing the boy through sparse but aged woods with deadly intent. What horrible thing did this boy do that he’s being hunted so? But beyond a farm littered with stacks of dead pigs are road blockades and long lines of mindless people being herded into trucks. What horrible thing is this boy escaping?
Deeper and deeper into the industrial rabbit hole you go from there, forming new theories only to see them upended by new details that push you down a different path. I debated alien invasion and covert scientific research, government (or corporate) abuse and contagion containment, and never came any closer to knowing for sure. One of those could be right, or all, or parts of some, or none. I’m not convinced even the developers know for sure. At various times, I sensed shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Westworld, War of the Worlds, a little John Carpenter, a whole lot of X-Files, and even a touch of The Ring (in a very roundabout way). The beauty of this thought-provoking narrative approach is that you’ll feel like just a tiny part of a much bigger story going on around you. You’re just trying to survive in your little corner of this tale – and given the number of dead (or horrifically incapacitated) bodies you encounter, you aren’t the first to come this way.
Make no mistake: INSIDE can be deadly at times. Especially for you, who can only lightly run, jump, push/pull and climb (via either keyboard or gamepad) like any young boy. In other words, not very fast, not very far, and not with very much strength. (You can leap from heights that should be perilous, but not TOO high before going splat.) Expect to die in this game. A lot. Like its predecessor, INSIDE tends to rely a little too much on learning-by-dying. More than once my immediate reaction was “how was I supposed to know that?” But allowing this one little design indulgence, the difficulty is very nicely balanced. After a death or two, a strategy will start to form, and after another few fatal failures, you’ll have nailed down the timing and patterns required.
Early on I was pleasantly surprised when, having been tracked down through the forest darkness, my pursuers dropped me with a tranquilizer gun. Sure, it forced me to restart at the fairly recent checkpoint save, but it seemed a fairly peaceful way to subdue a mere child. Wow, was that illusion shattered in a hurry! Before all was said and done, I’d been mauled by savage dogs, electrocuted, drowned, imploded underwater, blown to smithereens, and probably a few other grisly demises I’ve blocked out from trauma. It’s not nearly as gory as it sounds – I’m not sure one can call being sliced ‘n diced by whirling propellers “tasteful”, but it comes pretty close here. More horrifying than terrifying, you’ll definitely fear the cruelty of the dangers, but won’t be sickened by succumbing to them (well, maybe a little).Continued on the next page...