Adventure Gamers Awards
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).
As I can sense some adventure gamers having anxiety attacks at the mere thought of such violent gameplay, what makes INSIDE stand out from so many action games is the “puzzle” part of the puzzle-platforming equation. Yes, some decent hand-eye coordination is necessary to guide your young charge to safety, but not as much as you might think (nor as much as Limbo, if memory serves me correctly). Several times I got caught in a scenario that I assumed came down to split-second reaction times, only to clue in eventually that the secret was being smarter, not faster. Only by looking at the same sequences though a puzzle lens did a solution reveal itself, at which point performing them was usually very manageable. Level of difficulty is always going to be subjective, but it seems clear that INSIDE was very thoroughly play-tested to find the happy medium.
Some of the dangers include explosive concussion blasts you must shield yourself from, ferocious canines, flying robot sentries on patrol, and bizarre mer-things to outwit (or outswim). But many obstacles don’t involve hazards at all. In fact, long stretches of the game can be played at your leisure, effectively giving you a chance to regroup before the tension ratchets up again. In these times you’ll attempt to access high spaces with propulsion blocks, raise and lower water levels, trigger multiple pressure switches at once, or ram holes in walls too thick to break by hand. Some make excellent use of the game’s physics engine, employing weight, speed, and momentum in integral ways. One clever addition is a kind of remote control for soulless people who won’t move without someone controlling them. Once under your guidance, they will mimic your movements as closely as circumstances allow, forcing you to plan your tactics accordingly. Then there’s one outstanding sequence involving anti-gravity rooms that are half-filled with water.
Certain obstacles are self-contained as the game moves along quite linearly at times. But some stages are grander in design, involving multiple levels that can be traversed vertically as well. Many scenes I passed through just once, while one sequence with a clever broad objective took me a full half-hour to complete, backtracking through its central elevator hub more than once. There is also a significant amount of time spent underwater in a small submersible. Given your limited physical abilities, this adds valuable variety, and descending through eerie mechanical structures (a giant submarine? Deep sea facility? More questions!) to the murky depths with only a small headlight to illuminate the way is wonderfully creepy, especially as you aren’t always alone down there. My only small frustration came in not realizing what the submersible could do at first, but the lack of instruction is entirely in keeping with the game’s design philosophy.
But all that is nothing compared to a final act twist that I never saw coming and enjoyed immensely. For those who resent even knowing a twist awaits, trust me that this “spoiler” won’t ruin your experience in the slightest. I can’t give anything away, of course, but after three hours the game was starting to feel like it had shown all its cards and was beginning to repeat itself, only to pull the rug completely out from under your feet and turn you loose in a most unexpected direction. After holding your breath, both figuratively and literally through long underwater sojourns (wait too long, and you’ll begin to convulse), this lengthy ending sequence was such a welcome gulp of fresh air that it was practically intoxicating. I felt downright giddy playing through the final hour, so amused and disgusted and deliriously thrilled at what I was seeing.
For a game that’s all about the “experience,” production values don’t seem nearly as important, but INSIDE is no slouch in that department either. While not exactly minimalist, the graphics show just enough detail and lighting to thoroughly immerse you into the mystery, and yet never fully penetrate the darkness. From the opening forest whose massive trees are so big that even raindrops barely manage to filter through; across rural fields of broken-down cars, abandoned train tunnels, empty warehouses and factory rooftops; and ever down, down, down into the dimly-lit waters below, the artists show you only what they want you to see through the shadows, and nothing more. Where animation exists, it’s impressively fluid, like the boy wading through a waist-high pond with searchlights in the background, crumbling walkway railings snapping off in your grasp, or flashlights bobbing behind you during a mad dash for freedom.
The sound, too, is kept to a minimum. Often there is no music, and when played it consists mainly of haunting tones to establish atmosphere. Otherwise there’s only silence pierced by the boy’s footfall and tired panting, the clinking of chains, the heaving and groaning of unsettled machinery (or is it something else?), or explosions in the distance reminding you that no matter how bleak your situation is, the conditions elsewhere are even worse.
For all the questions that INSIDE raises and refuses to answer, there is no question at all about its quality. If your reflexes can handle a little coordination with your puzzle-solving, and you don’t mind stories that refuse to be tied up in neat little bows of exposition, there is so much to appreciate here. The gameplay is simple to grasp and yet difficult enough to master – without ever getting so challenging that it becomes frustrating – while the dark but slick aesthetic perfectly suits the grim atmosphere of a little boy on the run amidst a world of unexplained hurt. And what an ending! With all this in mind, how much you’ll like the game isn’t what you should be asking now, but rather what’s taking you so long to find out for yourself?
Once you venture INSIDE, don’t expect to come back out again until finished this incredibly polished, finely balanced puzzle-platformer.