“Hunted and alone, a boy finds himself drawn into the center of a dark project.” That’s the Xbox Store description for Inside, the second game from Playdead. Their first game, Limbo, was an excellent black-and-white platformer/puzzler about a little boy in a forest. I liked it and played it for about an hour, but didn’t finish it for some reason. So, when Inside seeming popped up out of nowhere along with scores of rave reviews, I gave it a go.
Overall, Inside was an odd experience. It’s short and very well put together, but left me feeling confused.
- TL;DR: A wonderfully executed puzzler/platformer with a confusing setting
- Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One (reviewed)
- Time Played: 3:15
- What I Played: Completed the game
Inside doesn’t waste any time. As soon as the game loads and you hit start, a faceless boy in a red shirt and black pants slides down a small cliff face. That’s all the characterization you get for the main character, too. Over the just-over-three hour campaign, you’ll guide the boy through the wilderness and some kind of facility/laboratory until the game is over.
Frankly, that just about sums the game up right there. There’s no life bar, minimap, HUD, instructions, skill trees, combat, “go this way to find the next goal” arrow, none of that. Inside just drops you into a harsh, scary world and let’s you move forward. Aside from running and jumping, the boy can interact with objects like levers, doors, and hatches to continue his quest to do whatever it is he’s set out to do.
I’m not trying to be clever or hide anything from you here. I played through the game and I’m not quite sure what Inside was about or what it was trying to say. There is a secondary 100% ending that allegedly sheds some light on things, but I think a good portion of the magic and beauty of Inside was lost on me.
What isn’t lost on me is just how brutal this game is. The poor little boy can die in some seriously horribly ways. The patrolmen out looking for him at the start of the game don’t hesitate to drown and/or choke him if they catch him. Rabid dogs will pounce on the boy and tear him apart. Falling too far leads to a loud thud, the crack of a few bones, and a slumped over body. In an odd turn, the lack of music throughout most of the game actually adds to the dread. There’s no specific audio tone when you die, either — just a few seconds of the camera holding on the boy’s body until the game quickly reloads. Many things, from the lack of music to the echoing sound effects of footsteps, add to the total feeling of being alone in Inside. On top of all of that, the entire game is very dark with a lot of shadows and unknown territory.
The way the boy moves and the camerawork are very well done. Inside is a 2D sidescroller but the camera isn’t always set dead straight ahead. It will angle slightly so that you can see over cliffs, down hallways, etc. Similarly, the boy doesn’t just forge ahead blindly. He’ll peer around trees and peek out of a hatch before throwing it open.
One of the stranger things in Inside are these semicircle-shaped devices you’ll run across. If you basically plug the boy’s head into it, you’ll be able to move the people/bodies/husks/zombies nearby. As the boy moves his legs while dangling from this thing, the nearby bodies will move in that direction. They will also help you in moving heavier objects, opening large doors, and even throwing you up higher or across a gap. Is this some kind of mind control device? Is the facility the boy wanders through experimenting on people?
I might be untangling what Inside is about as I write this article. The freakiest section of Inside is when the boy falls in line and is forced to march with a large number of others. Everyone, including you, has to take the correct number of steps in at the correct timing, stop, and repeat. Certain areas of the floor are outlined where you have to complete another little task like turning around quickly or jumping. The whole sequence raises so many questions. Why is everyone doing this? Who is behind this? If someone disobeys, why are they immediately taken out of line and killed?
The lack of button input actually leads to one of Inside’s better design choices. While the game is a constant struggle to keep the curious boy alive, the surprises thrown at you aren’t impossible to take in stride. Many games will spring something on you out of nowhere, leading you to die over and over doing the same small task until the initial scare or surprise is replaced with just wanting to get past the section. Inside does a great job of laying things out so that if you see something chasing you, you’ll typically have just enough time to get through the door on your first try.
You know what? I take back what I said. I’m no closer to figuring out what Inside is about than I was when I finished the game. I don’t know why there are piles of bodies outside the facility, why there are cars overturned in a field, or why these strange long-haired things chase the boy in the water. I don’t know what/who the boy is looking for or why he’s doing it. I don’t know if this all takes place in some secluded island, a rundown city, or after a catastrphic event.
Inside can easily be finished in a single night as the whole thing lasts a hair over three hours. I still don’t know what it means or what large societal commentary it’s trying to make. I do know that the puzzles are laid out well, the camera helps fend off any typical 2D stagnation, and that there is an overwhelming sense of dread. Maybe some closer inspection and more outside-the-box thinking is needed to truly appreciate everything Inside has going for it.