It truly is difficult to write about Inside without allowing for spoilers, and spiralling into a series of wishy-washy descriptors. This is one of those games that really does benefit from the player going in with as little knowledge as possible. It’s a game where the core mechanics are simple, almost secondary to the unspoken narrative that weaves its way through the few hours you’ll spend in the game, but also manages to be clever and intuitive. It is a game that bores into your skull with its uncomfortable, oppressive bleakness, and pulls off the darkly comedic without breaking stride. All the same, I can at least try to give you a vague enough outline of why Inside is something rather good indeed.
The basic story to Inside, and all you really need to know going in, is that you play as a young boy on the run. Where that journey takes you is they mystery. You begin by evading your pursuers and solving physics-based puzzles. This immediately brings to mind developer Playdead’s previous hit Limbo, which starts in similar fashion, and also looks similarly gloomy and monochrome. Inside has splashes of color unlike Limbo, but washes them out to fit the overbearingly bleak nature of the game and its visual style. The overall mantra of Inside seems to be simplicity made engaging and captivating, and the art style is one such area where that is delivered expertly. Inside’s world is bleak, disturbing even, but finds a ghoulish beauty in it. The use of light and shadow is especially enthralling, while character animation is exemplary in its twisted mix of human movement and the slightly puppet-like.
Like Limbo, there’s little in the way of sound. Characters merely grunt and gasp, footfalls echo and clod, machinery hums and whirrs, but it’s sporadically used, and somehow, quite fittingly, just as overbearing in silence as it is in these pockets of white noise. The soundtrack is limited to timely swells for brief moments, but remains highly-effective in setting the tone, but silence is easily the most haunting effect used by Playdead, one that hammers home the feeling of isolation and loneliness our protagonist is experiencing.
At this point you’d expect a prettier, more refined, Limbo, yet before long, Inside goes places its predecessor wouldn’t dare. Darker, more disturbing places that contain themes such as slavery, but that is far from the only difference. Take the puzzles. When Inside does puzzles, mostly of the push n’ pull sort at first, it makes stellar use of its simple setup to produce some logical, but inventive solutions that almost never outstay their welcome. Whereas many games seem content with repetition in puzzles, not daring to experiment with the basics, Playdead does so with confidence and ease. Not only is there rarely the same puzzle twice, but repeated patterns are presented in such differing circumstances that it keeps things fresh right to the very end.
That freshness is also kept up by Playdead smattering some set piece moments in here and there to break up the game into recognisable segments without truly signposting anything. Everything flows nicely as a result. Earlier set piece moments are slightly more bombastic as they focus on the boy being chased, and that provides some chilling and tense encounters, but some are quieter, more ominous and foreboding, using that aforementioned silence expertly to punctuate the point.
These moments are fantastic for the storytelling, using nothing more than what’s on screen ooze into your mind and sit there, festering for hours after you finish playing. Inside’s atmospheric, muted world is highly effective at getting its talons into you, presenting you with scenes that disturb and disgust whilst still keeping you engaged in the hunt for resolution. Things escalate from the relative normalcy of the opening twenty minutes into something that becomes moodier, grislier, and definitively stranger as you progress. By the time you reach the final stages of Inside, things have gone very, very odd indeed. It was certainly not what I had expected, in fact I couldn’t have foreseen the weirdness of those last fifteen minutes with a hundred guesses, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense.Weird, perfect sense.
There’s a wickedly playful subtlety to the story’s unfurling, with much of its finer details easy to miss if you don’t pay attention to the details of the environments. There’s an ambiguity to it that leaves room for various discussions about the meanings behind it, even if that might leave some feeling a bit dissatisfied because of that perceived lack of a solid, set message.
With Inside,Playdead have crafted a tale more thoughtful and compelling than many a dialogue-heavy game before it. It instills a richness into the game world itself even with limited interactions. For four or five hours of your time you’ll be getting something special, a game that glides past the bar set by its predecessor and charts new territories of greatness. Inside is deeply affecting if you let it in, and at worst, is a ghoulishly beautiful story told in visuals alone. I’m pretty confident that this is going to be one of 2016’s finest games, and one of the best for the generation as a whole. Just try your damndest to go in dark for the best results.