At first glance, Inside seems like a game that’s a bit too recent and high profile for me to cover. The long awaited spiritual successor to indie critical darling Limbo, it was met with both immediate critical acclaim, and massive commercial success(well, for a 2d puzzle platformer at least). But for all the attention it received for it’s striking aesthetics and wordless storytelling, it seems like much of what makes this game special has never quite made it’s way into the cultural zeitgeist in the way it deserved to.
At a certain point in time, the idea that video games were anything more than vapid entertainment was seen as laughable. As the industry grew, it became apparent that games wanted to be taken seriously as an art form, and as a result, both the priorities of developers, and the discourse around the medium shifted. And, perhaps, it overcorrected. At the peak of this “take us seriously as artists” era, it seemed that many games stopped being interactive entertainment with stories, and started being stories you needed to press a few buttons to get through. In the case of AAA games, this meant braindead easy, overproduced theme parks. When it came to indie games, things were a little bit different. This was the era of the walking simulator, the point and click adventure without puzzles, and everything that looked and felt as little as a video game as they could get away with before calling it something else. I’ve never been a huge fan of this approach. I always thought that, as much as fun gameplay is no excuse for shallow themes and mediocre writing, good storytelling doesn’t also mean you get to bypass the ‘game’ part of video games. There are some exceptions, but generally, I steer clear of these types of games, as they aren’t really my cup of tea. Which does mean that, occasionally, a game that is exactly my cup of tea slips through the cracks.
Such is the case with Inside. When it came out, much of the discussion around it centered around the minimalist approach to it’s narrative and art style, to the point that it overshadowed all the game’s other elements. If you were active in the gaming community at the time, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was all the game had going for it. Which is a shame, because it’s really not the case. The main reason that Inside has kept my attention when so many games from this era failed to is pretty simple: it’s a good game. Period. If you remove all the gimmicks and strip away all the bells and whistles, it remains one of the most brilliant puzzle platformers I have ever played.
Actually, that last part is not entirely true. The minimalist design approach is not only neat and eye catching, it’s also integral to the entire game’s design philosophy. Everything from the soundtrack, to the graphics, to the gameplay itself has been made to be as simple and as functional as possible, and it all works in tandem to deliver a flawlessly elegant experience. There’s no elements here that are extraneous, even the music serves the purpose of guiding you through sound cues and establishing a rhythm at certain points.
The puzzles start out simple enough that they are innately intuitive, even someone who hasn’t played a similar game in their life could figure the base mechanics without any sort of text or visual prompts. While they do get more complex later on, they still rely on those same base mechanics, you can jump and interact with objects, and you can occasionally mind control some other characters, but that’s about it. Although that might sound underwhelming, it’s actually pretty impressive how much the developers have managed to expand on these very simple mechanics, and the progression of difficulty and complexity is brilliantly paced. Although the game is technically a platformer, there’s very little actual traditional platforming involved. You very rarely have to perform more than a single maneuver in a row, and it’s never a matter of skill or dexterity. If you figured out the right solution, the execution is practically trivial. There are some sections that require relatively tight timing, but the excellently responsive controls make these fairly smooth as well.
The simplicity of the mechanics also brilliantly highlights the game’s central themes and story. Unlike most other games, you aren’t a superhero or a legendary warrior, or even someone who can take care of themselves. You’re a scared little boy who can run, but not very fast, and jump, but not particularly high. You struggle with pulling wooden planks barring a doorway, and even a small fall will kill you. With a couple of exceptions, the deadliest enemies you will ever come across are simple dogs, and there’s nothing you can do but run from them. This lack of agency not only heightens the horror elements, but also serves to give the few section where you do have some actual agency much more impact. Moments that would have felt like just another Tuesday for other video game protagonist instead become cathartic and triumphant.
Although its runtime is short even by platformer standards(even my 100% run only clocked in at just under 5 hours), and it’s incredibly linear, aside from a few collectibles, Inside manages to pack a pretty incredible amount of content in these few hours. The key to this are the incredibly varied environments, as well as the fact that you don’t get to spend too much time in any of them. The puzzles are very clever, but not convoluted, and they rarely take more than a few minutes to solve once you figure out what the game wants you to do. The pacing keeps you constantly moving, either by making you run for your life, or by goading you forward with tantalizing hints of the answer behind the game’s central mystery.
Setting aside all the elements that are less talked about, I do feel the need to reiterate on why exactly the game’s aesthetic and narrative design received so much praise. The lineage of the art style can be clearly traced back to Limbo, Inside’s predecessor, but it clearly stands on its own as an instantly recognizable and cohesive aesthetic. The lack of facial features on characters, the high contrast, the extremely limited color palate, they are at once elements that are unique and striking, but make so much sense within the context of what the game is about that I honestly can’t imagine it looking any other way.
Perhaps even more brilliant than the art direction is the narrative design. Although much has been said about how the game manages to tell a gripping story without any words, I do feel the need to highlight how well it actually manages that feat. There’s plenty of examples in games or film of creators that remove the dialogue to tell an intentionally obtuse or confusing tale, or that employ various tricks to make a simple story seem more complex and clever than it is. That’s not what’s happening here. Inside’s story is clear, captivating, and satisfying. There’s no sense here that the developers are throwing random imagery and symbolism hoping that some of it will stick, or that the ambiguity is designed to hide the fact that they haven’t bothered to come up with answers to any of their mysteries. Although you never quite get enough information to assemble a full picture of everything that is happening in the game, it’s never in doubt that there is one, and the answers are sitting just out of your reach.
I always try to include some criticisms in my reviews, no matter how much I enjoyed a game. But I’m genuinely struggling to think of any topics on which Inside didn’t hit it out of the park. I guess the 2.5D perspective and the extreme darkness in some areas occasionally lead to some visual unclarity or confusion, but that’s a very minor nitpick. This is a truly amazing feat of video game design that everyone should play.