A Worthy Heir
Inside is a successor to Playdead’s Limbo every step of the way. You play a young boy as he walks through a grim environment, solving 2D-platform challenges and puzzles with three simple controls: run, jump and interact.
This time around, however, they trade out the spooky forest and dark factory for a dystopian-looking town, underwater wreckage and dark science facility (maybe those last two aren’t so unalike). After playing for only a few minutes, the differences between the games go from a hole I dug at the beach to a canyon carved by a river. Every inch of Inside feels so meticulously crafted that the six-year development time for only a three-hour game starts to make a lot of sense.
The Beauty of Gloom and Doom
The world has shape now, unlike Limbo, which gave the developers a new tool in lighting and shadows. It doesn’t feel like running sideways through 2D environments but a desperate run through a dystopian nightmare. Shifts in the camera angle and usages of the foreground to cleverly transition from scene to scene help create a sense of wholeness to the world.
Plus, it’s really easy to take screenshots with this game. Each one carries this handcrafted look of a painting. From the opening scenes in the farm to the ultimate escape in the end, there’s an intentionality behind every scene. It’s something that’s easy to achieve with a 2D game, but Playdead makes the most of it here. They managed to maintain a coherent tone and keep it surprising. The game never stopped showing me jaw-dropping sights as they all blend together in a single continuous journey. Even better, there aren’t any loading screens.
There’s little color in this world as well, drip feeding enough to make certain aspects stand out like the boy’s red shirt, glowing lights that guide the way or these mysterious yellow wires to follow. The use of lighting helps set the tone too. Tall, child-killing robots are given even more terrifyingly tall shadows. Light not only conveys that sense of peril but also foretells dangers. At times I would stand in a room as someone, or something, shined a light back and forth through the window, knowing that whatever was out there wanted to kill me.
Even the sound design builds up the sense of dread. Much like Limbo, the soundtrack is very atmospheric, so there’s more emphasis on the clunks and clanks of the environment that mold the mood. In fact, often times the world is so silent that even the slight sound stirs up a skin-crawling reactions
Beyond the dangers immediate to the boy, many of these background details revealed the cruelty in this industrial city. This is an oppressive world, one where the people in control have made mistake, buried them and continue down this dark path.
Red Shirts Always Die
Occasionally, you’ll get the uncomfortable chance to see the boy brutally die. In Limbo, the deaths were often trial-and-error scenarios. You didn’t always know death was around the corner until you stuck your foot out. It was a little cheap-feeling at times.
Here, there’s more chances to fiddle around the place, find out what makes it all tick, which adds some nuance to the puzzle-solving. That said, there’s no loss in the sadistic nature of some of the deaths. When the boy does die, however, it is often as a result of poking around with something that went horribly wrong, a real Darwinist death from messing up instead of a seemingly random demise.
The character has more essence to him as well, with dynamic shifts in how he walks, crawls and runs. From every jump, tumble and fall, every little animation feels thought out. He’ll lean against thin poles, breathing like each breath is his last, or push and pull objects with the might of his entire little body. There are so many examples of what look like one-off animations, but he behaves just how you imagine someone would in those situations.
There’s also this implicit trust on the character and his knowledge of the world as you move through this strange place. Certain elements, foreign to the player, seem familiar to him by his reactions. You’ll know the danger because he knows the danger. He communicates so much emotion without ever speaking a word.
Any narrative that exists is a bit obtuse. Without dialogue or text, it’s up to the context clues to provide some sort of vague story. If anything, it’s not a tale about characters but an expression on the state of this world. There’s a real “if science can, science should” sort of question that arises, posing the dangerous results of experimentation that raise the ethical questions of what our limits should be in the search for knowledge; or it’s about a boy’s adventure through a scary world. If any sort of statement is being made here, they want the players to decide that for themselves.
Inside is one of those games I like to show friends and family—something I can sit people down with, even if they don’t play games, and they can instantly pick it up. The opening scene of this game leaves such a strong impression that they are often hooked right out the gate, asking me questions about what happens next and where it goes. With a coy nod, I shrug my shoulder saying, “You have to find out for yourself.” But that’s mostly because it’s a hard game to talk about without getting into the specifics. It’s worth seeing the specifics for yourself.