Running Away From Yourself, or
Running Away From The World?
Reviewed on XB1
The disparaging statement “sophomore slump” is an idiom that has permeated contemporary vernacular. Usually referring to a failed second attempt or endeavor, the “sophomore slump” is tacked onto highly successful artists (musicians, writers, actors, et al.) whose success comes from their debut piece of work. In many cases, the artists’ second venture pales in comparison, either not living up to the hype of the first effort, failing to meet the standards of the first effort, or missing the bullseye the first effort hit. Developer Playdead released their first game, Limbo—a moody, eerie, atmospheric physics-based puzzle-platformer—on XBLA (Xbox Live Arcade) back in 2010 to critical acclaim. Ported to just about every other platform under the sun a few years later, Limbo went on to become one of the highest selling XBLA games during its time, generating approximately $7.5 million. Curiously, after the massive widespread release and success of Limbo, Playdead went dormant; there were rumblings of Playdead working on another title, though it seemed the studio disappeared from the scene, a “one-hit wonder.” Now, after six years of playing dead, Playdead has risen from the grave, releasing their sophomore effort, Inside. And it’s strikingly magnificent.
If you’re familiar with Limbo in any capacity, then Inside will feel instantly familiar. Playdead takes the simplistic mechanics of Limbo and deliberately places them in this game. Playing as a young boy (again), you jump, run, grab, climb, and swim through the game’s non-spoken narrative, solving puzzles to take you through the next story beat. Though controllers have a plethora of buttons, Playdead, once more, does a lot with a little: stripping the controls down to merely a “jump” button, a “grab” button, and four-way directional movement, Playdead, yet again, thwarts the conventional understanding of gameplay. Interestingly, although the gameplay is as minimalistic as it can get, it feels incredibly polished—in fact, it feels as if they’ve refined the experience this time around, and Limbo‘s mechanics already felt fine-tuned.
"Playdead, yet again, thwarts the conventional understanding of gameplay."
There is an inherent floatiness to the protagonist. As a child, it’s apparent that his weight has an impact on gameplay. Conversely, however, the protagonist has a heaviness that explicitly juxtaposes his visibly light figure. Many puzzles use this juxtaposition as a way to create depth to those puzzles, requiring you to either step on or step off of certain platforms or switches or ladders to advance to the next segment. While this particular aspect of Inside is nothing new to game design, Playdead implements this so masterfully that it feels innovative.
Much like its predecessor, Inside is a moody, eerie, atmospheric physics-based puzzle-platformer. Playdead jettisons dialogue and traditional narrative design for that of environmental storytelling, ambiance, and mystery. Orwellian themes pervade Inside‘s world. The game’s protagonist is running away from a totalitarian regime, hoping to escape not just the massive structures he is locked in, but the societal, mental, emotional, and physical confines the world places on him. This is a brutal, gruesome, and overtly violent world, and this regime makes sure you’re aware of that when you’re caught. The death animations are brief, but veraciously haunting and utterly unforgiving. The first five or ten minutes of Inside are evocative, poignant, somber, and chilling, and they set the mood for the rest of the journey into this mesmerizingly perturbing world.
Visually, the game is stunning. Delivered in a monochromatic aesthetic, Inside oozes style and graphical prowess. Shadows are pitch black and incite an immediate tension and dread. Lights are lustrous, illuminating not only particular puzzle clues or areas of interest, but also providing a [fleeting] sense of reprieve from the overwhelming despondency (or heightening the apparent loneliness). In blatant contrast to its predecessor, Inside‘s aesthetics are much softer and brighter, delivering a wider range of colors to counterbalance the primary design of black and white. This is a much more colorful game, but that doesn’t mean the colors make it more jovial. Animations are smooth and the frame rate stays consistent throughout, even through some of the more demanding areas of the game. Inside has a “low-poly” look to it. Meticulous detail is missing, facial expressions (or faces in general) are absent, and many assets lack specific characteristics to make them stand out. However, this deliberate artistic construction works in the game’s favor. This is one impressive, beautifully rendered game, although it’s not that complex in terms of its overall design.
"Delivered in a monochromatic aesthetic, Inside oozes style and graphical prowess. "
Narrative and graphical fidelity aside, the game’s core loop is its emphasis on the myriad physics-based puzzles. Similar to that of Limbo, Inside uses the game’s physics to have you crack its puzzles: distance calculation, speed, height, weight, and the physicality of the game’s world are crucial factors to solving these puzzles. Many of these puzzles are stumpers, leaving you scratching your head for a split second or two. Once you figure the answer, you end up feeling attentive and intelligent. The game rewards you with a sense of satisfaction, but immediately knocks you back down to size once you reach the next puzzle. Some puzzles, however, are too easy, and don’t have the same depth and layered feel that others have. These puzzles only last a brief moment, and, while the brevity is appreciated, the lack of complexity leaves these puzzles forgettable and a bit meandering. Furthermore, Inside has some predictability to its design. There are many moments when what you think might happen happens, and you’re left feeling underwhelmed and disappointed by the spectacular buildup and overall simplicity of the outcome.
Even still, Inside is an exceptional game. The sound design—or lack thereof—compliments the creepiness. The graphics are beautiful, rendered with gracefulness and artistic mastery. The mechanics are simple enough for anyone to pick up, yet complex enough to elicit a bit of confusion. (Depending on the moments, of course.) The narrative, though text-free, is evocative, perplexing, and grotesque—especially during the final act. Although some puzzles are far too easy, and others are far too predictable, many of them are exquisitely challenging and require an adroit attentiveness to solve, and that pervading satisfaction is entirely rewarding. The first few moments of the game had my heart racing, quickening my breathing; I felt afraid, peering over my shoulder to see if I was truly being chased. Inside is not for the faint of heart—but this is a redolent experience that will be remembered and theorized for years to come.