Playdead’s sophomore effort is a thing of beauty. And nightmares.
In 2010, indie developer Playdead released Limbo, a dark and atmospheric side-scroller about a boy searching for his sister. The game went on to become a critical darling, and a shining example of the storytelling potential our fair hobby is capable of. Certainly, if the entire independent games scene collectively put together a CV, Limbo would be displayed prominently in big, bold letters along side Braid, Bastion, Mark of the Ninja and the like. I’m happy to report that Inside, the second game from Playdead, is every bit as memorable and important as any indie game before it.
Inside, much like Limbo, begins with a boy alone in a forest. From there, players will run, jump, and puzzle their way to the end of the game roughly three hours later. This journey, while short, is one that left me speechless and introspective by the time the credits rolled. I won’t ruin any story elements here, as Inside is a game best experienced free of any prior knowledge, but suffice it to say that it ranks up there with triple-A titles Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption in terms of the emotional impact it left on me. The final sequences in particular will go down as some of the most thought-provoking minutes I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing in a game.
Aesthetically, Inside sticks to a muted, gray color palette that does wonders for the overall tone of the game. The environments are surprisingly varied, from an old farm to a crumbling city block to sterile, factory-like laboratories. The backgrounds are populated with lots of little details that beg for careful examination and reward multiple playthroughs. The art direction is one of the game’s strongest points; the different environments somehow manage to feel stifling and expansive and claustrophobic and spacious all at the same time. The feat is impressive and certainly leans into the tone Playdead is attempting to convey.
Puzzles make up a large portion of Inside’s gameplay. None are particularly difficult, but they offer a satisfying sense of progression. The puzzles also tie into the story in interesting ways, usually adding to the air of mystery surrounding the dystopian world.
One of Inside’s greatest strengths is its ability to elicit emotion without the use of dialogue. This is in large part thanks to the game’s terrific soundtrack and ambient noise. The music is subtle, consisting mostly of low hums and tones, adding a constant sense of tension to the boy’s journey. Music is used sparsely, usually in times of import and discovery, which helps to punctuate significant story beats; a huge amount of credit should be afforded the sound design of the game.
Looking back at my time with Inside, I can easily pick out several moments that make it one of the most refreshing and engaging gaming experiences I’ve had in recent years, but taken as a whole the game stands up, not only to other games, but to some of my favorite books and films as well. As the game came to a close, I set the controller down on my lap and watched the credits roll in a sort of silent contemplation as I attempted to sort out the events I had just played through. It reminded me of the first time I watched Memento or read the Red Wedding chapter of A Storm of Swords. It sounds like lofty praise, but now, coming fresh off Inside, I make the parallel without hesitation. Time will tell if my opinion remains this glowing, but as of now, anyone who fancies themselves an advocate of games as art, fans of games in general, or even those with a passing interest in the medium at all owes it to themselves to experience Inside.