The rise of indie gaming was precipitated by a handful of influential titles which went on to spawn legions of imitators, and whose DNA can still be seen years after the fact. Minecraft is probably the most famous example, practically inventing its own genre and giving rise to ancestors that spawned many more, but for my money one of the most important indie hits of the last ten years was Limbo, an (initially) Xbox 360 exclusive that helped put smaller downloadable games on the map and which gave rise to many atmospheric, quasi-profound puzzle-platformers with silhouette based visual styles.
Now, Limbo’s developers have arrived with their follow-up, a game that wildly exceeds not just their previous work but most games coming out in any market. Inside is a fascinating, disturbing masterpiece.
Anyone who played Limbo will be immediately familiar with how Inside operates. You play as a small boy traversing a bleak, hostile world filled with things that want to kill you. You jump, grab and swing your way to success, escaping from dangers and solving environmental puzzles. The only major mechanical difference between the two is that quite a lot of the game involves exploring underwater areas, whereas the main character in Limbo died if he was submerged in anything deeper than a puddle.
Also similar is how Inside throws you right into the game with zero explanation or context. A boy in a red shirt skulks through a forest, sneaking past armed guards and climbing over barbed-wire fences, imagery that hints at dystopian control and authoritarianism. He comes to a farm littered with dead pigs, grotesque parasite squirming among the corpses. In the distance a vast city looms, and the sound of footsteps marching in eerie unison can be heard. As the game goes on its visual vocabulary grows and begins to take on new significance. Water. Masks. Strange fusions of the organic and the technological. Pale, naked figures. Blood (unless shed by the player character) enters the picture very late, but when it finally appears it does so in a way that few will forget. If these images are Inside’s alphabet, then the story they tell is a dark one indeed, speaking as it does of cruelty, subjugation, dehumanization and experimentation.
There does seem to be a concrete backstory to the game’s strange world that attentive players can piece together, unlike in Limbo, which is widely interpreted as being entirely metaphorical, but Inside still relies heavily on ambiguity and isn’t afraid to get nonsensical and surreal if it feels like it. I was personally fine with this method of storytelling because I felt like the game’s central themes had been communicated to me clearly, although I do wish that the secret ending, which potentially offers a way to interpret the rest of the game, wasn’t locked behind the challenge of locating an array of hidden orbs throughout the environment (I only found two, and I knew to look for them beforehand).
Limbo’s visual style was reliant on a kind of aggressive adherence to the genre’s 2D roots, rendering everything important as black silhouettes and mostly using foreground objects to give the game a sense of depth. Inside goes in the opposite direction. Here, the 2D plane the player traverses is a narrow slice of a vast three-dimensional world that frequently stretches into the background in stunning panoramas of light and shadow. Muted grays and browns feature heavily, as befits the game’s bleak tone, but there’s just enough splashes of light and colour to keep the journey from feeling entirely hopeless and downbeat.
Gameplay takes the form of solving puzzles and trying to avoid being killed (often at the same time) by either environmental hazards or hostile entities. The controls are simple on the surface– one button jumps, another button grabs– but the game does a whole lot with this basic setup, translating the player’s button presses into a host of different actions that feels entirely natural and fluid almost 100% of the time (a few specific jumping scenarios are a bit fiddly, but these moments make up such a small amount of gameplay that it doesn’t feel as if it’s really worth complaining about). You’ll perform the same basic actions again and again– push this thing, pull that lever, run away oh god run away holy shit– but they’re deployed and contextualized in fresh and creative ways throughout. Many areas feature one-shot puzzle mechanics that in other games would have been recycled over and over again, which speaks to the amount of care and attention that went into Inside during its six-year development.
“Polish” is a concept that’s often maligned these days as an easy shorthand for lazy reviewers, a nebulous concept that says nothing while trying to say everything. But in Inside’s case, the term is apt. Ever facet and feature of the game, every moment, every animation and sound and background and lighting effect, is as close to perfection as you’re likely to see outside the realm of imagination. I would without hyperbole rank several of the game’s individual set-pieces as among the best I’ve ever encountered in any game, ever.
All of that polish is in service of an artistic vision that’s at once sprawling and focused, touching on many different topics that all orbit a central idea. I came away from the game with my head buzzing, trying to untangle everything I had just seen. In fact, it might just be fodder for a Talking Forever About post…
Too many games these days feel as if they’re designed by taking bits and pieces of other games and slotting them together into a slightly different configuration. Even the indie world, justifiably lauded as the place where all the real creativity happens, has become bogged down with this lego-construction philosophy to game development, leading to a bewildering profusion of adjective-laden genre blends (“16-bit style survival roguelite with space exploration and crafting!”).
Inside, despite never straying too far from the gameplay of its predecessor, feels like something genuinely new. In the course of three concise hours I went places and saw things that I never had before in a videogame. And when it was over I found myself not just wanting to play it again immediately (although I did) but to play other games like it. Unfortunately, we’ll probably not see its like again until Playdead make a followup. I just hope it doesn’t take another six years.