Inside is probably the most difficult game I’ve ever reviewed.
That statement alone speaks to the profound impact that Inside had on me as a player, and as a critic. Most games are easy to introduce to a new audience because their mechanics and systems can be discussed separately from the story and the experience as a whole. However, recommending a game like Inside is a delicate exercise, as one has to illustrate their emotional reaction without getting into specifics. The most concrete way that someone can succinctly endorse Inside would sound something like this: Inside is Danish developer Playdead’s latest project after their indie classic Limbo, and follows the same framework as a side-scrolling puzzle platformer staring a young child.
Playdead’s previous work is the only concrete sales pitch you can honour Inside with, for everything else would turn into an elaborate song and dance by saying a lot, without saying much at all. Here, I’ll attempt to speak to you, the reader, about Inside, while still allowing your first encounter with the game to be respectably sterile.
Inside is one of this industry’s most profound examples of a developer honing in on its identity as a creator. Playdead knows its style, and it knows it well. Muted, and visually minimalistic stories, about young children barely making it from one situation to the next, is what defines Playdead. The HUD-less display, the restrained colour palette, the complete isolated aesthetic, are all also identifiers of the Danish studio.
That last point is enhanced tenfold when moving from Limbo to Inside. Our new boy protagonist operates with sleek animations that add a level of unsettling realism to the character. Every stumble, every leap, and every climb amplifies the cringing responses when the boy is horrifically killed. Inside’s polygonal artstyle strangely compliments this, with featureless and often chunky dimensions that animate in such a way that it’s almost unbearably convincing.
Inside’s perfected element of restraint is punctuated by impeccable sound design and score. True to its art form, hazards and certain events shatter the silence in such a way that’ll make you flinch. Inside also owns its moments of shock and awe while flawlessly timing ghastly music cues. In an unexpected way, Inside is incredibly cinematic, as it masterfully generates consistent, memorable moments that are as disturbing as they are amazing.
Limbo was a curt, but relatively traditional story that was repackaged in a highly unusual aesthetic, which wasn’t just any old tale about another damsel in distress needing saving. But Inside is so much more than that. Inside’s complete story arc of a boy that’s somehow “infiltrating” a sort of secret operation – information which is based on the two trailers released on the game – winds up in places that are completely unexpected, and pushes those boundaries even further. It is a story that’s both literally and figuratively transformative in nature, and it’ll leave you numb by the time the lead creators’ names appear at the top of the screen.
All of that is leanly compressed into a four hour experience where intuitive, if not tricky, puzzles develop along with the plot in both complexity and their discomforting nature. The checkpoints in Inside are welcomingly generous, as seeing the young boy meet a swift end is part of the experience. I even hesitate to admit that I deliberately led the boy to his death to see how far Playdead was willing to push the fatalities. Let’s just say that the studio doesn’t give a fuck about your feelings on watching children getting gruesomely killed.
Think about what Journey did for pure emotional provocation, and what Gone Home did for personal story telling. Inside occupies the space of harrowing disturbance which elicits that unnerving feeling of questioning your own logic, similar to how I felt after watching Duncan Jones’ Moon. It cracks open a new paradigm of small budget titles that begins to explore ideas that we’ve never seen before – certainly not in this form. Playdead has gone radio silent for six years before quietly wheeling out Inside into the public, but it deserves everyone’s attention.
Inside is one of the very best small-budget “indie” titles ever created.
Yes, it’s a Masterpiece
Inside is alluring, intriguing, unsettling, full of surprises. Whenever anyone says its name, you will forever remember what Inside is.