Playdead’s next game has been a long time coming. Six years since their debut title Limbo, they’ve had plenty of time to get their next game right. The experience of Inside is demonstrative of the quality and care that went into making it. It’s not drastically different from Limbo, following another story of a boy in a strange, mostly monochromatic world. Where it sets itself apart from Limbo however, is in its intelligent gameplay and brilliantly bleak setting.
Inside wears nothing on its sleeve, from the start you’re sprinting through the undergrowth, outrunning strange foes in a mix of bite-size puzzles, tense stealth sections, and a few pulse pounding chases too. Unlike Limbo, there is much more of a sense of forward momentum here. It feels like you’re running away from a very tangible threat rather than meandering forward through the world with no specific aims.
Everything is shown through the world and the mechanics. There’s no dialogue, no written diaries, no typical video game graffiti. Everything about Inside’s strange monochromatic is drip fed to you like an IV full of tar. What’s fascinating is the way that many of the workings of this world are revealed through gameplay. There’s a mechanic early on that lets you control the body of another creature in the world, but it’s built on in such a way that it feels like a clever puzzle and a spine tingling revelation about how this world works all in one.
Inside is gorgeous in a way that it’s hard to describe without seeing in action. While Limbo’s monochromatic and fuzzy aesthetic worked at the genesis of the indie game takeover in 2010, Inside makes use of next gen hardware in subtle ways, filling itself with gorgeous, stylised lighting, and animation that feels human enough to be repeatedly unsettling. In Limbo, seeing the boy who is little more than a blob of black get shish-kebabed by a spider is gross, sure, but when you see the startlingly human boy of Inside get torn to shreds by a dog monster, claret and all, it’s something different entirely. Every fall feels bone crunching brutal too, the slumped and rag dolled body of your avatar feeling like a slap in the face each time.
Inside weaves a very intriguing story into a world that you wish you could explore in more than just 2D side scrolling. The puzzles never feel placed to slow you down, but always serve to push you forward, increasing your understand of the world as you go. Many games of this type fall at the hurdle of making their puzzles too difficult to maintain a good feeling of forward momentum, but this game is so excellently crafted that you’re never stumped for long, and the puzzles are often kinetic in a way that involve reflexes as well as some smart thinking. In typical Playdead fashion, they’re also darkly humorous in how they subvert your expectations. The incredible music and sound design is often tied to the puzzles in unexpected ways, with a particularly tense section of mimicry early in the game set to the thundering beat of a funeral march.
As in Limbo, there are times where the game knows you think you’ve got it figured out, and it throws a curveball just to kill you for your avarice. Repeated death is the name of the game here, and the quick respawn back into action relays any Dark Souls style rage you might be at risk of feeling when a puzzle beats you over and over again. Before long, you’re usually making progress again, and the variety of environments and drip feeds of contextual lore mean that satisfying progression and devious gameplay go hand in hand with the tense and bleak world.
Inside is just sheer brilliance. It’s a lesson in world building and minimalism for all game designers, and proof that the best ideas always have room for refinement. In many ways, Inside feels like a spiritual successor to Limbo, and it easily surpasses its older brother in gameplay, style, and art direction. It’s a beautiful and bleak masterpiece that begs to be played, and it’s proof that the indie initiatives at Microsoft and Sony are still capable of bringing us some truly special gaming experiences.