[Reviewed on Xbox One]
Have you already played and completed Inside? We ask because if the answer to that question isn’t either a concrete “yes” or “well, obviously” then you may want to move on to avoid learning too much. Just to be clear, we aren’t implicitly attempting to spoil Inside for you within this review, it’s just that the more you learn about it the less you may come to appreciate its haunting sense of adventure. Inside is brilliant, make no mistake about that, but it’s also an experience that benefits greatly from going in blind. So, here we go; last chance to click on something else….
Here we are once again. There’s a boy, alone in the woods, skirting the edge of death. You are bound by the oldest of videogame traditions, sentenced to ponderously move from left to right; an unknown aggression moves unchecked through a dimension forever out of your reach. Shadow and mist envelop everything around you, the shattered remnants of the environment and thunderous rain your only protection from piercing light and barking hounds. The first time that you are caught sneaking though the undergrowth – your desperate struggle to survive made in vein – you won’t feel as if you have failed the game, but the boy. As his blood peppers the muted monochromatic landscape, you’ll feel a familiar wrench in your stomach, the feeling of dread is inescapable; you’ll vow never to fail that boy again.
But you will, over and over. It is as if you are briefly escaping a nightmare upon death, only you never wake from it. Instead you find yourself stumbling immediately back into its suffocating grasp, each instance of it deeper and darker. That is Inside, a four-hour descent into the crippling unknown.
The world around you may look familiar, vaguely human even, and yet it has a way of becoming habitually alienating in the blink of an eye. Inside sweeps you away to a realm where it feels as if everything might be looking to harm you, though, as you’ll discover quickly enough, everything is. Faceless men will shoot on sight, umbilical wires will hang you unceremoniously from the ceiling, dogs will feast on your flesh and creatures from the deep will pull you into the cold embrace of the shadows. We couldn’t tell you why, because even after three playthroughs we are still trying to unpack Inside’s mysteries.
Inside presents a world where the smallest of comforts will ultimately betray you. Light leads to anguish and silence to suffering; even the rare pangs of music are a symphony of harmonious destruction. You are never given enough time to become accustomed to the world or its bizarre horrors; instead you are pushed forward slowly and erratically. It’s an emphatically quiet game, its mystery established through clear observation of a world that you’ll never quite understand.
It’s a brilliant way of setting a scene and building a narrative – and it had to be, because developer Playdead certainly doesn’t waste time with exposition. At its heart, Inside is a simple platform game with masterful puzzle design thrown in for good measure, though it could quite as easily be viewed as an expressive visual novel, albeit one without any words, sounds or obvious context.
Inside has been in development for close to six years, since 2010’s Limbo shipped, and yet the restraint exercised by Playdead is impossibly impressive. The studio has no qualms in introducing a new game mechanic, setting or obstacle and then immediately ditching it before it outstays its welcome. Visual design teaches you the basics of how to jump, climb and navigate the scrolling world, and it’s up to you to figure out the rest. The puzzles are rarely so challenging that you’ll be stumped, but they are presented in such a way that you’ll feel a real, honest to god euphoric sensation when you do overcome any adversity.
It’s difficult to convey exactly what it is about Inside that makes it a mini-masterpiece, and that’s because it truly needs to be played to be understood. That isn’t because any of its parts do anything truly spectacular in isolation, but as an entire experience it is peerless. It’s difficult to lock down what Inside is trying to say, covey or be, and that’s because it takes a very real pleasure in subtly shifting reality around you. You’ll come to question what you knew about the world and its mechanics time and time again as it forces experimentation and quiet contemplation – by the end of it, you’ll wonder whether you knew anything about it at all.
Inside is a rarity, both in terms of its ambitions and its construction. It’s from a studio that had a clear, claustrophobic vision and an obsessive plan; Playdead has had the freedom to create, iterate and perfect every single, tiny aspect of Inside and the result is as impressive as it is terrifying. We say terrifying, because we can only imagine the headache and the heartache that must have occurred across the six years of development – Inside looks and plays like a game that has had every single frame of its adventure meticulously analysed for imperfections. Games just aren’t made like this any more.
You’ll be impressed by the little details, of course. The way shadow reacts to light and the impactful, yet minimalistic, approach to sound design. The beautiful animations, considered level design and the constant, understated sense of escalation. But they won’t ultimately be the parts of the game that you’ll remember after you put the controller down in silence as the screen fades to black for a final time – the closing credits coming into sharp focus. Instead you’ll recall how you sat in silence for four hours, lost for words. You’ll think back to everything that you saw – everything that you did – and consider the impact and meaning of it all, if there was ever any to be found to begin with.