There is something inescapably creepy going on in INSIDE‘s world. It’s a largely monochrome landscape, save for a splash of red here and there and, once, a golden sunset, but for all the aesthetic similarities this is a different beast from Playdead’s LIMBO.
That might not be immediately apparent. Opening in a sombre wood, our young protagonist is immediately on the run – but running from, or to, what is not yet clear. It’s a similar beginning to that of LIMBO, and no doubt intentionally so. Squint through screwed up eyes and you’d be forgiven for mistaking one for the other. But Inside is an entirely darker and more disturbing affair. And there’s greater pace, too, from time to time, not just in the return of timing puzzles that leave you breathless, but in the semi-scripted chases that, on occasion, quicken your actions purely through fear.
Fear. It’s a significant motivator, when set against the empathy you feel for the boy, hunted and alone, driven to escape. Immediately we felt a connection, and it remained with us throughout. We felt every death – and death comes in a bewildering array of unpleasant forms. Even the instant restarts did little to assuage the anguish we felt at our protagonist’s demise. So concerned were we, in fact, at the bond we formed, we took to Twitch to see if others felt the same. It seems we were not alone. Named ‘Cedric’ by one inspired streamer, we immediately adopted the name, and it became our mission to see little Cedric to safety.
Cedric (we just can’t think of him by any other name, now) is driven by his would-be captors – sinister men in dark suits wielding tranquiliser guns, and brandishing ferocious dogs – from the forest to an abandoned farm, the ground littered with the corpses of pigs. It’s here we encountered the game’s first real puzzle; its solution – involving some farming machinery and cute, cheeping fluffy chicks – set the tone for the remainder of the game. Always dark, and occasionally darkly comic – Inside tells its tale without words, a situational storytelling that leaves your imagination to fill the blanks, join the dots, and recoil in horror at its conclusion. Touching on themes of dystopia, slavery, oppression, horror, and fear, it’s been remarked that Playdead go out of their way to present the player with disturbing scenes, but in truth what you see (as horrifying as it can be) is only the tip of the iceberg as your brain creates its own story. What transpired to produce the on-screen horror to which little Cedric seems to be the only witness?
Escaping the men in suits, the dogs and the farm, Cedric soon comes across a factory, of sorts, and meets a new kind of NPC. Clearly human, once, these inhabitants are now inert and listless, zombies devoid of a craving for flesh. Some even seem to hold down menial jobs of a janitorial nature, ever under the watchful eye of the men in suits. There’s a disturbing normality to it all. In one scene a besuited man casually observes as a cage full of listless humans – dubbed zombooglies by that same streamer – is shipped off by forklift to some unseen but undoubtedly unpleasant fate. At his side, a young child in similar attire. Bring your daughter to work day, perhaps, when Daddy’s clearly a Josef Mengle-like figure in this little tableau. Are he and his compatriots responsible for the zombooglies’ fugue-like state?
At its heart, INSIDE is a puzzle platformer, and throughout maintains an internal consistency in both puzzles and solutions, even when toying with gravity and fluid dynamics. Working out the solutions to each is never less than an absolute joy; rarely apparent from the off, some solutions later in the game need simple elements combined in exceedingly complex ways. Once solutions are recognised, though, they are generally easily achieved. The great joy here is the breadth of puzzles that come from these seemingly simple blocks; such a range, in fact, that some puzzles are experienced once and never repeated. It’s masterful design, and betrays a confidence in the whole that such thoroughly perfect elements are used once and discarded immediately.
Cedric’s no superhero or athlete – there are no death defying leaps or double-jumps to master. He’s a young boy who can run as fast as a young boy, jump as high as a young boy, and just maybe fall a little farther than a young boy without injury. But just a little. He can grab things, push things, pull things and enlist the help of the zombooglies to jump a little higher or farther, or move something a little heavier. He can pull levers, flip switches, and climb on objects that aren’t too tall. And he can swim.
Water plays a big role in INSIDE – mechanically, and thematically. At one point Cedric gains access to a submersible, extending the duration of his aquatic trips and opening up new opportunities for puzzle solving. When Cedric enters the sub, INSIDE takes on a different tone. The camera pulls back to reveal more of Cedric’s surroundings, emphasising scale whilst reminding us that Cedric is still a young boy, deserving of our protection, even as he appears safe in his bubble.
And appearances can be deceiving.
INSIDE changes again in the final chapter, in ways that are surprising, delightful and utterly horrifying. It’s a fitting conclusion to one of the most interesting and compelling story telling experiences we have ever encountered.
Without sparking the ‘Are Games Art’ arguments once again, suffice it to say INSIDE is both a visual and storytelling masterpiece. The muted palette and subtle soundtrack perfectly convey a dystopian world, clearly decaying and in its final throes. With a little more colour than in LIMBO‘s palette the range here is used to good effect; there’s a starkness to areas of the factory in particular as Cedric dashes from light to shadow.
It’s easy to conclude that fans of LIMBO will love INSIDE as, on the surface, it’s more of the same perfect puzzling and captivating storytelling.
That INSIDE manages to out-disturb its predecessor – a game that happily impaled a defenceless young boy on the leg of a giant spider just minutes in – should leave you in no doubt that this is a darker, deeper, more immersive and more disturbing experience.
It’s not an epic game – 4-5 hours seems a realistic duration for a first play through – but it reaches unmatched heights of gameplay, design and storytelling and, for that, we can’t recommend it highly enough.
INSIDE is available from the Store priced £15.99.
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