Game Review: Playdead’s ‘Inside’

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(Courtesy of Playdead)

Six years ago, Danish video game developer Playdead released their debut title “Limbo” – a dark 2D puzzle – platformer that took a minimalist approach to art and storytelling. With a monochromatic color palette, a complete lack of words or dialogue, physics-based puzzles and surprisingly gruesome death animations, I loved “Limbo” for its unique presentation.

Of course, “Limbo” wasn’t perfect. It suffered from an abrupt ending and some puzzles were poorly designed, requiring too much trial-and-error to solve. However, even with these shortcomings, “Limbo” managed to create an experience unlike any other at the time. Even today, “Limbo” sticks out very clearly in my mind – an impressive feat for a 2D, black and white game with no dialogue.

It took developer Playdead six years to release their next game, “Inside.” On the surface, it’s incredibly easy to make comparisons between “Inside” and “Limbo.” Both are puzzle-platformers taking place on a 2D plane, set in a mysterious, dark world. Players control an unnamed, faceless young boy as he solves physics-based puzzles to progress.

Both games have simple controls – you can only run, jump and grab. They both feature a dark, brooding soundtrack (written by the same composer) which is used sparingly in order to build tension or atmosphere. “Inside” even shares in “Limbo’s” feverish desire to kill the young protagonist in a variety of grotesque ways should you fail a puzzle or sequence.

While these comparisons are easy to make – especially upon seeing “Inside” for the first time – they only exist on a surface level. Instead of delivering more of the same, Playdead took the essence of “Limbo,” refined it and built upon it. The result is a game that manages to surpass “Limbo” in almost every way.

Visuals

The most notable difference is the art style. While “Limbo” was rendered in a flat 2D, “Inside” uses 3D graphics. You’re still limited to a single plane of movement (left to right), but the jump to 3D feels like a big step up and is a massive improvement in the storytelling department. The game conveys an excellent sense of depth that makes the world feel bigger and more alive. Backgrounds and foregrounds show great attention to detail, and some puzzles will even require you to manipulate elements in the foreground and background.

Unlike the monochromatic “Limbo,” “Inside” actually has a color palette – although it’s very drab and muted. Splashes of color such as the protagonist’s red shirt allow certain things to stand out and help draw the player’s attention to objects in the environment.

The camera pans, zooms and rotates ever so slightly, almost as if it’s playing with the newfound sense of freedom that 3D provides. Though subtle, the camera movement feels careful and deliberate – shifting your perspective towards important objects or events, building tension or framing interesting shots.

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(Courtesy of Playdead)

Lighting and shadows are also put to excellent use in “Inside.” While often being used to great effect in atmosphere building – such as when a car’s headlights cut through the forest – light is also used in gameplay elements. For example, some areas are watched by robots with powerful searchlights that will kill anything that they see – anything entering the light receives a swift death.

This is just one small way “Inside” is able to evoke emotions and tell a story. Typically, light equals safety and security, but the game transforms it into something to be scared of. Light is used to build tension and instill fear – I found myself hesitating to step into the light because I was afraid it might kill me. The game takes our basic understanding and reaction to light and turns it against us. It makes the world of “Inside” seem that much more cruel, alien and unsettling.

Animation is another highlight of “Inside’s” gorgeous visual presentation. The nameless protagonist is animated fluidly and beautifully. Small touches like protagonist looking back at a pursuer chasing him, breathing heavily after running or putting his hands up on a glass window when looking through it really help to give the protagonist (and the player) a sense of presence in the world.

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(Courtesy of Playdead)

Like “Limbo” before it, “Inside” often kills its protagonist with borderline gleeful delight. These death animations are equal parts horrific and hilarious – and more than one elicited an uncomfortable chuckle from me. Some are more tame (for lack of a better word) – you’ll get choked, shot or drowned – but other death animations are comically absurd in their brutality.

You’ll get chased by dogs that will rip the protagonist’s throat out if they catch him, electrocuted by robots or blasted into pieces by shockwaves from an unknown force. It’s made all the more disturbing by the fact that this is happening to a little kid.

That said, as awful as these deaths are, they make you want to discover more about “Inside’s” world to figure out what’s killing you and why.

The use of 3D also helps with puzzle design. In “Limbo,” any interactive pieces (such as say, a cart) had to exist in the same plane as the player, since the game was 2D. For instance, if you needed to walk past a cart to flip a lever, you would have to climb on top of the cart, then back down on the other side.

However, “Inside” will take these objects and merge them with the background until you interact with them – allowing you to walk in front of and around them while still using them in puzzle solving. It makes the game feel more fluid, and it looks better too.

“Inside” takes small elements like these and blends them together to create a cohesive, strong visual package. So much of the game hinges on its ability to tell a story through visuals alone, so a well-crafted presentation of those visuals is core to the experience. Luckily, “Inside” delivers on that front in spades. The visuals of this game are so masterfully, painstakingly crafted, it feels like you’re watching an art piece that’s constantly in motion.

Gameplay and Game Design

“Inside” delivers on a graphical front – but what about the gameplay? “Limbo” also did an excellent job at visual presentation (albeit not as well as “Inside”) but some of “Limbo’s” puzzles weren’t so great. It took six years for Playdead to make “Inside,” so I expected puzzles to be a step up from the ones in “Limbo.” Thankfully, “Inside” doesn’t just improve on “Limbo’s” puzzle design – it blows it out of the water.

Puzzles in “Inside” tend to fall in what I consider the “sweet spot” of video game puzzle design. Puzzles shouldn’t be so easy that you can solve them immediately, but they also shouldn’t be so hard that it takes you hours to come up with a solution. Furthermore, once you know the solution, executing it should be easy and straightforward – something “Limbo” struggled with.

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(Courtesy of Playdead)

“Inside” intersperses quick and simple puzzles with complicated, large-scale ones, but neither of these feel too easy or too difficult. It took me somewhere from 15 to 20 minutes to solve some of the harder puzzles, and I always felt like a genius when I finally did. Even the smaller puzzles made me feel pretty clever when I solved them. I consider these signs of good puzzle design.

A suite of small, subtle changes to the ways you can interact with and traverse the world of “Inside” opens up a host of new possibilities for puzzle-solving. “Inside” hosts a slew of puzzles that use those new mechanics in smart ways, keeping the game feel fresh and creative throughout.

“Inside” doesn’t let these aspects overstay their welcome either – layering them in, removing them and reintroducing them throughout the course of the game.

“Inside” shows some very thoughtful restraint, taking care not to let these elements become stale or repetitive; when a puzzle utilizes a mechanic you’ve used before, it often puts an extra layer or twist on it.

Story

I’m hesitant to discuss too much of the story in “Inside” because it’s something that just needs to be experienced for yourself. “Inside” isn’t a game I would call “fun.” It seeks to unsettle you, to disturb you and make you feel uncomfortable. Even as the game delves further and further into the macabre, I had to get to the bottom of it all.

Tense stealth sequences and chases with too-close-for-comfort escapes are punctuated by quiet, somber moments. Every peak and valley of “Inside” is exactly what it needs to be in terms of intensity or length. The pacing in “Inside” is borderline perfection.

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(Courtesy of Playdead)

“Inside” delivers an immensely compelling world that practically begs you to dig deeper and discover what lies at it’s dark and twisted heart. I constantly asked myself “what happened here?” as I worked my way through “Inside,” even though I had a feeling I wouldn’t like the answer to that question.

I’m sure the ending for “Inside” will be polarizing – people will either love it or hate it – but I’m pretty confident saying that almost no one will see it coming. I was in shock for the closing moments of “Inside” and even now, I’m still trying to process what happened and what it all means.

I think the ending leaves a little bit to be desired, but it’s also one of those endings that I think could grow on me over time, as I come up with my own explanations and interpretation of events.

Final Verdict

As a whole, “Inside” is one of the most cohesive, tightly designed games I’ve ever had the privilege to play. Every facet of it’s design – art, gameplay, storytelling, and sound – feels heavily and carefully considered. “Inside” is a short game – it took me about three or four hours – but practically every second gives the impression that it was hand-crafted.

“Inside” is one of those games that I could easily recommend to people who don’t play games. It’s a masterpiece that deserves to be played by anyone who gets near it. I hoped “Inside” would be just as good as “Limbo,” but it’s not – it’s better in every way imaginable.

I give “Inside” five out of five stars.

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(Courtesy of Playdead)
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