In the first week of release, the writing you’re likely to see about Inside is going to be performing a precarious balancing act. Inside is a simple game in some ways, with fairly limited mechanics and a clear and obvious debt to Playdead’s earlier game, Limbo.
Yet, as I sit here writing this, my brain is pinging off in ten different directions, tracing back over the game for moments of significance, for clues to mysteries that maybe only I was seeing, for glances and flashes that maybe meant something, anything I could have missed. I’ve scoured the game and now I’m wondering if there’s more in there, if there needs to be, what ‘more’ would even look like. The real test of Inside isn’t to solve its puzzles, but to finish it and then think upon it.
Inside is hard to talk about right now, because you really need to play and finish it (which won’t take more than about four hours) before you can really discuss, or read about, what exactly it is on anything beyond a base mechanical level. Convincing people to play and finish it, of course, means extolling the game’s numerous virtues…but Inside is so secretive about its intent, even while you’re playing it, that saying anything beyond ‘the A button makes you jump’ feels like unnecessary information. In some ways, the verdict at the bottom of this review seems like both the logical start and endpoint for a review for a game like this. Yes, you should buy and play this. Go and do that.
PlayDead has experience crafting this sort of puzzle-platformer -- Limbo. That was the very first game I ever wrote a published 10/10 review for, and still one of very few games I’d give that score to after eight years working as a freelance games journalist and critic. That game set a precedent that Inside follows up on. If you loved Limbo, you’ll love Inside, because it’s a similar structurally, mechanically, and tonally. These similarities are mostly welcome, although after such a long wait it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if PlayDead had tried something entirely different.
In terms of straight-up puzzle design, Inside is more complex than its predecessor. It’s more clever than difficult, with solutions that frequently ask you to consider different ways to use familiar items without ever demanding any particularly obtuse thinking. There’s no problem that can’t be solved by standing back and looking at your angles of approach, considering the visual and aural information the game is giving you, and planning ahead. Towards the end (again, without saying too much), the game starts to head off in some very strange directions with its room and puzzle structure. I played through the first two thirds of the game at night, in a pitch-black room, well past the point I’d usually go to bed. Right before I turned the console off, I questioned whether I could trust that I was properly processing the experience in my head.
As with Limbo before it, the overarching puzzle element of Inside is trying to decipher it as a whole game, getting to the core of what it is ‘about’, or what it means to you.
At this point, in my head, there are signifiers and clear visual homages that are pointing me in a few different directions. There’s a very explicit, lengthy nod to another game that has me wondering about deeper meaning. There are images and repeated colour palettes that are, I believe, too heavily associated with a certain huge film to not be mean something.
There are things that happen in Inside that you may predict, but others that you definitely will not, and a list of secret objectives, tied to achievements, only deepens the mystery. I’m looking forward not only to reading other people’s analysis in the weeks and months to come, but to deepening my own thoughts and theories.
One thing’s for sure: this is not an optimistic or pleasant game, and there are points where Inside is genuinely scary. Limbo embodied the creepy horrors of childhood -- the spiders in the forest, the fear you might develop of other kids, the looming horror of adulthood represented in its later environments -- whereas Inside is broader in its body horrors and tropes. In fact, Inside is a fairly emotional experience, albeit one where you’re frequently in a demoralised position -- when midway through the game a ‘good’ thing happened, I could only feel dismayed for what, I felt, it represented (which is, again, something I only feel comfortable vaguely alluding to).
Aesthetically, Inside is spectacular. It’s more artistically varied and vibrant than Limbo was, but manages to maintain a similar level of consistency, conveying tone and intent through contrasting light and shadow and a perpetually ominous soundtrack. The game forgoes traditional videogame UI elements -- there’s not a single tutorial, button prompt, or piece of text information displayed on the screen at any time. At times, it doesn’t feel much like a game, even as you control the character; you watch and study Inside as well as play it.
Writing this, two hours after I’ve completed Inside (and then gone back to earn every achievement and follow up on some of the mysteries that people are already posting online), I’m not entirely sure exactly what I make of it yet. All I’m sure of, right now, is that it’s absolutely worth playing, and that I’ll still be thinking about it next week, pulling people aside and trying to line up our thoughts and feelings. Inside feels like the next logical step from Limbo, a game that isn’t, according to my snap judgement, necessarily better, but one which moves forward and does new things with a similar formula. Go play it…and then come find me so we can talk about it.
James O’Connor is a freelance games critic based in Adelaide, Australia. Yes, we have giant spiders like the ones in Limbo down under. He’s on Twitter too: @Jickle