Playdead’s Inside begins with a young boy running through the woods at night, avoiding dogs and men with flashlights while sneaking into some kind of facility. This sets the tone for what will be a very dark and depressing journey through a very strange world. Its first 15 minutes are some of the more memorable in this era of video games, setting up an incredible and wholly mysterious atmosphere. From beginning to end, it seems as if Inside raises more questions than answers, though that is not necessarily a bad thing in this case.
Throughout my 3-4 hours of play time, my perception of what was going on was constantly shifting as the game became weirder and weirder. Upon completion, I attempted to piece everything together and make sense of things in my mind, as if I had just woken up from a bizarre nightmare.
One of Inside’s strongest traits is its atmosphere, which evolves in many ways but always remains unsettling. The environment and setting is constantly changing throughout the game, but each sequence builds on itself like peeling back layers of an onion. The art direction is so clearly defined by lighting, which illuminates set pieces in the environment in such a subtle yet important way. Through this, each relatively simple subject is given dimension and character.
Inside’s controls are very simple and nearly identical to Playdead’s previous side-scrolling platformer, Limbo. Your character moves using the analog stick, jumps by pressing A, and grabs objects using X. Even though movement is limited by a 2D plane, the landscape and environment is entirely 3D. There is so much detail and depth to the backgrounds that it feels as if the player could move freely in any direction. More interestingly, each sequence is approached with a slightly different camera angle. It feels as if a director is behind every scene, instructing a camera operator how to convey each moment. This adds a lot of depth to the environment and atmosphere, as if each scene were handcrafted with care.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Inside is its ability to deliver rich situational storytelling using a very small amount of game mechanics. The opening moments involve your nameless, faceless character running away from the aforementioned men with flashlights. No dialogue is spoken, no premise is set, and yet it seems abundantly clear what is happening. Running through the dark outdoor environment, your character needs to utilize stealth and strategy to remain unseen or, in other instances, escape your captors. This sometimes involves simply hiding behind a rock to avoid a flashlight beam or running away from ‘security’, being careful to jump over fallen trees so as not to fall and get caught.
In one instance, the only way to escape a trailing guard dog is by leaping over a small gorge at full speed. This moment, like many others, feels fast and conveys a great sense of risk. It is amazing how well Inside is able to convey the carefulness of sneaking past guards and the exhilaration of a high-speed foot chase using the same simple mechanic of running in one direction. Later on, these same mechanics will be used to emphasis scale and your character’s sense of wonder.
It is truly impossible to talk about Inside’s bizarre story without spoiling some of its greatest moments. With that being said, it’s important to know that this game is best experienced by going in blind and keeping a very open mind. Story-wise, nothing is abundantly clear, but there are some emotionally impacting scenes. It never ceases to be weird, unsettling, and terrifying.
Puzzles are a vital part of Inside and are often taught to the player through a trial-and-error process. Should you fail to lead dogs or other pursuers away from you in a methodical way, it will result in death. This is true for almost all of the game’s puzzles, which involve grabbing and manipulating objects in a certain way. Each puzzle requires a good amount of thought, but is never difficult enough to halt progress in a substantial way. Checkpoints are very forgiving and you’ll hardly ever have to replay anything you’ve already completed. Therefore, it adds a good challenge without frustration.
Death is frequent throughout the game, whether it’s being tackled and shot by shadowy figures in the beginning sequences or ripped apart by machinery in the later portions of the game. The bone-chilling atmosphere is only enhanced by quick and extremely brutal deaths, very similar to what we have previously seen in Limbo. The fact that you play as a young boy only makes this more disturbing.
Animation and sound also play vital roles in the game’s overall design and atmosphere. Like the brutality of your character’s death, each subtle animation is expertly crafted. Diving into a deep pool of water leaves a trail of bubbles where the water has been disturbed, while raindrops lightly make light impact on the surface. Climbing through windows and ducking under low openings have such smooth animations that they hardly disturb the flow of your character’s movement.
Encounters and confrontations with other characters are handled in such a way that always feels exhilarating. When you escape from someone at the very last moment, there is a feeling of great relief. These brilliant animations are reinforced by a beautiful ambient score, which perfectly portrays every situation. Unsettling horror looms over every area of the game, with haunting sounds to accompany each scene. Climactic moments are met with jarring music, indicating that something huge is going to occur. Mellow sequences are accompanied by a quiet ambiance that feels almost pretty.
Throughout my time playing Inside, I was completely lost in its mystery and haunting atmosphere. I find myself still thinking about the complex and extremely bizarre story, which I continuously try to wrap my head around. In particular, the ending is incredible, and perhaps one of the strangest and most confusing I’ve ever seen. Inside is truly a masterpiece and certainly one of the best games released in 2016. It takes the brilliant ideas and mechanics from Limbo and builds on them in a far more substantial way.