|Platforms||PC, XBO (reviewed)|
|Release Date||June 29, 2016|
A boy is moving through a gloomy forest, being hunted by mysterious men. He hides until he’s spotted, then runs for it as they give chase and sick their dogs onto him. He’s almost in the clear when he trips on an exposed tree branch he didn’t see. Before he can get back up a pack of dogs is upon him and tears him to shreds. This was my first experience with Inside. It definitely set the tone for what was to follow.
This is how the game starts – free from context or any kind of narrative introduction. You’re a boy, you’re in the woods and you’re clearly running from something. And then the men and their dogs show up and you’ve got to hold your nerve to escape their incessant pursuit. If you mess up, at the beginning or any other part of the game, you’ll be killed. While the checkpoints are extremely generous in Inside, the death scenes are not. You’ll can be torn apart by dogs, drowned, shot or strangled within those first ten or so minutes.
It’s an effective introduction to a bleak world, as if the lack of colour wasn’t enough of a giveaway. It comes in lieu of any sort of traditional video game opening. This opening acts as a tutorial of sorts, but the kind where you need to experiment to figure out what does what, and how to interact with the game. There are few more effective motivators for getting it right next time than not wanting to see your character, a young boy, drowned in a puddle again.
Inside continues telling its story in such a way for its entire running time. Everything in the game is designed with a minimalist approach, including its story. There are no cutscenes in Inside, nor is there any dialogue. The only context you’re given for this journey is in the things that happen to you and the world itself. It’s up to you to put the pieces together in your own head, with an ending that is as bizarre as it is open to interpretation. It’s because of this that I never really felt attached to the story at any point. I felt bad when I failed and the protagonist was killed in a shockingly brutal fashion, for sure.
But I never really connected with his plight. That’s probably because I never really knew what his plight actually was, outside of the same plight every character in every platformer has – getting from the left hand side of the screen to the right. Everything that happened on the screen happened without any real context and, even though some of the set pieces were really cool, it was impossible to feel invested because each event felt arbitrary. Just another roadblock to overcome to get to the end of the game and nothing more.
Being a game heavily driven by narrative makes this lack of connection a major problem for Inside. I’m all for games that tell their stories in non-traditional manners, and while I’m sure there is a lot of meaning behind the game, the journey itself felt aimless. A series of events until the credits begin to roll, as opposed to a narrative of any kind. Even now, after finishing the game and seeing the extra ending, I couldn’t really tell you what the point of it all was, or what I was ultimately trying to accomplish in the game, other than moving from left to right. Inside had some great ideas, and there were some great set pieces, but ultimately it never really felt like it connected together in any way.
Those set pieces though – some of them were fantastic. I won’t go into detail, because they deserve to be played without foreknowledge, but I will sing their praises. What really works for them, aside from the generally excellent atmosphere Inside builds itself, is that they’re never repeated. An early encounter with a pig, as an example, is memorable because it only happens once. It’s also a cool encounter. Where a lesser game might recognise this as a well crafted set piece and decide to repeat it over and over until it’s worn into the ground, Inside adopts a one and done approach that works in both keeping the game feeling fresh (for the most part) and making these encounters memorable.
Inside also succeeds in keeping the atmosphere going right the way through. Y’know, the one from the beginning of the game I mentioned – where men are coming to brutally murder your child protagonist. Although Inside isn’t a traditional horror game, it’s deeply unsettling thanks to the clever way it builds its world. It could fit quite neatly into the psychological end of the horror spectrum, doing a fantastic job of keeping you in a constant state of dread. You’ll never, ever feel safe as you make your way to the right hand side of the screen without knowing what’s waiting for you when the camera moves again.
The puzzles, which make up the main bulk of the gameplay, tend to get a bit repetitive the further into the game you go. They mostly revolve around you climbing stuff, or pushing and pulling stuff, or timing your movements so you don’t get caught in spotlights – that kind of thing. The trouble is there’s only so many different variations of that Inside can run through before the veil starts to fall, and puzzles start to feel like palette swaps of the same thing. There are some neat twists that come later on thanks to a mechanic I wouldn’t dare spoil in a review, but even these “twist” puzzles follow the same basic formula.
None of the puzzles you’ll find in Inside are massively challenging either. Depending on what you want from the game that can either be a good or bad thing. For me personally, I liked that the puzzles weren’t brain melting in nature because they kept the flow of the game steady. You won’t ever be stuck for more than a few minutes as you look around and slowly piece together what you need to do to solve something. And mechanically the gameplay is solid as a rock, which helps. Although there are some puzzles that require precise timing and a ton of trial and error, which do threaten to derail the pacing the game sets up, and become tedious and frustrating well before you’ll have cleared them.
Inside is a good game that is wrapped around a story that is far too ambiguous to let me ever truly engage with it. As I said above I have no problem with games that are enigmatic in the way they present a narrative, but Inside felt like a serious of almost unconnected events. Because we’re never given a clear idea of why we’re directing this boy to the right of the screen, everything feels arbitrary. I’m even more disappointed that I couldn’t connect with the game, because Playdead just about nailed everything else. The atmosphere and general sense of unease and dread the game produces is excellent. The puzzles are, for the most part, well implemented without slowing the pace of the game down (until they get a bit repetitive towards the end). And this is all supported by solid gameplay with pinpoint mechanics and movement controls. Inside is a good game that could have been great with a slightly tighter, more cohesive narrative.
You can check out the Words About Games review policy, which includes our score guide, by clicking here.