Sometimes you pay a price when you write reviews for people who’ve already played a game. That price is people who look to reviews to decide what they’re going to play. Where will they spend their time or money? But if I’m going to critique Inside based on what I know after I’ve played it, and if the majority of Inside’s appeal is discovery, I can’t tell you much without compromising your experience with the game.
In other words, there will be spoilers.
But first, I have three things I want to tell people who haven’t played Inside.
After the jump, don’t worry, it’s safe to keep reading!
If you haven’t played Inside, an adventure game from Limbo developer Playdead, there are three things you should know. The first is that it’s a mediocre game about a guy running from the left side of the screen toward the right side of the screen, stopping along the way to solve the usual puzzles. I didn’t run into a single puzzle I hadn’t seen before. My reaction was more often “oh, this” instead of “hmm”. I furthermore didn’t run into a single puzzle that didn’t feel forced into the narrative. They were like commercial interruptions. We’ll be right back after this word from our obligatory game design. Howdy, folks! Here at Inside, we offer the latest in crate pushing, lever pulling, dash timing, Lemmings playing, button pushing, and back-and-forth leapfrog with ravenous beasts that cause instadeath until you get it right! And now back to our show.
The second thing you should know is that the first-rate spooky storytelling is first-rate. Inside looks wonderful (the artwork and especially animation are to die for!), feels mysterious, and has a grand payoff. This is another good story stuck into a not so good game. Is the story good enough to compensate for the not so good game? No. Well, not until the end. At which point, yeah, okay, it was worth it.
Which brings me to the third and most important thing you should know before I run you off so those of us who have finished the game can talk freely. Developer Playdead is located in Denmark and it shows. This is not a game that someone in the Bay Area or the Pacific Northwest would make. This wouldn’t come from some upstart studio in Texas or wherever people further east might make games. This isn’t even a British game or something Kickstarted by feisty Eastern Europeans. This is a game from the same country that gave us Lars von Trier and Nicolas Winding Refn. Is it any coincidence Inside developer Playdead is partly funded by the Danish Film Institute? Those aren’t just handouts, by the way. They’re government buy-ins to support a cultural identity, something as foreign to Americans as universal health care or a 40% tax rate. Rhode Island and 38 Studios excepted, but we all know how that turned out.
Not that there are any direct links to, say, Antichrist or Neon Demon. But there is a distinct tone once you get past the familiar puzzles. This is what a videogame would be like if it were made by von Trier or Refn. Inside exudes menace, whether from authority, infection, or violence. There’s an oppressive sense of hopelessness in the world it creates, drawn without much light or color. It is unique for its willingness to be dark and weird where most American games are either dark or weird.
And that’s all I have to say if you haven’t played the game. Consider this a concise 500 word review and leave it at that, because if you intend to play Inside, you should probably go away now. Are you gone? Okay, is it just those of us who saw our way to the very end? Good. Let’s proceed.
One of my problems with Inside was the presentation as a 2D platformer in an obviously 3D world. You are relentlessly bound from any left or right interaction, which on one hand streamlines the puzzles and therefore gameplay, but on the other hand makes an otherwise eerie game sometimes seem ridiculous. Did you see Prometheus? If so, ha ha. Do you remember the part when Charlize Theron is running away from the rolling donut alien ship? Remember how she got smushed because she didn’t veer left or right? That’s how Inside can feel. You’re watching in disbelief at the absurdity of someone stuck because he’s unwilling to simply veer left or right. All that stuff going on in the background? Off limits. But what about that door over there, or that open hallway, or the short climb to a new area? Off limits! It’s partly Playdead’s fault for doing so much environmental storytelling in the background. They make great use of all that space. But it’s still jarring.
I didn’t play much Limbo because I don’t have much patience for pushing crates when I’m being told a story. But I stuck with Inside because it was so inscrutable and vague, but so immediately provocative with its truckload of people being carted away like cattle. Danes are going to be much more aware of the Holocaust implications of that first set piece, but plenty of us Americans will still find that, well, arresting.
So unlike Limbo’s shadowy boy and his indiedreamjourneyscape, I wanted to find out what was going on inside Inside. I wanted to find out where we were and who this boy was and where he was going. I wanted to find out why there’s an elliptical Holocaust reference in a redwood forest that might also be an elliptical ET reference. This seems like the same redwood forest where Elliott ran from a bunch of federal agents. Except these federal agents are way more sinister, as you’ll discover when you invariably stumble into a fail state.
But nothing is answered anytime soon. In fact, most of the time, I’m not even sure where Inside is. Are we in a big warehouse? How far undersea are we going? Is this a ship? Didn’t we just get on a ship? A sunken ship? Wait, are we still even undersea? And why are is this boy going where he’s going? Is it simply because this is where the developers of the game want him to go? They’ve just pointed him — and by virtue of this being a game, me — in a direction and told us to run, without telling us what we’re running toward, or even what we’re running from. That can’t be a good idea. Oh, look, we were in a mountain. When did that happen?
But what I initially thought was an oversight turned out to be a fundamental principle. I don’t know where the boy is going, or where he is, or even who he is, because he is not me. He knows things I don’t know. He has seen things I haven’t seen. He sees things I don’t see. When he gets to what seems to the be the end of the game, he pushes his way up to the glass where a crowd is peering in at something. I don’t know what it is. I can’t see it. It’s offscreen to the right. I almost hoped Inside would end here. But the game isn’t over because the boy obviously needs to do something based on what he saw through the glass. I don’t know what he saw until I continue moving him along his linear path and we come to the fleshly mass hooked up to four tubes. Even then, I don’t know why he feels the need to unhook the tubes. I don’t even know what’s become of him when the fleshy mass absorbs him. I certainly don’t know what the fleshy mass wants.
The point is that the boy’s motivation, and later the fleshy mass’ motivation, aren’t the same as your motivation because you aren’t them. This isn’t the usual game in which you control an avatar. You aren’t this character. Inside doesn’t need to establish that, uh, let’s see…you have amnesia! Right! That’s totally it! So you have amnesia and therefore you learn what’s going on along with the character and you furthermore have all your skills set to level one. Inside confidently embraces the concept of the player as a spectator on the outside, just like all those people gathered around the glass looking into the tank. Inside is inside, and you are outside, and although you can witness what’s happening, you cannot be a part of it. You will never be inside the boy’s head. You will never know why he needs to get through that particular door. You will never know where he came from when he stumbled down a one-way incline on the left side of the screen, commencing the game. When he drowns, you will not drown with him. You will not get to participate in the gibbering insanity of that fleshy mass’ rampage to the edge of the sea. You will not be wiser after these strange episodes. You will only know the shadowy incidentals of what happened. It is a dash — with puzzle interruptions — to a biological assimilation into oblivion. The boy’s identity is lost. Now you’re playing a shoggoth. Or whatever that thing is.
It’s a wonderful way to end the game. Because what’s remarkable about the animation and control isn’t just the naturalistic running, stumbling, shuffling, tripping, leaping, and other various things characters do in a platformer. What’s remarkable about the animation and control is how it leads up to this pulsing ungainly mass. The way it undulates and writhes, the limbs that protrude and grasp and buckle under its weight and even fall off. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen something I’ve never seen before.
Visual media has yet to do justice to one of Lovecraft’s ultimate horrors. Although this isn’t a shoggoth — a shoggoth has eyes and mouths and this thing just has arms and legs — I’ll take it. Let’s call it a limbed shoggoth. Inside won’t contradict me because Inside doesn’t have a single spoken or written word (how’s that for an easy localization process?).
Oh, but now the shoggoth has to play a puzzle about getting a burning crate past a sprinkler system. Of course, you throw the crate over the sprinklers and then run to the other side to catch it. Duh. I also take issue with the way the underwater creature is handled. The gracefully animated Samara mermaid adds some harrowing moments. But the scripted drowning when she catches the boy feels like a cheat. After all those times I had to restart because she drowned the boy, now it’s going to happen for reals? I could have been saved a lot of pointless puzzle aggravation if she’d just drowned the boy earlier.
So what is the point of the ending? What is the point of the boy’s decision to let (?) himself get sucked into a twenty foot tall moaning tumor? What does it all mean? The primary fact about these questions and the questions that precede them is that they aren’t answered. That is the single best design decision in this otherwise unimaginative design. Stripped of its mystery, Inside is just another platformer. But Inside is never stripped of its mystery. It clings to it until the very end, taking it quite literally to its grave. Sunlight is no disinfectant here. Whatever mystery parasite was infecting the pigs, whoever was shipping truckloads of people into an assembly line zombie converter, whoever the underwater monster child was, whatever the boy has become, whoever was in that mass of flesh with him, whatever has happened to this world, all these things come to an unanswered halt at the edge of the water under a conspicuous ray of light that does nothing to illuminate the mystery. And just to let the point sink in, Inside stops here for a while. It holds that single static image the way the end of a symphony might hold a single note. It’s ambiguity at its most maddening, most frustrating, most unsatisfying. It’s ambiguity at its absolute best.
Inside is a brilliant story inside a mediocre game. It would have been a better game if it had been what is unfairly derided as a “walking simulator”. Videogames have grown up enough that the game part of their name can mean many things. We no longer have to jump for coins or reload weapons or wait for spells to cooldown or slide crates into place. We’re not children who need to be dazzled with moving parts and shiny effects and experience points. I’d argue Ken Levine helped usher videogames into this level of adulthood with Bioshock. But it’s unfortunate that otherwise fantastic storytellers like Amy Hennig (Uncharted), Neil Druckmann (Last of Us), the Firewatch creators at Campo Santo, and even Levine himself with Bioshock Infinite are detracting from remarkable stories with obligatory and uninspired gameplay. There are ways to work interactivity into a meaningful story. There are ways to keep gameplay from becoming busywork on the way to the narrative.
Consider Quadrilateral Cowboy for bringing you along for the adventures that unite its three characters. Consider Gone Home for how Steve Gaynor lets you meticulously builds the solution to the mystery, piece by deceptive piece until you see the whole. Consider the notes you get in Little Inferno. Consider the actors interacting in Oxenfree on your way to the next waypoint. Consider the quiet awe of your slow tour through Soma’s sunken world.
But Inside can’t resist padding its story with what passes for gameplay. Who knows whether it’s because Playdead didn’t have the confidence in their story or because videogamers need to push crates onto pressure plates in order to call something a videogame. Whatever the case, Inside is a provocatively outside-the-box story in a disappointingly inside-the-box game.
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