I’ve never played it but Limbo is considered one of the biggest games in indie gaming. It released in 2010 to critical acclaim for its atmosphere and art style and was part of the rise of indie gaming that saw the likes of Minecraft, Braid, Bastion, Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, among others, become critical and commercial hits.
It’s taken six years for developer Playdead to produce their second game, Inside. The spiritual successor to Limbo seems to be worth the wait as critics have universally lauded the game, even in comparison to Playdead’s previous effort. However, I don’t think it’s the 10/10 effort that most critics say that it is.
Spoiler Alert: There are some story spoilers in this review. It’s not a detailed examination of the plot but there is a point-form plot summary so I can discuss the writing of the game. Skip the third and fourth paragraphs below this if you want to avoid discussion of the story.
Like Limbo, Inside sees you taking control of a boy as he runs to the right in a dark puzzle-platformer. Unlike Limbo, there are some splashes of colour in this game but they’re very low on the saturation scale. I found it an interesting design choice that the colour disappeared the further you went into the game until some colour came back at the end. As the game descended into madness (more in a moment), the colour disappeared which I’m going to credit as being an intentional design choice. It’s not a very happy game to begin with but the change in colour saturation seemed to be tied to the gravity of the situation that your character found himself in.
The other thing about the presentation that I love is that it’s refreshingly minimalist. There is no HUD. There are no instructions or hints provided. You’re thrown straight into the game as a boy running through the woods. There’s no explanation as to what’s going on. You’re tasked with running right and avoiding death. Most of what you do in the game is a function of trial and error so you’ll die a lot. While Inside has a very forgiving checkpoint system, the game punishes you for these deaths by making them uncomfortably gruesome. The boy will be shot, strangled, have his throat torn out by dogs, electrocuted, drowned, broken from long falls and more. It almost makes the torture porn deaths in Tomb Raider seem tame.
The story is left to you to interpret. Unfortunately, it makes so many nonsensical twists and turns that I have no idea what the hell was going on by the end. The opening in the woods seemed very based in history. People rounded up into the back of trucks by the military and taken off to what turned out to be a factory seemed to me to be a call back to World War II. Then you run into people in the factory who are mind controlled so perhaps this is a commentary on modern corporate culture (i.e. we’re all corporate drones). At one point, there appears to be bombs tested so maybe we are dealing with a war. Then you find these underground mines and submerged buildings (maybe a boat) that reminds me of the second act of Portal 2. There are mermaids randomly thrown in. And the ending makes absolutely no sense compared to the rest of it and the rest didn’t make sense to begin with.
Inside introduces a lot of different potential stories but does nothing with them. People are being rounded up as part of a war. Maybe they’re prisoners being persecuted or being forced into serving the war effort but you never rescue them. The underground and underwater sections never really pay off except as a means to progress. Maybe the ending ties back to the factory but there’s no resolution for anyone shown in game. If you were to ask me what the story is, it’s the journey of a boy from left to right in some sort of dream. It doesn’t make sense at face value. You can assign whatever meanings strike your fancy.
The narrative, like most dreams, seems aloof and incomplete. Anything of potential interest and importance is happening in the background of the game and you want to jump out of your 2D running lane and explore life in that more interesting third dimension. As a result, the story is rendered meaningless in the grand scheme of the game. The background is there to create obstacles and puzzles rather than tell a story.
As for the actual gameplay, the controls are responsive and precise. I never blamed the controls for any of my many deaths. My issue with the controls is that none of them are explained apart from one button being the jump button and the other being the action button and that’s only covered in the options menu.
While jump is always jump, the action button will change depending on the context and you’ll never know what the action button will do until you push it. On the one hand, it’s an old school design philosophy where you don’t have tutorials and you couldn’t be bothered with the instruction booklet so you had to rely on intuition (like how running right is built into twenty-plus years of gaming intuition). On the other, the game kept introducing mechanics as you go along and you had to die over and over until you experimented your way into making those new mechanics work for you. For example, at one point, you blend into a line of people who have to jump or turn on command. Turning isn’t using the thumbstick but rather tied to the action button for this time only. Similarly, you can’t throw boxes except for this one section right at the end where you can throw them and is necessary to complete the game. Those are just minor examples of something that happened a few times during the game.
The puzzles themselves aren’t too hard. They’re a little tricky the first time encounter a puzzle of that type but you’ll run into them a few times. The mind control puzzles don’t have a lot of variation once you figure it out the first time. There are a lot of bait-and-switch direction puzzles. Stealth is a big element in the game and you’ll quickly get a general idea of how shadows are cast by security cameras or flashlights so you can hide.
Along with playing well, it really does look gorgeous. While the environments are a bit odd, every level seems more practical for a real-world purpose rather than functional for a game. The animations are well done. The sound is very weighty and haunting, especially the heavy footsteps of the damned and the terrifying barks of the ravenous dogs.
Looking at some of the reviews, I was surprised to see one review say this is an eight to ten hour game. I don’t know how this game takes eight hours when I was able to do it in less than half that length. I think that it took me just over three hours to complete. Most reviewers say that this is a four-hour game. Keep in mind that this is a $20 game so the price might be a little steep for some especially considering there isn’t much in terms of replayability other than achievements.
I know that I’m asking for trouble with this review. I’m not the only one who didn’t particularly care for this game when it was all said and done. It’s not a bad game. From an objective perspective, the visuals and the game mechanics are executed excellently. Playdead put a lot of effort into designing this world and it shows in Inside. My biggest problem is that the game feels like they came up with a lot of ideas they liked for puzzles and environments but forgot to string them together with a story. It pretends to be a narrative when one doesn’t actually exist.
The story is what prevents Inside from achieving greatness. Everything else is very well done, indie game or not. It’s clear that a lot of time and effort went into what is presented to us as a game. The issue I keep coming back to is that none of it made any sense. None of it meant anything. If all of these disparate environments and puzzles could have been brought together along the way or at the end in a cohesive story, I would certainly give it a better score. However, as someone who loves a good story in a game, I can appreciate what is here but also lament what was lacking.
Inside was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available on Xbox One. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and if you think that story is important to a video game.