Playdead’s Limbo was a classic etched in monochrome despair. Now, six years later, the studio returns with Inside, a title that could be a spiritual successor but one that feels bolder, more ambitious and with more questions to discuss. Arriving on Xbox One and PC, with a rumoured PS4 release to come, Inside is disturbing in its themes, clever with its mechanics and unlike much else on the current generation.
Those familiar with Limbo will immediately see a lot of shared DNA between the two. The ambient title screen, the handful of options and the opening scene of a young boy on the run are all follow-ons from Limbo. It’s the differences, however, that count. Like Schindler’s List, the boy’s red jumper stands out amongst the muted environment. It’s not vivid by any means, but even a subdued palette feels progressive for Playdead.
As with Limbo, the boy runs across the screen on one or two planes of varying depth, with a smattering more interaction with objects encountered on his path. The six years of development reveal a studio with higher ambitions – the 2D threats of Limbo replaced with equally sinister dangers.
Forgive us the obtuse nature with which we amble around the plot – Inside is best approached with barely any prior knowledge. Like early Lynch, parts of the game feel like a waking nightmare, others dip into body horror. Environment design is up there with City 17 and Dunwall in presenting austere tableaux, familiar but disturbingly alien thanks to creepy connotations. Puzzles are just clever enough to require multiple attempts but never fiendish in design – the developers want you to progress after all. Often these puzzles make use of the ghoulish elements of the world, deadening the horror that arises when you really think about what you’re doing.
Early parts of the game are about discovery, raising questions as to what’s been happening. Wildlife is still present but feels twisted, either a threat that’ll tear out your throat or harmless but expendable. Like Limbo, Inside treats death in a brutal, matter of fact manner – both for the protagonist and others. The boy can, once again, die in horrific, unglorified ways. In colour these become even more gruesome – some leaving nothing but a bloody smear across the floor. Likewise, there are sights later on that reduce the human form to nothing more than vessels to be thrown around and controlled.
It’s here that the sound design is worth mentioning – an ambient score accentuates the harsh audio of the environments. This is an oppressive world, full of industrial clanks, otherworldly soundwaves and the slap of dead flesh on concrete. Apparently all recorded using a human skull as a baffle, the game wouldn’t stand up without the sound design. It’s not flashy or overblown – it’s the run-of-the-mill mundane nature of the sound effects that imbue such a sinister vibe.
All of this contributes to a tour de force final act, generating a host of questions that upend any deductions you may have formed. No spoilers here, but an additional secret ending also paves the way for yet more discussion. That a three or four hour-game could generate such philosophising shows how Playdead are masters of their craft.
Production values are fantastic – every animation feels smooth and perfectly timed. Before they stopped making games, Valve paved the way for environmental storytelling. Inside improves on this with an innate way of telling you where to go and what to do. While this sounds straightforward, there are some ‘out there’ concepts present that don’t seem obvious. Inside makes these feel natural (a strange subversion in itself) without the need for waypoints, screen furniture or even a user interface. It’s the purest visual connection between game and player – minimal controls and nothing but instinct.
So, it’s an odd review; one where the game is deemed a must-play but with very little in the way of explanation. It’s a story-driven title with a wide scope for interpretation, but tight enough to keep players intrigued. If Lost was the ultimate question generating machine (and suffered because of it), Inside whittles it down to unspoken assumptions. Like the war that resulted in Gordon Freeman’s Earth under Combine control, there isn’t an explicit reason behind Inside’s new world order. There isn’t an explanation for the end, cathartic though it may be.
This trust in the player is another reason why Inside should be played by as many people as possible. Those who scoff at walking simulators, clueless to the drama and emotion to be found, might find the morbid scenes of Inside more of a draw after the endless death of Call of Duty and GTA. Adrenaline runs high here as well, but it’s one as motivated by thought as it is by aggressive competition.
If there are any problems, it’s that the game is brief and the mood is sombre. The fact that we won’t get answers either could be seen as a plus or a negative – there will likely never be confirmation as to what is actually going on. It’s a tantalising bit of storytelling but a direct sequel could spoil the mystery. Likewise, the brevity works both for and against the game. There isn’t any padding, but once done it’s pretty much done, bar the secrets. Fans of concise experiences and time-constrained gamers will rejoice - budget-stretched teenagers might be dissuaded to spend cash on it for the same reason. It’s cheaper than a central London movie ticket though, so bear that in mind (plus there aren’t any annoying chavs kicking the back of your chair or loudly munching popcorn!)
Inside is an adult, contemplative and immensely polished experience. It won’t beg for multiple replays, but it will stick with you long after completion, its bizarre scenes etched into your subconscious to resurface at any time. Soon to arrive on PlayStation 4 it’s not to be missed. Now, can everyone please play it so we can discuss it?