Inside is developer Playdead’s follow up to 2010’s indie darling, Limbo. In anticipation of its release, I recently replayed Limbo, concluding that it is a game that is more about setting a mood and a tone than in anything else. That isn’t a knock on Limbo either as I think that what Limbo is capable of evoking in its audience is impressive. It’s a beautiful looking game that is also troubling and unsettling as a result of its haunting atmosphere and ambiguous, but still compelling, narrative line.
In some sense, Inside‘s strengths are exceedingly similar to Limbo. However, it ratchets its unsettling nature up a few notches, turning away from merely haunting to out and out and horror, especially in its final surprising act. Like Limbo, this is a game that also tells a fairly ambiguous story, hinting at its larger themes, while leaving much of the backgrounding of characters and plot to implication. A player needs to feel comfortable with not having everything ultimately explained when approaching either of Playdead’s games.
In a sense, there is more of a story here than exists in Limbo, but the fine and final details are ultimately left open. Once again, it is theme and tone that are ridden much harder than story in this new game.
There is definitely an overall concern with collectivism and individualism and the tension that exists between the two in Inside‘s dystopian setting, in which a little boy hides out from the representatives of a ruling class that are bent on creating order through mind control. However, the game is less interested in giving us the gory details of the history of this universe or its politics than it is in embodying its ideas through images and (once again) implications about what is frightening about the philosophy underpinning such a regime.
The boy quite literally explores the “inside” of this authoritarian regime’s base of operations, its laboratories and factories, but what being trapped “inside” a social system in which no one really gets to think their own thoughts is really represented through the game’s most horrific twist. I can’t talk much about that twist without spoiling one of the more troubling moments that I have ever had while playing a video game, but needless to say, the game ups the ante on what being “inside” can potentially mean. The game’s final horror is far beyond any kind of horror that Limbo‘s moody meditation on childhood evokes.
Inside‘s gameplay will be familiar to players of Limbo. This is a puzzle game with only the most basic controls for interacting with the world. You can jump, you can push and pull, and you’ll only be using two buttons for the game’s many physics-based puzzles. Like Limbo, trial and error is most often the way to get through puzzles, with brutal death becoming your only real tutor in the game. Like Limbo, Inside never tells you what you should do. Instead, by killing you, it only suggests, “Don’t do that”.
There are some new concepts that the game plays with that feel different from Limbo, especially those involving a very cleverly implemented mind control helmet that the boy sometimes comes into possession of. Doing so, allows him to control the zombie-like populous of the world of Inside by causing whatever you do (running, jumping, pushing and pulling) to be immediately mimicked by these mindless hordes. This gimmick is especially well animated (it’s funny to watch the boy run in mid air while hanging from the helmet, while watching his zombie henchmen do the same) and serves to reinforce the thematic interests of the game.
Playdead took six years to follow up a very successful debut. The six years were not wasted. Inside looks amazing, plays well, and constantly tugs at you emotionally through its bizarre, frightening, and familiar, yet still mysterious, universe. It’s a hell of a game.