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Inside (PC) artwork

Inside (PC) review


"Inside forgoes answering questions that, in Limbo, we were never asking to begin with."


Inside (PC) image


Is it fair to rag on a developer for sticking too rigidly to the same formula when this is only their second game? When the influence of their debut is felt as widely as Limbo's, yes. You've built this world, Playdead. Now adapt to it.

Inside is a game about a young boy losing his innocence in an unrelentingly sinister environment, a premise it shares with Limbo and the countless titles floating about the indie circuit that would really, really like to be Limbo. It's now all framed as a sci-fi dystopia, so there's a bit more context – everything terrible that happens to our protagonist (and boy do a lot of terrible things happen to him) is the result of an evil totalitarian government performing experiments on civilians.

That attempt to add narrative weight to this formula runs perpendicular to the spirit of Limbo, a game that, right down to its very title, deliberately shot down attempts to find reason in what was really an exercise in pure interactive artistry. Playdead's continued choice of going dialog-free creates an unsightly clash between wanting to give this world depth and refusing to let us dive below the surface. Inside forgoes answering questions that, in Limbo, we were never asking to begin with.

To wit, I don't recall ever being so bothered by a video game protagonist being restricted to a 2D plane, or that all of the world's horrors have seemingly been arranged in a perfectly straight line. Hey, kid? I see some perfectly vacant fields in the background. Maybe consider running in that direction? There don't seem to be any WMD tests going on over there.

Inside (PC) image


It's easy to dismiss Limbo's iconic monochrome visual style as a flourish and nothing more, but portraying an entire world in silhouettes created a very deliberate disconnect that made both the randomness and the grimness of its events easier to swallow. Its only "point" was to demonstrate that a game can be scary, funny and minimalistic in equal measure. But Inside is too vivid, too intimate to be darkly amusing. We're no longer chuckling over this child's constant misfortune; we're watching him get torn apart by attack dogs in graphic detail. It's an ugly, pointlessly miserable game, and to what end? To communicate that totalitarian governments are a bad idea? Even if I needed to be told that, you're hardly the first to do so, Playdead.

So what we're left with is a series of physics-based puzzle-platformer vignettes related only in how they almost universally recycle mechanics from Limbo – the block-pushing, the manipulating of twisted machinery, the instant deaths nullified in frustration by generous checkpoints. A mind control system that's highly reminiscent of The Swapper is an early breath of fresh air, but it loses its luster during a prolonged sequence in which you've got to scour every inch of a large building, gathering small groups of zombie-like followers until you're running around with your own veritable Pikmin army. You need 20 of these guys to – brace yourself – hold down a pressure switch with a big "20" behind it.

Again, all of this is framed as some government testing ground for futuristic weapons, yet that explanation makes many of Inside's sketches no less baffling. Some weird siren-like creature serves as your nemesis for a lengthy portion of the campaign; as with everything else in Playdead's work, if she gets hold of you, you're instantly dead. But then, after avoiding her for what must be at least a half an hour, she unavoidably catches you anyway? But then decides to help you by giving you the ability to breathe underwater, with no explanation? So what was the point of all of that?

Inside (PC) image


Likewise, the game's clunkiest puzzles revolve around rooms in which the pull of gravity is reversed for water and nothing else. Even if there's some carefully hidden explanation as to why this evil government is trying to make bodies of water hang from the ceiling, these puzzles make no sense, and navigating them is a tedious exercise in trial-and-error. Woe be the physics puzzler centered on unpredictable physics.

So 90% of Inside is trite, mixing old ideas rehashed from more inspired games with new ideas that don't work, but it's saved, at least slightly, by a closing sequence that is absolutely unlike anything else I've ever played. To describe it in any way would be to spoil one of the year's most jarring surprises, but this final segment is truly unique on both a visual and mechanical level.

But even then, as creatively bizarre as the finale is, I don't know why it's here. This is where Playdead's decision to omit dialog may have ruined Inside for me, because while I've seen some debate over whether the final stretch of the game paints the protagonist's intentions in a new light, I'm just not buying whatever message we're supposed to be taking away here. Even when Inside undergoes major mechanical changes at the last second, our objective is the same as it's always been: to walk to the right. When we can't walk any farther to the right, our protagonist sits down and the game ends. Fine work, kid. Everything is on the left now.

This is the risk of going artsy-fartsy, of using minimalistic storytelling to mask a point in a follow-up to a game that reveled in not having one. When the message is lost on me, I'm left with a game unable to justify, in 2016, why we're still doing these damn seesaw puzzles. And here's the thing: Holocaust imagery? That's the easiest kind of emotional manipulation, doubly so when it's happening to a child. Inside is only three hours long, but that's three hours I could have spent playing a game with something insightful to say.

2/5

Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (August 09, 2016)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Masters posted August 16, 2016:

Ugh. Anti-Big Brother sentiment, Holocaust images, and gore. Everything I want in an action-puzzler starring a child protagonist! Playdead have lost their way. Nice review, though.

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