Inside (PlayStation 4) review
"Everything's more meaningful when it's made in Denmark"
Playdead are masters of the unnerving. They donít create games; they create experiences. Partially funded by the Danish Film Institute, this band of storyteller, artists, and animators have really set themselves apart from their peers by weaving indescribable feeling into otherworldly settings. I could agree their ambition transcends the guise of mere platforming to become outright art.
I could also agree that their second deliverable, 2016ís Inside, is art trapped in a mediocre gameís packaging. This is the price to admission, it would seem. Sort of like how youíll stand in a long line waiting to see the centerpiece in a museumís gallery. You must endure 90 minutes of simple puzzle solving and platforming before you can achieve the gameís Big Reveal. And what a reveal it is. Scarcely has a game ever went from something so by-the-numbers to so out of the ordinary. The more I say about its grand payoff, the more Iím likely to ruin it.
So without further ado, letís look at Inside from the outside.
You control a boy whose primary goal is to scroll from the left side of the screen to the right. Who is he? What are his motivations? The story of Inside is conveyed not in words but through actions. The first feeling portrayed is solitude followed by fear. Inside doesnít pull out any jump scares or cheap tricks. Instead it opts to convey a desolate and bleak world cast in shadow pierced by incredibly precise lighting. To endure in this world would require hiding from the state and its dystopian presence, but then thatís only the physical side to the emotive misery on display. Its portrayal is second to none. And yet the most interesting thing youíre tasked to do is push boxes.
Inside is set on a 2D plane disguised as a fully realized 3D world. The boy begins his journey running through a more sinister version of the woods from ET, avoiding sinister men baring tell-all beams of light, hauling defenseless folks away. This is what happens when society has failed, and itís with this tidbit of information that you begin to empathize with the boy. A rabid Doberman comes rushing through the trees, barking and biting at the boy in hot pursuit. Only an aggressive leap across a deep chasm keeps the boy safe. How things might have changed had he had the opportunity to veer to the left or right of his set path. There will be no off-rails deviation here. Later on, when hopping across rooftops, avoiding the long lines of brainwashed citizens marching in detail to the command of Big Brother, youíre left to wonder what might be just beyond the horizon or right behind that window. Itís all so tantalizingly in reach. But youíll never know. Inside would rather keep you looking outside.
It would also seek to offer some semblance of geographical logic, but that is more of a nitpick than a full on complaint. From the woods to the farm to the town to the facility. Insideís design is often constructed in such a way to allow for progression from one simple puzzle to the next. This is in spite of its illogical level planning and physics defying construction. If you have to pull a lever to launch a box from a pressure plate to displace a jutting beam so you can make a bridge over a pit to make your way to a ladder, chances are youíre traversing world design not meant to be logical. This is doubly so when the traversal is easy. There are no difficult puzzles here. Death is rarely a hindrance.
Perhaps itís to facilitate progression to the gameís satisfying conclusion, or maybe itís because Playdead thought simple push / pull puzzles constitute good game mechanics. I will laud them for their storytelling, and I will give them mad kudos for their technical artistry. But their gameplay is, well, decidedly bland. Itís not about the journey; itís all about the destination.
After some amount of time has been spent running, climbing, jumping, pushing, pulling, imitating, swimming, hiding, dying, and reviving, that little boy youíve been navigating through this derelict world reaches the end of his road Ė but not the end of the road Ė in one of gamingís most incredible climaxes. At the end, nothing is overtly stated. Everything is left open to interpretation. And chances are youíll leave with a lingering sense of uncertainty over what you just experienced.
This is an economical review for a game that cannot be adequately covered without revealing its punchline. If you have yet to play Inside, then know that the higher experience transcends the game, and the game itself is nothing more than a gateway to something special . . .
If you have played Inside, or at least know what the Big Reveal is, then consider this the point of no return where I let loose on what the hell Iíve been dancing around all this time. Are you ready for it? I am too.
After making his way through one dilapidated area to the next, the boy finally finds himself in a large, water-filled tank with a monstrous entity sharing his space. Four tubes hold this being in place, but the boy soon changes that. One tube unplugged. Then two. Next the third. At which point something happens. The boy becomes absorbed. He ceases to be singular. Now he is part of a mass of flesh, fat, and bone. He is the Huddle. And it is unsettling.
Has there ever been a more depressing or pathetic entity in a game than the Huddle? This writhing sack of flesh and flailing limbs is nothing more than a mewling, moaning mass of sadness and suffering. Just what, exactly, were those sinister G-men doing here? While much has been speculated about Insideís ending, to me, itís more a matter of Playdeadís ability to conjure strong emotional responses to something as alien as a fleshy sack of running meat.
If the boy requires discretion to reach his destination, the Huddle has no reservation about crashing through obstacles that obstruct its way, ripping objects from walls, or making a beeline for that comforting beam of light at the edge of the world. Insideís ending is as abrupt as its reveal is deliberate. When the Huddle rolls down a rocky hill upon escaping the facility, you can see the life leave its body as the camera rests stationary for what feels like an eternity. Only once the credits appear on screen can you start to make sense of what it all means.
Itís been a few days since Iíve ran through the gauntlet, and Iím still trying to make sense of it all. While I have no desire to replay Inside, I still have a strong desire to review its final 15 minutes in my head or on Youtube, whichever is more easily available. The animation, the very specific and precise use of light and shadow, the quiet, slow-burn style of creeping horror that permeates throughout its space Ė all of these elements combine to make Inside a game I wonít forget any time soon. It sets itself apart as a real-time experience. It makes its full impact as a lingering memory. Outside is just an indie game, but inside is art.
Featured community review by Fiddlesticks (March 22, 2018)
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