A movie that accurately represents the minuscule tasks of your favourite hobby; the perfect mix of seasoning and the light crunch of a toasted bun for a hamburger; the accuracy of full-size animal models at LegoLand: all are examples of how attention to detail can raise a creative work from the realm of average to one of speciality. With Playdead’s Inside, the Danish developers have created a transfixing game where their focus on detail rounds out a collection of intriguing puzzles and unmatched environmental design. Despite being more of an experience than a challenging game, Inside is a riveting piece of work that stays on the player’s mind long after the ending credits.
Inside is a 2D puzzle platformer where you play a boy running from – or perhaps towards – something or someone, in an apocalyptic world coloured in greyscale and with a morose and sullen mood. If this sounds like last generation’s Limbo, that’s because Playdead developed that game as well. While Limbo and Inside share similar themes and colourless palettes, Inside definitely takes advantage of advances in technology, as well as in the developer’s techniques. The gameplay takes place within two dimensions but objects and characters are in three, and the foregrounds and backgrounds are highly detailed, creating visual depth as well as helping unravel the game’s story, drop by drop. The light from cars driven by masked enemies skirts through openings between dark trees and players must guide the character under the shadows of objects above in order to hide from moving spotlights and other traps. The physics of characters and objects flying through the air and bouncing into water feel predictable and realistic, aiding in figuring out how an idea for a solution might play out in the game. Playdead’s focus on the optimum experience can be found in every aspect of the final product.
The puzzles in Inside are extremely satisfying in their introductions, in how the player can interact with them, and with how the solution is found. The game never truly repeats a puzzle idea, instead delivering a sequence of inventive obstacles to the player. Some require you to move along to a certain timing, while others require a certain order of manipulating the environment. There are puzzles based around physics and a few that are surprising in their implementation and won’t be spoiled here. Most puzzles are not cerebrally challenging to a high degree but many do require the player to think and act quickly, creating thrilling moments where one misstep means death for your character. The game has forgiving checkpoints, and it’s the gruesome visuals of your boy character dying in horrible ways – being shot, blown up, or suffocated – and the discomfort of seeing them, that keep the player wanting to succeed.
As I said before, the attention to detail in Inside is incredible. Already a great game due to its puzzles and story, the numerous animations and environmental details add up to greatly increase the overall quality of the game. The way that the boy’s fear is shown through his hunched shoulders and looking back while running, the subtle differences between animations for jumping over one obstacle versus another, and the realistic way that the boy’s legs dangle, then wrap around a rope as he climbs up it, are a few examples of how much work Playdead’s animators went into making the playable character feel real and alive. This attention to detail extends to the environment as well, with both clear and coded clues to the game’s lore placed in every scene. For good measure, the clocks in the game even tell the same time as your console’s clock. These details by themselves would have no impact but when combined with numerous other ones, you being to feel like this game was specially crafted with care.
While the variety of puzzles and the distinct art design are the big stars of Inside, the subtle story plays an important supporting role. Short, silent scenes involving the world’s characters, as well as the environment and items within it, do the heavy lifting when it comes to telling the game’s plot. Unlike the puzzles within the game, the game’s story has no solution. Instead it’s largely open to interpretation, so much so that the biggest fans of the game will likely be piecing together explanations of the story for years to come. The story’s ambiguity will certainly leave some players feeling totally lost – even frustrated – but Inside is using this ambiguity to further its themes, not take away from them. The story begs as much attention as the player wants to give it and does put forth some interesting, albeit opaque, questions to the interested consumer. Playing the game through two or three times helps reveal the effort that the developers went through in expressing certain themes from start to the mindblowing and strange finish.
The story that Inside tells may be a bit pretentious in how enigmatic it is, but its gameplay is accessible and often thrilling. Each puzzle feels fresh and the difficulty hardly ever breeds frustration. The minimalist soundtrack is appropriately haunting, and the art style is uncommon in how it mixes hand-drawn art with incredibly realistic animations. Often categorized as a puzzle-platformer, Inside is really more of a video game experience than anything else, thanks to just how unique and massive the game feels, despite it only being about three hours long. Inside is proof that when a game developer combines traditional design, artistic expression, and incredible attention to detail, chances are the final product will be something very special.