INSIDE is, put simply, a masterpiece – not due to finely polished mechanics or cleverly crafted levels – but in its beautiful presentation and exquisite attention to detail. Styled after 2D platformers, INSIDE feels more like an interactive story than a traditional game – allowing the player to unveil a beautiful yet horrific world while maintaining a measure of control over what happens. Before proceeding with this review, I want to clarify that I have no intention of spoiling the story. One of INSIDE’s greatest strengths is the story (and the way you learn about it) and I would hate to tarnish that for new players.
Presented in a washed-out greyscale palette, you take on the role of a vulnerable child trying to stay alive. Much like Playdead’s predecessor (Limbo), the game paints the picture of a dark and foreboding world – where death lurks around every corner for the unwary player. Unlike Limbo, however, the threats aren’t always obvious – or at least the incentive behind their hostility isn’t. You don’t have to play the game long before you realise that almost everyone is out to get you – including those you might consider allies under normal circumstances. This leaves you with two goals – survive, and learn what’s going on.
INSIDE is essentially a 2D platformer; however, it’s presented in a 3D environment giving you the sense of a much larger world. Progression always feels sensible and the path you take logical. Despite the background detail, you’re rarely left feeling that a third dimension would provide a realistic alternative route… for the most part. There were only a couple of instances where I questioned why my character would go to the effort of solving a puzzle when he could just walk around it.
INSIDE has no dialogue, so you must learn entirely by experience – observing your surroundings and the body language of others. Humanoid characters are faceless (like a Willow Tree figurine) and do not speak. This makes for a remarkably engaging experience – forcing you to pay attention to character actions and demeanor, rather than facial expressions, when deciding how best to approach a situation.
For example, whenever I encountered a new creature (human or otherwise), I found myself pausing to observe their behavior before deciding how best to approach. Some creatures, like snarling dogs, were clearly hostile and should be avoided, whereas others, like humans or fish, weren’t as obvious, requiring you to expose yourself in order to learn their motives. The level of emotional investment this garners is truly astounding. It gave me a sense of tension I haven’t felt in a game for quite some time, and made me genuinely apprehensive when taking risks and exploring my options. For a game where death results in a near instant re-spawn and minimal loss of progress, I was amazed at how invested I became in the story and the life of the character I was playing.
However, none of this would be possible without the appropriate atmosphere and technical finesse – something INSIDE has in spades. Presented with a predominantly dark facade, the occasional use of bright colours heightens the atmospheric impact. Minimalistic use of colour provides subtle indicators regarding your situation while maintaining the portrayal of a dark and foreboding world. For example, whilst wading through a muddy bog filled with dead hogs and unknown dangers, your shirt darkens from its usual red to a murky brown. Your character hunches over as he walks, and you can’t help but be reminded of just how dire his situation is. Later, you enter a barn where numerous bright yellow baby chickens run free. It is a stark contrast to the surrounding areas and gives the player a sense of happiness or hope.
While these things help perfect the experience, it’s the overall presentation that establishes such an engaging atmosphere. From the very first scene through to the final credits, every moment feels meticulously crafted to ensure the best possible immersion. Camera angles and lighting are used to exemplary effect – presenting a clear picture of the world to the player while providing subtle hints on how to progress to the next area. The attention to detail in each area is truly astounding with every frame feeling unique and relevant. About 30 minutes into the game, I remember taking pause to reflect on the sheer variety in what I had seen. Whether running quickly past a river or spending a couple of minutes figuring out a puzzle, each area felt unique and specifically crafted.
This was further enhanced by the game’s technical prowess. From the fluid and natural motion of the characters to the small environmental effects, everything is beautifully detailed and used to great effect. INSIDE is a game that rarely feels like a game – providing an astounding attention to detail that creates a truly engaging experience.
“Ok, so it’s atmospheric, but how does it fare as a game?” I hear you ask. Rest assured, INSIDE doesn’t skimp on gameplay in favour of artistic presentation and immersion. While much of the game involves timed running and jumping, INSIDE is also scattered with puzzles that must be solved in order to proceed. These are well integrated, providing a barrier to progression (without feeling intrusive) while also providing further information regarding the game’s underlying story. For the most part, the puzzle solutions are very simple and won’t prove much of a challenge for most gamers. Constructed well, they use camera angles, light, and the player experience to teach you how to solve the puzzle in game. There’s never an instance where you are faced with a puzzle but not provided the necessary information on how to solve it. While the puzzles aren’t particularly challenging, they don’t feel like “token puzzles” either.
As with everything else in the game, the puzzles are incredibly unique, while at the same time familiar and natural. I put this down to Playdead’s use of familiar elements in an unfamiliar setting. Puzzles all feel unique and new, but use ideas or mechanics that you would likely have seen before in other titles. Character controls are very simple (directions, jump, and interact), but the levels are well designed to provide varied means of progression. Your character controls well and always feels natural, leaving you free to concentrate on solving puzzles and absorbing the atmosphere. Familiar game elements are disguised in beautiful presentation and thematic puzzles, ensuring the player remains engaged and mildly challenged while progressing the story.
For someone who is a big fan of traditional platformers, but not atmospheric games like Journey or Flower, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed INSIDE. Initially impressed by its technical prowess, it didn’t take long for me to become thoroughly invested in the story as well. Alongside the fantastic communication methods, I was impressed by the dark humour prevalent throughout the game. For a game so dark in nature (and without dialogue), it’s amazing how seamlessly they integrated the humour without damaging the impact of the other, more serious, events.
And make no mistake – INSIDE is most definitely a horrific game. Not scary horror like Amnesia or Condemned, but more a creeping horror that grows slowly as you unveil the story, learning what is happening, and where it will lead. This growing unease is further exacerbated when you consider that the role you play is that of a small child. Death, if it comes, is quick, brutal, and uncensored – which often left me feeling uncomfortable. Not your traditional hero, the vulnerability of this young boy is often cleverly countered by the heartlessness of his actions. Some tasks the game has you performing will no doubt leave you confused as to the character’s moral compass and motives.
Believe it or not I’ve actually tried to be concise in this review, but it’s hard to keep things brief while adequately representing just how impressive this game is. The visual presentation and use of sound is polished to the point of perfection – providing a unique and enthralling atmosphere that puts me in mind of when I first played Another World (for those of you old enough to remember). The gameplay is very light, so if you’re looking for a challenge, this may not be the best game for you. It’s not something I will play often, but as with artistic film counterparts like Mulholland Drive or Under the Skin, it’s definitely something I want to revisit at some point in time.
If you’re interested in a dark and interesting story, then you should definitely play this game – at least once. Or maybe twice if you want to see the extra ending for finding all the secret items 😉