Inside delivers a story with a damp, cloying atmosphere so thick, you won’t be able to shake it off for hours after putting down the controller.
The game opens on a small child standing against a rocky embankment. Leaves litter the ground, lifeless tree branches puncture the air. There is no preamble. No introductory sequence. He starts running, thin limbs pumping – his tiny, red torso the one splash of muted colour in an otherwise monotone mystery – and you’re off.
Your task, though never explained, is a simple one: just keep running. For our faceless, nameless protagonist, this is sometimes easier said than done. Sometimes the way forward is blocked by… well, blocks. Sometimes, a featureless security officer – usually a silent and deadly type, the type of man who shoots first and ask questions later, a man happy to choke the life from a small child’s body – guards the threshold. Other times, you’re stalked by angry dogs with gnashing jaws, and others, you’re pursued by a ruthless, water-dwelling sprite. And sometimes, you’re required to forcibly control lumps of grey, stupefied flesh that perhaps, a long time ago, were once people.
He starts running, thin limbs pumping, his tiny, red torso the one splash of muted colour in an otherwise monotone mystery, and you’re off.
It’s impossible to reference Inside’s striking visual style without reflecting upon predecessor Limbo, where the 2D landscape, monochromatic palette and strong light/shadow distinctions make developer Playdead’s stylistic choices instantly recognisable.
And like Limbo, there’s an exaggeration to the shapes and shadows here; it’s as though the world we’re seeing is presented through the hyper-real lens of a child terrified of the dark. Each shadow is sharp and softly intimidating, hiding an unmentionable – an unfathomable – in its depths.
There’s a chunkiness to the boy’s movements that brings weight to an otherwise dreamlike experience. The way the child runs, leaps, reaches, are achingly well realised, a realism that often feels at odds, but not jarringly so, with the otherwise exaggerated environs. For me, it emphasises not just the urgency of his plight, but also his humanity.
Hanging onto that in light of the evolving narrative becomes ever more important, too.
Manoeuvring the floppy, lifeless meat bags, on the other hand, feels far more spongey. They lurch around, bizarrely top heavy, compelled to follow you, even when dissolved into nowt more than sacks of flesh.
In theory, there’s little here to tie us to this little lad. He’s faceless, mute, and we know nothing about him; there’s no backstory, no premise – we don’t even know his name. He doesn’t even cry out, not even when guards bludgeon his skull, or the dogs tear at his flesh. But it’s surprising how quickly – and how tightly – that emotional bond unfurls, strengthening and straining each time you inadvertently manoeuvre him into harm’s way.
When you do that to him – and you will do it, believe me – it’s gut-wrenching.
Does the game itself even care that the child is dead?
There is no softness here. Death – even when anticipated – is shocking and barbaric and vicious. And it happens over and over again. Even at the end of the game, even when you’ve watched the boy die scores of times before, each death is like a punch to the gut. You may never get used to it. And even though his silent death throes are often animated, sometimes with painful, gleeful attention, ultimately, there is no fanfare when he succumbs. It’s like the game itself doesn’t even care that the child is dead.
Mechanically, the game again echoes much of what we’ve seen before in Limbo, and, for the most part, the puzzles fall just about on the right side of maddening. There are only two interactions available to you – jump and grab. What you grab and how/where you jump varies a little, admittedly, but it doesn’t vary much. But it’s the peculiarly understated story that will keep you propelling onward, not the excitement of the next pull-me-push-you-oh-shit-I-fell-down-what-the-hell-is-that puzzle sequence.
When you do die, however, the checkpoints are plentiful, which makes the pain of slowly unravelling a puzzle easier to bear. Just.
Theoretically, the game’s disappointingly short, clocking in at around 4-6 hours depending upon how ruthlessly you can shake off those deaths and how quickly you figure out the puzzles. But to be honest, it felt long enough – particularly when you stumble headfirst into the game’s closing sequences. At that point, I was feeling nothing but bereft. Stomach lurching, skin crawling, I just needed it to finish. End of.
Once you’ve reached the conclusion – and it’s okay, I don’t intend divulging spoilery details here, I promise! – there’s a part of you that may never wish revisit the game again. But if you’ve the stomach for it, there’s an alternate ending to be had, along with a very easy 1000Gs. (Easy if you have a guide, that is).
Inside is a game that settles onto your shoulders like a heavy, musty quilt. You’ll keep playing, even when you don’t want to, desperate to find answers – find anything – even when you know that that blind, manic momentum is taking you anywhere but home…
This game was reviewed using a retail copy of the game provided by Xbox UK.
Platform: Xbox One (reviewed)
Release date: Out Now
- Visually striking
- Compelling story
- Smart, clean puzzles
- Short but sweet
- Repetitious puzzling
- Environs occasionally become tiresome
- Though short and a little repetitive, it’s the storyline we’ll talk about for some time to come. Slick and sickening, you won’t forget this one in a hurry.