From hearing the name of the game, I had questions. Inside what? Who is inside? Or what is inside whom? You can't just say "Inside". It has to be inside something. I mean, "Inside a Space Station" lets you know what the game is going to be about. But just "Inside?"
And then, the game starts, and you're in a forest. Outside! It's not even accurate! But nobody cares about these musings. What people clearly DO care about is the fact that inside is the spiritual sequel to Playdead's critically-acclaimed 2010 XBox hit 'Limbo'.
Okay, I'm not done ranting yet. Spiritual successor? What does that actaully mean? It's a bit like the previous game? It's a sequel with ghosts or Dhalsim in it? Well, this is actually the first really interesting question to ask about Inside.
Because, you see, it might be a straight-up sequel. Or it may not. It sort of depends on your point of view. Limbo had a mysterious and abrupt end that took place in a forest, and Inside opens in a forest. There are a few similarities such as a mind-controlling worm, that suggest perhaps a shared game world. Both are moody, atmospheric side-scrolling platform puzzlers in the modern vein (a little like Mark of the Ninja or Deadlight) that hearken back a little to the moody, atmospheric side-scrolling platform puzzlers of yesteryear (such as Another World or Flashback). As for what's going on, well - I have little to no idea, and I wouldn't tell you even if I did.
Because Inside is a voyage of discovery. Everything the game does, from camera distance to the difficulty of the puzzles, is designed to encourage the joy of discovery. Discovering what's actually happening. Discovering what's behind the next door. Discovering how to get onto that ledge. It's all part and parcel of the same thing.
I guess that sounds kind of highbrow and pompous, and perhaps it is, a little. But boy, is it done well. Even when I've played a scene several times and know full well that my character can get to the end of the platform before the slavering dogs can catch him, I found myself sweating and leaning on the right key harder and harder until my poor keyboard was creaking.
As I said, I wouldn't tell you what it was about even if I knew. But there's no dialogue, and few characters that aren't actively trying to murder you. Nevertheless it's one of the most engrossing games I've played in a while.
Inside follows Playdead's trademark 'trial and death' design ethos, where the gruesome death of your character at the hands of the many traps and monsters, is enough to make you want to keep him safe, all of which is compounded by the fact that he's just a little boy. Does he need to be a little boy for the story to work? Not in any way. But it certainly ups the emotional ante, knowing that if you mistime your jump, you're going to be responsible for red pieces of a small child to be thrown messily toward the screen.
From the deep, dark forest at the beginning of the game you'll pass through a number of varied locations, many ruined and derelict. At times, it can be difficult to know how far you are beneath the earth, or above the earth, as you spend so much time inside (okay, so perhaps the name is kind of relevant). This lends a strange disorientation to the whole experience that fits very much with the tone and only serves to enhance the emotional impact.
As for the game, you walk right most of the time, and can jump. Oh, and there's a button to grab stuff, and push and pull things. But that's essentially it. Despite these simple controls, however, your character never seems to repeat the same frame of animation. Whether he's running in a low crouch to avoid being spotted or clambering down the outside of a metal pipe to avoid weird invisible death pulses, fear mingled with grim determination comes through magnificently in the character's movements.
Inside is weird. I came to it without knowing anything, and I would urge you to do the same. Don't read too much about it - obviously, reading my review is okay - and just play it with a cleansed palate. Play it for art's sake rather than to be challenged by a revolutionary puzzle game. What Inside does really well is engage the player emotionally. Graphics are mostly monochromatic and aside from a little spooky music there's a similarly muted sound panel as well. Much of what draws you in as a player is in what is left unsaid by the game, what might lurk just offscreen or in the abandoned lockers and desks you run past, or in the conversations between the villains which you never get to hear...
It's remarkable how effective a game Playdead have created from a few static backgrounds and a bunch of playforms and ladders. I suppose it goes to show that games as art are as good as the emotional investment of the designers. Good for you, Playdead. I'll be interested to see where you go next.