INSIDE – PC
Release Date: July 7th, 2016
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Indie developer Playdead took the gaming world by storm in July of 2010 with the advent of their first release, Limbo, a side-scrolling cinematic puzzle/platforming game with dark overtones and an absolutely killer atmosphere. Six years later, they’re back at it with what feels like, for all intents and purposes, a spiritual successor to Playdead’s first title. The game is called INSIDE. Controlling a timid, unnamed protagonist, the player navigates the 2D world of INSIDE, running for their life while delving deeper into the secrets of the bleak, industrial world that surrounds them. I got an early peek at it, and boy, it is one wild ride. Now that it’s out on Steam, let’s take a close look at this game and see if it has the mettle to stand up to its predecessor’s achievements.
Before I begin, I’d like to take a brief moment to touch on Playdead’s preceding game, Limbo. Limbo is also a puzzle/platformer, about a small boy in a bleak, foggy world where everything is trying to kill him. The player guides the boy across a large map through puzzles, platforming sections, and tense encounters in an effort to survive and uncover the secrets of the world that surrounds him. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Limbo is its atmosphere; black and grey colors predominate the screen while ambient noise and a lack of musical score characterize the sound design. The gameplay and in-game scenarios help build this atmosphere, with intimidating and unforgiving enemies that will rip the boy to shreds without warning. Of course, Limbo is not without its own issues; for one, it’s a pretty short game. While this is not inherently bad, I felt that a lot more puzzles could have made the game more engaging and interesting. As it stands, Limbo is a game with a very tight atmosphere that feels just a little too eager to show players the next new thing, leaving interesting ideas and game mechanics by the wayside.
Right from the start, INSIDE kicks things off very similarly to Limbo. The protagonist slides into the frame from off-screen, offering the player no hints as to where he came from. Foggy colors of grey and brown dominate the wooded landscape, and vicious dog barks can be heard in the distance. As I moved through the landscape, it became apparent that virtually everything in this world was hostile towards me, offering sudden and sometimes brutal forms of death at every turn, with plenty of exciting and fun scenarios that made me feel like Harrison Ford from The Fugitive, conquering my circumstances in fantastic ways, despite the odds.
Within the world of INSIDE, the player can execute a handful of actions. They can run left or right, jump, and interact with objects using a context-sensitive action button. There are no button prompts or hand-holding of any sort in this game, and any rules internalized by the player are entirely non-linguistic. I tend to be a big fan of non-linguistic gameplay and puzzle solving, but I do believe button prompts are essential for the player to understand which buttons within a game are active, in order to avoid senseless button mashing reduced to simply guessing which buttons do what.
If I had to guess, I would say Playdead made the decision to eliminate button prompts in order to preserve the game’s mysterious environment. While I am not a huge fan of the fact that I had to guess about there being an action button, there is something to be said about the common-sense gameplay present in INSIDE, as if the developers assumed the player would come pre-loaded with a bit of information about how platformers work in general. During the first section of the game, Playdead avoids reinventing the wheel, allowing the player to interact with the game world under their own terms.
Aside from that, the first thing that really stood out to me about INSIDE is the heightened emphasis on interactions with others. In Limbo, for example, everything is out to get the player, there being no opportunities for positive interactions with NPCs. In INSIDE, on the other hand, the player is encouraged to seek out friendly entities located within the confines of its hostile world in order to help them along their way. This feature integrates really well with the puzzle mechanics, while also injecting a bit of hope that simply was not there in Limbo.
The game mechanics, in general, feel really good. The running mechanic has a good responsiveness to it, jumping occurs when it should, and pulling stuff around has a very real-world physicality to it. New puzzle mechanics are constantly being introduced throughout the course of the game, and some of them really caught me by surprise in fun and enjoyable ways.
Of course, there are moments where the mechanics do seem to break down a little bit. Some puzzles feature a really bizarre and esoteric difficulty spike in the platforming mechanics, relying on the player to time a jump just right in order to proceed. In a game based around puzzles, the player should be spending a lot of time in an area because they haven’t figured out the puzzle yet, not because they can’t seem to jump off a rope just right. While adding to the bleak atmosphere, the unforgiving difficulty of some of these sections can be a little frustrating, causing the player to repeat an area over and over. Perhaps this is less of a problem with the mechanics themselves as it is with the layout of certain platforming sections, which can punish players for mistimed jumps by wasting their time.
On that note, a lot of the solutions to puzzles or scenarios feel like tricks, where it seems the designers withheld just a little bit of information, intending for the player to trip up and die the first time, requiring them to try it once, twice, maybe three times before they get it just right. Limbo had a lot of moments like this, as well. There’s nothing wrong with crafting a difficult gaming experience, but when it comes to platforming and puzzle-based games the player should always have been introduced to the necessary information beforehand. When a player is shown a mechanic before encountering it, it becomes their fault when they die. When this mechanic is instead hidden from the player until the very moment that it occurs, it just feels cheap. As I’ll get into later, INSIDE is extremely good at crafting scenery around the player that feels alive and full of vibrancy, so it’s just a shame that this attention to atmosphere wasn’t used as often to teach players new mechanics ahead of time. I will admit that it feels really good to be able to correctly predict the consequences of a scenario ahead of time, so this is more of a plus-minus for me.
As far as level and puzzle design go, INSIDE is very much on point. Each new area has a unique feel to it, as the protagonist delves deeper and deeper into the industrial dystopia that surrounds him, presenting new and unique puzzle challenges along the way. By moving physical obstacles, activating pieces of machinery, and interacting with NPC characters, the player is able to navigate and progress through the linear world. Every space has a very grandiose quality to it, with massively-scaled environments that feel absolutely epic the more you explore.
One of my favorite things about the level design in INSIDE is what I like to call its common-sense puzzle solving and platforming. What I mean by this is that many areas are structured to rely on the player’s previous knowledge on platforming and puzzling tropes found in the universe of other video games, working them to fit into the physics-based nature of the way the player can interact with characters and objects. Moving a medium-sized object to hop over a wall makes sense, adjusting your position on a swinging rope makes sense, crashing through windows and pulling away barricades makes sense, with the directional inputs playing a very important and welcome role to the context-based actions.
Even though a lot of solutions to puzzles are relatively simple, the developers did a good job of making the player feel good for coming up with them on their own. It’s hard to describe, but there are very few contextual actions in this game that don’t feel natural and right, and it’s very impressive that Playdead is able to keep this up throughout the entire game, with little to no actions or solutions breaking this mold.
As any good puzzle game should, INSIDE boasts a decent number of side puzzles (relative to the amount of required puzzles, that is). These puzzles represent a pretty decent spike in difficulty, relying a bit more on the player’s ability to think around corners. While I really enjoy these, they can be a little difficult to find, and they serve as a blatant reminder of how much easier the main game puzzles are. It’s a bit of a shame that the main puzzles couldn’t have been a little bit more thought-provoking like these ones, and I think the side puzzles could be made a lot more challenging than they currently are, since they are optional, after all.
New puzzle mechanics are constantly being introduced throughout the length of this game, so that each new encounter feels fresh, requiring a different approach to every situation. Some of the mechanics are introduced in surprising and masterful ways, and they will simply blow your mind. In order to avoid spoilers, that’s all I can really say on the subject. While the constant introduction of new mechanics in INSIDE makes for a fun ride, it also means that almost none of them are completely fleshed out to their fullest potential. Some mechanics or ideas may be reintroduced in creative ways at times, but this is rare, meaning that the majority of puzzles in INSIDE are relatively shallow and easy to figure out.The biggest problem by far that I have with INSIDE‘s puzzle design is the esoteric quality to some puzzles. These puzzles are the fast-paced ones, the ones where you’re being chased by a dog, masked figure, or possessed swine, where the player’s quick reflexes and even quicker powers of observation are required. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these parts, but some of them feel like they’re intentionally built to kill the player on their first go-round, as if the developers are hiding all the secrets to get one over the player. Other puzzles are unnecessarily tedious, requiring the player to repeat a rote action over and over, sometimes with a sudden-death based element to it. Suffice to say that I am not very taken with these sections.
All that said, the level design of INSIDE is generally pretty killer, helping to build a grander atmosphere of isolation and bleakness, with just a sprinkle of hope. The entire game works as one whole level, with each area blending seamlessly into the next one, the load times often being disguised by objects that will pass in front of the screen. Another notable feature is the hidden checkpoint system, which fits in with the developer’s overall trend toward avoiding putting anything unnecessary on the screen. These are two very effective and innovative features that go a long way toward further immersing the player in the world of INSIDE, and I think more platforming games should utilize these ideas.
The art design is, simply put, phenomenal. Character animations are extremely fluid and expressive, weaving effortlessly between one type of animation and the next. The backgrounds are fully-realized 3D layered spaces that pass in front of and around the camera to give the very real feeling that the protagonist exists within that 3-dimensional world, kind of like The Banner Saga. There are even some really cool puzzles that require the player to pay attention to what’s going on in the background, reminding me of Xeodrifter or Mutant Mudds, which used the background extensively in level and puzzle design. These puzzles are great additions, but not used nearly often enough.
In general, the art design of INSIDE marks a significant improvement from Limbo. It is much easier to tell what is going on in the play space and in the world surrounding the player, and the character animations have a smoothness and natural quality to them. One of my favorite things is to watch the protagonist seamlessly shift his animation from sprinting to crouching based on whether enemies are around or not. Jumping, as well as climbing fences and ropes, feels really good, and there is no choppiness whatsoever to the way the animations shift.
Normally I don’t spend a lot of time analyzing the sound design, but INSIDE is one of those special cases where it’s hard not to. As a company dedicated to the immersiveness of their games, Playdead has really used the sounds in this game to drive home the atmosphere of INSIDE. The game is almost entirely devoid of soundtrack, with nothing but ambient noises of wind and grinding metal, punctuated by the ragged breathing of the young protagonist. This sound design plays an important role, building the underlying horror and suspense elements of the game. At times, heart palpitations will grow louder and louder to drive home the suspense of certain situations, and at others the sheer absence of sound emphasizes the main character’s isolation. Some areas will even use sound in surprisingly creative ways, implementing rhythm-based sections or weaving in bits of synth instrumentation reminiscent of the sounds from the Oddworld series to heighten the tension.
Suffice it to say that INSIDE is a game with a tight control over its atmosphere. The sound and art design come together in amazing ways to emphasize the feelings of isolation that dominate its world, a world filled with disturbing, and sometimes downright gross shit, that still manages to catch the player by surprise with awe-inspiring moments. Overall, INSIDE manages to create a world that just feels so much more alive and breathing than its predecessor, Limbo.
INSIDE is, like its predecessor, a side-scrolling cinematic puzzle/platformer with heavily somber and depressing overtones. It is about a boy that is running for his life from people for reasons he does not know, exploring the dark secrets of a world that only bring up more questions than they answer. The gameplay is smooth and enjoyable, making good use of common-sense puzzle solving while constantly introducing new mechanics that add complexity and depth to the world of INSIDE. The puzzles are a little shallow, and the game isn’t quite long enough to make full use of all the mechanics that it introduces, but the sheer polish on the majority of INSIDE makes it worth the play, if only to be sucked into a new world for a little while.
Some elements of the puzzle design still vex me, and I’m not too taken with the game’s minimalist and conflicting attitudes toward the story, but I had a lot of fun with this game, and truly believe it to be a step in the right direction for Playdead, even if it’s been a full six years since their last release. INSIDE is not a perfect game, and it is likely not going to change the way games in the puzzle/platformer genre are going to be made in the future, but it succeeds in creating an entrancing world that you can’t help but want to spend a little more time in.
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