In 2013, I wrote a tribute to the games of the Wii/Xbox 360/PS3 era called “Games of the Generation.” There, I went down a list of games categorized by genre which brought forth an evolution to the gaming industry—games that were not necessarily GOTYs (though many of them ostensibly were), but rather, the criteria for making the list stipulated that the game would have to demonstrate something never-before-seen, or a significant improvement to longstanding mechanics and concepts.
Playdead’s Limbo received an honorable mention in the indie section, recommended not because it met the previously-stated criteria, but because of its excellence. Recently, Valve hosted a Steam Summer sale where patrons were encouraged to view their queues for games they may consider as desirable. This is where I discovered INSIDE, and found its aesthetics strikingly similar to Limbo, ignorant of the fact that this is because they are products of the same developer, until my own staff here at Geeks Under Grace enlightened me. I had to have it.
Violence: Not even five minutes into INSIDE, I failed a “puzzle check” and was shot dead. Depending on the skills or experimental tendencies of the player, death can be completely avoided or become a frequent visitor. Because the player-character is a young boy, some may find scenes depicting his demise tough to handle. The boy can be maimed by dogs, choked to death by adults, broken from long falls, drowned, and blown to bits by a shock wave.
Sexuality: There will come a time when some characters, including the boy, will be unclothed, but due to Inside’s art direction, these scenes are no more explicit than nude Barbie and Ken dolls.
Other: INSIDE’s forlorn setting envelops a potent sense of melancholy. It is possible that the game borrows from several dystopian sources, such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, or Children of Men, but reveals no explicit clues as to its source material. Here, the messages of freedom, the discrepancies between the privileged and the underclasses, and the ethics of human experimentation cannot be ignored.
The subversion of the iconic Girl in Red through a gender bend is the first thing that I notice as INSIDE makes it clear during its opening that the child player-avatar is a fugitive. People are being loaded into trucks and shipped to an undisclosed location as I evade capture. As I mentioned in the content guide section, I fail a “puzzle check” by outrunning one flashlight-wielder only to be gunned down by another hunter in a truck. Upon restarting, I successfully evade my human aggressors, and with my heart throbbing, narrowly escaped the pursuit of seemingly rabid dogs chasing me through water and outpacing the speed of my poor child. I pass a farm where all the animals are dead with the exception of a flock of yellow motherless chicks that befriend me.
A single dead pig that I pass by revives and tramples me dead. Upon restart, I am able to hurdle over it until I land on it accidentally as it crashes through a wall, prompting dramatic revelatory music, into a room full of humans in the background who are completely disinterested in all that is transpiring. The pig hits a wall that does not give and concusses itself. I notice an extra alien appendage, and remove this slug-like thing and it dies like a parasite removed from hits host—or it is it instead symbiotic? I am nervous as pig comes to, but it appears friendly and aloof. A device akin to a lamp hangs from the ceiling, and my brain prompts me to utilize the mechanics I learned from the first puzzle requiring me to use the only button besides “jump,” “grab,” to pull the pig under the lamp to use as a footstool so that I can grab this device. However, I do not grab it, but instead, plant my head into it. The otherwise disinterested background humans now come to life, and in cartoon fashion (I have thus far failed to mention that every bit of INSIDE is animated as smoothly as satin), the boy runs while suspended by his head and this human mimics his motions, clearly designed to solve the next puzzle.
Such is the the virtuosity in which INSIDE has integrated all of the key elements that one would look for in an outstanding game. Playdead has even somehow managed to improve upon the superbness that is Limbo. Unlike its spiritual predecessor, never once did I feel that INSIDE forced me into a session of trial-and-error to solve puzzle; the game provides plenty of queues to prompt players to figure things out on their own the first time, whether this manifests as coloring a refrigerator red to indicate that it is interactive or presenting already-learned mechanics such as how powerful a flashlight is as a weapon in complete darkness. Sometimes these puzzles and their solutions are inverted, and the player can use what was once a threat to turn the tables!
I cannot praise the puzzle design enough. The lack of trial and error and the immediacy of solutions enhance the flow of the game while also not insulting the player with on-screen prompts or simple solutions. I audibly chuckled and “ooooooh’d” at more than one puzzle, satisfied with the revelation of resolutions so that I could further proceed. INSIDE begins with the Boy in Red on the run, so maintaining the flow of the game by not presenting unnecessarily difficult puzzles that arrest the sense of urgency. The lengths Playdead must have gone to perfect this must have been painstaking.
If there are any flaws to be found, I found my night sessions of INSIDE more pleasurable than during the day. The subdued color palette in which the game employs is not friendly on flatscreen displays during daylight hours, and I feel that display adjustments should not be necessary even though the developers do provide a brightness adjustment option in the settings. This is a pedantic critique, of course, but worth mentioning. I should mention that readers may have encountered critiques of the game’s price-to-length ratio. For the record I disagree that INSIDE fails to provide enough content for $20. For comparison, Prison Architect is a $30 game that could easily consume dozens of hours, but it does not provide the same must-see thrills that a single playthrough of INSIDE does. Some games are only just that—games. INSIDE is an experience.
2016 GOTY contenders like DOOM and Overwatch come from AAA developers, and with the delay of No Man’s Sky, I have had yet to experience something show-stopping from indie developers. INSIDE is now that front-runner with the simplicity of its inviting controls, satisfying flow, and enthralling yet ambiguous story that will have fans theorycrafting like they once did with Limbo.
And by all that is holy under heaven, I have not said anything about the grand finale, which is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!
The Bottom Line