|Puzzle, Platformer, Horror
|Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC
|September 6, 2018 (PC)
April 28, 2020 (Xbox One, PlayStation 4)
Indie developer PLAYMIND describes its new title The Inner Friend as an exploration of childhood traumas and fears in a surrealistic environment. Although I don’t naturally gravitate toward games that advertise themselves as “scary,” I do enjoy some psychological thrills from time to time, and I’m always curious to see the innovations that indie games can bring to the table. Intrigued by its premise, I downloaded the game and dove into its bizarre world. Does it live up to its potential?
Nudity: There are a number of naked characters in the game, and while you can infer their gender based on their body type—one has breasts (though the nipples are obscured), while the others are flat-chested and otherwise appear masculine—they all lack any sort of plumbing in their nether regions.
Violence: Plenty of violence is implied, but little is shown. Your player character can be electrocuted, hit by a beam that causes them to scream in pain, or be attacked by another character, and in each case the scene fades to black before anything graphic is displayed. Even when the “death” animation involves another character inflicting violence upon your own, you are left to imagine your character’s demise as they are assaulted by a scissor-wielding maniac or dragged into a den by a beast.
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
Storytelling in The Inner Friend is conveyed almost entirely through visuals and sound rather than through text or dialogue, and from the very beginning, it dives headfirst into the surreal. The game begins as a naked man writhes in agony on top of a bed, his face replaced by a brightly shining hole. As you move the camera into his face hole, you are sucked into it and see a partially formed boy-like figure falling through mostly empty space, until the scene fades to black and then fades in again. You see the boy, your player character—whose body is made up of some kind of white rock substance—standing in a mostly empty bedroom. Walking through a crack in the wall, you run past some abstract shapes, and after a few moments the scene changes once again; now you are falling past large blocky structures toward a bright void. It took me a few minutes to figure out what I needed to do here, because the game gives no explicit explanation. I landed upon and wandered on top of a couple of blocks, but saw no clear path; falling into the void just reset me high above to fall once again. I finally figured out that I needed to make my way inside one of the lit-up boxes and find a portal inside that takes me into the first proper level.
The game’s audio/visual presentation is by far the best part of the experience. Each level exudes a creepy atmosphere, complete with dark color palettes, unsettling background music, and a few well-timed musical cues to coincide with jump scares. The surreal environment further adds to the sense of disillusionment, as manikin-like children stand frozen in fear and wheelchairs float in midair. None of the horror tropes that the game invokes actually terrify, but they all add up to give the game a thoroughly disturbing vibe.
The Inner Friend’s gameplay setup is simple, as the game limits your abilities to basic movement, jumping, and a trigger dedicated to performing context-specific actions. Each level contains simple platforming and/or puzzles…extremely simple, in fact, to the point where you rarely find any semblance of challenge. Some of the puzzles are so straightforward and linear that calling them “puzzles” is rather generous, and the only real movement-based challenge appears about a third of the way in, as you run from a monster lady looking to slice you with a pair of scissors.
One unfortunate element of challenge present in the game relates to the controls. While they typically work as intended, there is one specific circumstance that can cause frustration: when your character is facing the camera and you push the analog up to turn your character straight around and start moving in the other direction, your character takes a step and a half forward before switching directions. This means that if you aren’t careful, you may accidentally walk into a hazard when you are attempting to avoid it. Most of the time this does not present an issue, but when it does, it pulls you out of the experience.
While the gameplay itself is pedestrian, The Inner Friend still manages to keep the experience varied from stage to stage. The environments include a hair salon, a hospital, and an eerie “forest” comprised of towering power lines, which I find to be a particularly clever use of an otherwise commonplace object. Many of the obstacles fit nicely with the theme of the levels too, such as the patients in the hospital wearing gas masks and spewing deadly noxious fumes (insert social distancing gag here).
Still, the environmental storytelling presented in these levels is too threadbare and/or too obscure to be impactful. The hospital level, for example, suggests that the main character had a bad experience at a hospital as a child, while the high school level implies that he had a domineering teacher. These are relatable concepts, but without any further detail or context, they’re also generic. Sometimes the story presented simply doesn’t make much sense; in the hair salon, why is the scissor lady seen taking scissors to a little bird, and keeping bird cages on her work station? And why, in a later level, do you take that dead bird and put it into a shoebox in the middle of some industrial ruins? Perhaps this is based on a personal story of one of the developers and makes perfect sense in their minds, or maybe these items and locations are all symbolic of other things; either way, the game gives you nothing to help you understand it yourself.
At the end of each level you pick up an item—such as a book, a teddy bear, or a dead bird—that somehow relates to your childhood…though the game never gives any further context. Then you are brought back to the bedroom where you first began, where you can now place that item, along with any of the optional collectibles that you found, on the shelves and other pieces of furniture that have magically appeared in this space. Once you’ve done that, you once again run into the crack into the wall, dive toward another one of the giant lit boxes floating in midair, and fall through another portal to the next level. I didn’t realize it at the time, but upon further reflection, the section of the game with the lit-up blocks is completely pointless, because the levels are sequential; the first time you visit this place, all portals lead to stage one, and the second time, they all lead to stage two, and so forth. It’s a middle-man between the bedroom and the levels that serves no purpose from either a gameplay or narrative standpoint.
The conclusion fails to bring the story to any cohesive climax. The last few stages incorporate several items that you found earlier in the game, but since we know so little about those items going into these final scenes, their narrative use lacks any real weight. Furthermore, the game does next-to-nothing to indicate that you are approaching the final level of the game, leading to an abrupt ending and an all too short final cutscene that tries to bring a sense of closure to the story…but how could it, seeing that the story never manages to invest you in the first place? Finding all the game’s collectibles—which can be done through a level select feature in case you missed any the first time around—unlocks one final cinematic that answers a few important questions, but leaves many other questions and abstract concepts untouched.
All this is not to say that PLAYMIND’s narrative approach is a bad one. On the contrary, the game is built on a solid premise with plenty of potential, it nails the atmosphere, and other indie games like Limbo and Inside have proven that minimalist, environmental storytelling can enthrall audiences. But The Inner Friend’s story—both in broad strokes and in detail—lacks the cohesion necessary to spin a compelling tale.
Between its poor storytelling and unremarkable gameplay, The Inner Friend cannot execute on its ambitious goals. It’s unfortunate, because the game has plenty of heart and creativity—the atmosphere is excellent and the designers came up with some clever gameplay concepts to match their settings—but those are simply no substitute for engaging writing or deep gameplay. Hopefully PLAYMIND builds on the foundations they’ve laid with this game as they move forward.
Review copy generously provided by Homerun PR.
The Bottom Line
The Inner Friend showcases a ton of heart and some clever concepts, but fails to translate that into compelling gameplay or a coherent story.